NHL seeking ways to diversify next generation of players

NHL executive vice president Kim Davis says the league has struggled to create
NHL executive vice president Kim Davis says the league has struggled to create "the pipeline for kids of colour to move into elite pathways" to the NHL. (Getty Images)

When the NHL looks at diversity, they’re hoping to grow the game in every direction - from the top up, and from the bottom down - or as it might be, from the ice out, and from the stands in.

The league recently released their first-ever report on diversity and inclusion, highlighting a number of steps the league intends to take, including “combatting racism and discrimination through education and accountability,” and a focus on “increasing representation of NHL fans.”

Through the pandemic, according to the NHL’s Executive Vice President, Social Impact, Growth Initiatives & Legislative Affairs Kim Davis, the league recognized a shift in not only age demographics, but also in who would make up the next generation of NHL fans.

“When we talk about attracting younger generations, we have to talk about, at the same time, those under-indexed people of colour,” said Davis. “That framed how this movement began, and that was accelerated by the pandemic, and of course the murder of George Floyd.”

Davis acknowledged a population shift across North America, one where growth is primarily coming through immigration, and the NHL recognized they were no longer capturing this growth demographic. Although the NHL had instituted initiation programs to introduce youth to hockey, they also believed the league, and hockey in general, were lagging behind in seeing people of colour advance to the upper echelons of the sport.

“We weren’t capturing the growth demographics in Canada and the US,” said Davis. “We were putting sticks in hands, but we weren’t creating the pipeline of kids, particularly kids of colour, that could move into elite pathways. How do we make the funnel bigger so that we see more players of colour ultimately coming into the NHL?”

It was a question the NHL sought to answer and find, as Davis called it, more “On ramps to help kids to continue hockey journeys beyond learn to skate and initiation programs.”

In order to achieve this outcome, the NHL decided to partner with programs already working toward this goal, including the Amerigol LatAm Cup, Apna Hockey, 3NOLANS, Hockey 4 Youth, and Hockey Equality. The idea was to create these “on ramps,” and to increase representation at all levels within hockey.

Hockey Equality founder and former NHL player Anthony Stewart echoed Davis’ ideas, saying that his organization wanted “to create a ladder system for the kids, so they see a light at the end of the tunnel. A lot of these families just quit because they don’t see a future.”

In 2021, Hockey Equality held a trio of summits, bringing together elite youth from Black, Indigenous, and South Asian communities to provide training, mentorship, and support for racialized hockey players. From that initial cohort, multiple players including Malcolm Spence, Zayne Parekh, and Kevin He stepped immediately into impact roles in the Ontario Hockey League. Spence and Parekh were also named to Canadian rosters at the World U17 Hockey Challenge.

Hockey Equality, which is subsidized by the NHL, was “very aligned” with the NHL’s goals, according to Kim Davis, of “wanting to create that pipeline of talent and to provide a pathway for young people understanding that knowing how to skate, and understanding the game, and being proficient at the game, is only one aspect of being successful as a professional player.”

As more athletes of colour begin to claim space within the NHL, and other elite leagues, Davis believes that representation on the ice will develop a more diverse fandom. Similarly, the league intends to increase marketing efforts aimed at racialized communities in hopes that new fans will eventually equate to more families enrolling their children into the sport.

As the NHL’s diversity and inclusion report states, the league hopes to “Further develop content and communications strategies to increase and expand the appeal of hockey to young, diverse audiences.”

One organization already creating that space and appeal, both in women’s hockey and at NHL games, is Black Girl Hockey Club. The organization recently expanded from the USA to Canada, demonstrating another step in supporting diverse athletes and fans.

“We’re an organization that aims to make hockey more welcoming and inclusive for the BIPOC community,” Saroya Tinker, the executive director of Black Girl Hockey Club Canada, and professional hockey player with the PHF’s Toronto Six, stated. The organization will provide scholarship and funding to support Black women in hockey, create community partnerships, including with NHL clubs, provide mentorship to youth in the game, as well as mental health supports for women in sport.

In the USA, Black Girl Hockey Club has been bringing women of colour together to watch and enjoy hockey, building a community and expanding what NHL fandom looks like since it was founded in 2018. While not a formal partner with the NHL, the organization is helping the league realize their goal of welcoming new fans to NHL rinks.

“We create a community where people can feel welcomed at the arena and in the game,” Tinker said. “First and foremost, Black Girl Hockey Club wants to ensure we have sisters and friends in the game to make sure we can always come together and have representation and feel welcomed in the arena.”

With this, initiatives are underway to create equity and inclusion for racialized athletes and fans, from the ice-out, and the stands-in. Similarly, those initiatives are occurring at the NHL level, and from outside the league; in men’s hockey and women’s hockey; professionally and at the grassroots level.

The work is a shared responsibility held by all stakeholders - athletes, coaches, managers, fans, media, owners, and executives - to enact that systemic change. As Davis says, it won’t happen overnight, but the work is ongoing.

“We have the responsibility to make sure we do everything, starting with inside of our own sport, to put the mechanisms in place to be able to create an environment where we can bring the best talent both on and off the ice. That’s not something that happens overnight.”

In hockey, Davis acknowledges it has not happened fast enough, and that the fight for equality in sport and society has no end point, only new starting points and shifting objectives. It’s work however, that Davis says the NHL must do.

“What is real equality and how do you achieve it? There’s no end point,” Davis said. “It’s a never-ending journey, because every time you think you’ve gotten to a point where you think you’ve made progress, something moves, something changes, something happens that requires you to have to do something different and think differently, and we’ve seen that for decades and in hockey.”

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