Inspired by a chat with Kaepernick, NHL players team up to push for diversity in hockey

A group of players of colour in the National Hockey League, which is predominantly populated by white players, coaches and executives, and has grappled with issues of racism in recent years, has formed a new group to tackle the sport’s challenges with diversity and inclusion.

Members of the group, the Hockey Diversity Alliance, said they were inspired by Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who knelt during the playing of the national anthem to protest social injustice against African Americans. They spoke to him and got advice, representatives of the group said.

Two leaders of the group, Akim Aliu, a former NHL player, and San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane, said the group of seven players would operate independent of the league, would try to make the game more socio-economically inclusive and, as Kane put it, “eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey” through community outreach and youth engagement.

“It was incumbent on us seven to get together and try to put our heads together on how to try and create, promote and manufacture real change when it comes to racism in our sport and racism in society as well,” said Kane, who is black.

Although the group will operate separately from the NHL, Kim Davis, the league’s executive vice president for social impact, expressed hope that it would work collaboratively in the future.

“We are supportive of all efforts that are intended to advance the role of our sport in society,” Davis said in an email. “We are hopeful that this alliance will collaborate with our NHL structured council and committees — particularly the Players Inclusion Committee — to bring ideas for change.”

Other players of colour are joining Aliu and Kane in the group, including Minnesota Wild defenceman Matt Dumba, Detroit Red Wings defenceman Trevor Daley, Buffalo Sabres forward Wayne Simmonds, American Hockey League forward Chris Stewart and retired NHL winger Joel Ward.

“Our mission and goal is to make the game as diverse and inclusive as possible,” Aliu said. “It’s so that someone from any type of background, whether it’s economical, race, gender, gets to feel included in our game and feel like they’re wanted.”

The creation of the Hockey Diversity Alliance comes during a cultural reckoning within the sport.

Popular Canadian television commentator Don Cherry was fired in November for making xenophobic comments on “Hockey Night in Canada,” one of the sport’s premier TV broadcasts. After the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Mike Babcock, was dismissed in December, he was accused of hazing and bullying by several former players.

Days after Babcock’s firing, Aliu tweeted that Bill Peters, his coach in a minor league, directed racial slurs toward him. Peters, who by then was the head coach of the Calgary Flames, resigned after the allegations. Aliu further detailed in an essay for The Players Tribune having experienced hazing and racially driven bullying in the minors.

“We know that important and significant work remains to be done at the NHL level and throughout hockey to ensure that our game lives up to the ideals that are truly essential to it,” the league said in a statement responding to Aliu’s article.

In January, a defenceman in a development league, Brandon Manning, was suspended for using a racial slur during a game. Three months later, a New York Rangers prospect, K’Andre Miller, was subjected to racist slurs during a Zoom call with fans. In early May, the NHL publicly reprimanded two players, Washington Capitals forward Brandon Leipsic and Florida Panthers prospect Jack Rodewald, for racist and misogynistic comments on their social media accounts.

Stung by these and other instances of racism, the NHL has tried to promote diversity in recent years, but the number of black players remains relatively small. The first black player in the NHL, Willie O’Ree, did not take the ice until 1957, and since then, only about 100 black players have dressed for at least one game in the league. At least 30 black players have been on teams since the 2016-17 season, when a record four black players were named All-Stars. Still, only a handful of team captains have been black, and there are no black head coaches in the NHL.

A major goal of the Hockey Diversity Alliance will be mentorship, giving younger players who are members of minority groups to learn from the likes of Kane and Aliu.

“We feel that we can be a great outlet for minority players all the way down to youth hockey coming up through the junior ranks and coming into pro with any issues they might be going through, whether that’s race related or anything else,” Kane said.

“I think having a group like us to lean on for experience, advice, thoughts, or different ideas will empower them.”

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Aliu and Kane said they felt emboldened after talking to Kaepernick.

“I think it’s enabled us to really feel even more strongly than we did originally about what we’re doing. It was an invaluable call that we had with him,” Kane said.

Kaepernick declined to comment.

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