Hockey trailblazers hold summit in attempt to make game more inclusive

Former hockey player and NHL head coach Ted Nolan. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
Former hockey player and NHL head coach Ted Nolan. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Carnegie Initiative held its inaugural summit in Boston this week, a conference for industry leaders and people working to make hockey more inclusive of all people.

I was unable to attend the conference in-person but the Carnegie Initiative made all six of its panels — targeted at specific issues that people from racialized communities and various gender/sexual identities encounter in the hockey world — readily available online.

The timing was no coincidence and Tuesday was a day to be celebrated. Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first Black player, was honoured by the Boston Bruins as his No. 22 was retired by the organization with O’Ree participating in a pre-recorded message for the ceremony.

O’Ree also spoke to the media after the game, where he revealed some of his favourite memories from his career.

The Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) announced a $25-million commitment from its board of governors over the next three years, with a salary increase up to $750,000 per team next season. It also includes a $7.5-million commitment to salary and benefits.

Ted Nolan, the 1997 Jack Adams Award winner, commenced the day’s events with a land acknowledgment, then Bryant McBride, the first Black executive in the NHL, addressed the room about the importance of taking the time to do the necessary work to create a more equitable space for those outside of hockey’s target demographics.

Rane and Bernice Carnegie – Herb’s grandson and daughter, respectively, also addressed the attendees virtually and spoke about what Herb Carnegie told them, regarding the importance of doing the work.

Here are some takeaways from Tuesday’s panels:

Bettman interjects with vague intention to donate $100K over the next two years

Gary Bettman delivered a four-minute speech, where he announced that the NHL would donate $100,000 to unspecified initiatives over the next two years.

Bettman spoke as if he had just heard of the Black Girl Hockey Club for the first time and appeared to be having a revelation on the stage, as if he hadn’t listened to the tangible demands made to address racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia for the past half-decade and beyond.

The commissioner said he learned a tremendous amount after sitting through the opening two panels, but went through a circular journey that equated to name-dropping, listening and learning.

“We’re going to donate $100,000 over the next two years to finance a number of these projects, and those of you here representing corporations, if you want to sign up, we’ll have a table outside,” Bettman said.

Bettman’s presence was already contentious to begin with. On Monday evening, Akim Aliu, a founding member of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, balked at Bettman’s plan to attend, calling the Carnegie Initiative a performative action. The HDA severed ties with the NHL in October 2020 due to what they believed to be inaction and indifference on the league’s part in addressing the tangible demands laid out to combat anti-Black racism.

When the HDA released its #TapeOutHate campaign earlier this month, the NHL wasn’t consulted but thanked the alliance’s corporate partner, Budweiser.

The media needs to continue to be intentional with language and storytelling

CBC Sports senior contributor Shireen Ahmed did an outstanding job of moderating a media panel, consisting of PHF commissioner Tyler Tumminia, PHF broadcaster Erica Ayala, Sportsnet’s Donnovan Bennett and Harnaryan Singh, documentary filmmaker Kwame Mason, former NHL player Anson Carter and Hockey 4 Youth’s Moezine Hasham.

Ahmed reinforced the need to be intentional with our language — instead of using vague terms like diversity and inclusion, it’s important to specify whether you’re addressing anti-racism or anti-homophobia, for example. She also emphasized the idea of engaging meaningfully with the work that needs to be done, as opposed to participating with the idea of solely extracting information and doing nothing with it.

One of the resounding themes of the day was ensuring that we continue the momentum in tangibly fighting racism, homophobia, transphobia and the other ills that plague hockey, as a mirror of society as a whole. There needs to be tangible action taken, rather than a declaration of intent. Mason succinctly summarized this notion.

“If you’re just talking, if you’re just talking about things without a call to action, that’s a campaign, that’s an ad,” Mason said, while noting that in-fighting within the community of people working to change hockey only serves as a distraction.

Bennett spoke about the impact of storytelling and going beyond surface-level narratives that often comprise the vast majority of stories about BIPOC and underrepresented communities in hockey.

“I think a lot of people really love this sport, the people who are in it, entrenched in it, they feel threatened about having these conversations because they feel like it’s a disservice to all of the positives that come with this sport. The camaraderie, the collective attitude, the collective respect — what other sport does everyone dap each other up after trying to kill each other?”

“I think for me, in terms of the media, it’s keeping everyone honest — quite frankly that’s the oath we take as journalists, but also telling whole, comprehensive stories. We look at this panel, the diversity of this panel, that diversity within the game, we don’t always look hard enough to find it. And so we’re often telling the same stories, from the same type of people, from the same cities, who play the same way. And the game has much more to offer than that. And when people see that, hopefully they can believe that,” Bennett said.

The importance of buying into disabled communities and making the sport more accessible

There are 61 million people in the United States with a disability and hockey needs to be actively working to include these large segments of the population.

“The reason that being inclusive of disabilities is important is because this group continues to grow,” Mark DeMontis, founder of the Canadian Blind Hockey Association said during a panel moderated by Josh Pauls of the US National Sled Hockey Team.

“There’s the financial impact that we have with our spending dollars, but there’s also the intellectual impact that we bring, hiring us into your workplace, hiring us into your workplace, considering us as your families. And part of that has really come to life during (the) pandemic. How many of you feel isolated? Well, that’s day-to-day existence for people with disabilities.

