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By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - The National Hockey League is more interested in public relations than taking substantive action on the lack of diversity within the sport, said Akim Aliu, a founding member of the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA).
As Black History Month, which celebrates Black achievements, comes to a close on Sunday, Aliu lamented the lack of meaningful progress within the NHL to eradicate systemic racism and intolerance.
"It is one of those things unless you admit there is a problem there is no way to fix anything," Aliu told Reuters.
He estimated that only 20-25 Black players will find their way onto NHL rosters this season.
"There are still owners in the league who don't even believe there is a problem," Aliu said.
"To me that is just unfathomable, 95 percent of your league is white and you don't see there is an issue of race.
"It just seemed like for every problem they had an answer but no solution and didn't want to work with us on creating a solution.
"I think the league does more performative things than real actual change," he said.
The NHL did not respond to a Reuters request for comment on the HDA's concerns.
Grassroots groups and businesses, like Scotiabank, have got behind the HDA's effort to make hockey more inclusive and establish specific targets for hiring, promoting and partnering with Black individuals and businesses.
The NHL has its own diversity road map that steers clear of firm hiring targets while focusing on education and social engagement initiatives through its "Hockey is for Everyone" campaign.
HDA efforts are also focused on grassroots and education but have pushed the NHL to lead from the top by implementing hiring guidelines like the National Football League's Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for all head coaching and senior football operation jobs.
The NHL rejected any talk of hard targets, arguing there was not a big enough pool to choose from to hire people of colour, said Aliu, noting that statement in itself is an indictment on the league's past failed policies.
"It's not only about on the ice," said the Nigerian-born Aliu, a 2007 second round draft pick who spent most of his career in the minor leagues, playing just seven games for the Calgary Flames.
"Youth not only need to see themselves as NHL players but they need to see themselves being assistant coaches, referees, head coaches, upper management, executive positions."
Born out of the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a white police officer, the HDA's relationship with the NHL has been strained almost from the start.
Unable to get on the same page, the HDA issued a statement in October saying it would work independently of the NHL because the league was not prepared to make measurable commitments to end racism in hockey.
"We felt that as of players of colour who have played in the National Hockey League that there wouldn't be anyone better to speak on these issues than us because we have all experienced them and persevered and got to the highest level," Aliu said.
"I think it was a little bit of a slap in the face for our group after we rolled out the HDA and (a) couple of months later they rolled out their own committee essentially saying this is a bigger, better version of what you guys are trying to do."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris and Sonya Hepinstall)