Seattle Kraken intersectionality consultant Chanel Keenan outlined many themes from her panel in a comprehensive Twitter thread. Keenan was recently highlighted by The Hockey News as one of hockey’s game-changers, and wrote about including people with disabilities in ad campaigns, merchandise advertisements and other forms of promotion.

“It’s on you, these big companies, to be intentionally inclusive. Make it count. Not because you should, but because you are missing such a huge population of consumers,” Keenan wrote.

The vicious cycle of hockey continues to be reinforced upon LGBTQ+ communities

TW: Suicide, suicidal ideation

Pittsburgh Penguins president of hockey operations Brian Burke opened the forum about issues that people from LGBTQ+ communities face, before ceding the floor to moderator Dre Barone, the first openly gay referee, Brock McGillis, the first openly gay men’s professional hockey player, Angela James, the first women’s hockey superstar and assistant coach for the Toronto Six, Dr. Cheryl MacDonald of Saint Mary’s University and Jessica Platt, a transgender athlete who formerly played in the Professional Women’s Hockey Player’s Association.

McGillis spoke about how younger generations of people are more receptive to eradicating homophobic behaviour from the sport, but that the vicious cycle of hockey culture continues to be perpetuated. The long-time hockey advocate also spoke about his experiences with consulting queer kids in hockey, while focusing on language in locker rooms, and revealed that he would console kids from LGBTQ+ communities with suicidal ideation on a daily basis.

He also relayed an anecdote of why straight players shouldn’t be worried about their gay or queer teammates’ sexual identities in the locker room.

“I remember the first time I spoke publicly right after I came out, was at a high school. And at the end this kid put his hand up and he had this smug little smile on his face, Grade 12, I think. And I could tell right away (he was) a hockey player. And he put his hand up and he smirked: ‘what about in the showers?’ ‘Is it weird for you, is it weird for them?’

“And I said, ‘you’re a hockey player, aren’t you?’ And he said yes. And I said ‘well, every team I’ve been on has used an analogy that we’re a family or we’re brothers or something like that, would you agree?’ And he said yes. And I said ‘well, do you check your sister out in the shower?’ His jaw dropped, he turned beet red and 1,000 kids started cheering. He got it.”

James was the most dominant player of her era and is an openly queer Black woman. She spoke about her experiences at all levels of hockey, as a player, parent, and coach.

“As you guys all know, it’s very difficult because there’s a lot of people who don’t want to come out. Because what’s going to be affected is their career. They’re going to be teased. They’re going to be dehumanized,” James said.

“We have to make people comfortable. There’s too much shit going on in this world.”

Platt spoke about having to live two lives while playing hockey: one where she was learning about her self-identity and the other where she had to conform to the heteronormative patterns of hockey culture.

“I knew at that time that I couldn’t be my true self and play hockey at the same time or I’d be facing extreme ridicule. I knew that real me wouldn’t fit in at the time,” Platt said.

“Eventually, I reached a breaking point where the joy that was brought to me from playing hockey wasn’t worth the pain that I was struggling with. Essentially, I had to choose between a happy life or playing hockey. I had to choose one or the other, so I left hockey.”

McGillis announced after the panel concluded that he’s working on a not-for-profit to build community for LGBTQ+ people and allies within hockey. He said that final details will be released shortly.

Indigenous representation in hockey needs to go beyond tokenism

Ted Nolan was one of the speakers at a panel addressing the Indigenous and First Nations experience in hockey. Nolan relayed his journey throughout hockey, which he’s spoken about on record before, and recounted the racial slurs he encountered when he left the reserve to play junior hockey in Kenora, Ont.

“Now it’s time to educate the non-First Nations community about who we are, where we come from," Nolan said. "We have feelings, we have emotions, we have brothers and sisters and the only thing we want to do is just play the game. To hear what I went through 30 odd years ago — almost 45 years ago, I should say — and now listening to it happen two years ago, again. We’ve really got to get to the point where education — and not just tokenism. We have to get people in positions of authority."

“Until we have someone like us, who looks like us, sitting on that side of that table making important decisions on what’s accepted and what’s not accepted, that’s the only way we can move forward.”

Kyla and Jordyn Bear are two standout hockey players at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and relayed their racist experiences within the sport. They feel that there’s hardly been any change since the time that Nolan’s playing career ended.

“Nothing has really changed,” Jordyn Bear said.

“We still get racial slurs, asked questions — not nice questions. Even though Kyla and I are fair, people always ask us ‘Where are your treaty cards? What reserve are you from? And we’re like ‘well, we’re First Nations. We grew up on Ochapowace. There’s nothing different.’ But during the games, sometimes there’s not a lot of nice people that would stand up for you or would just add onto the conversations in the dressing rooms. And people don’t know what goes on inside the dressing rooms, because no one wants to talk about it outside, because they know they’re being racial. From when Ted played to now, there’s not a lot of change. There’s not even change.”

The education component remains as important as ever and while representation matters, proportional representation matters a lot more, as Indigenous and First Nations people need to be elevated into positions where they can break down the numerous barriers placed upon them.

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