From her home, Renee Hess watched the press conferences taking place thousands of miles away in Toronto and Edmonton with interest that was simultaneously personal and professional.
It was Aug. 27, and NHL players were standing together to explain their decision to boycott Stanley Cup playoff games to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by Rusten Sheskey, a white police officer in Kenosha, Wis.
As players spoke that day — and for days to come — about race and justice and education and allyship, a feeling began to take shape within Hess, founder of the Black Girl Hockey Club.
“It was really actually very moving to be able to see that taking place, and in terms of hockey specifically,” said Hess, who started the organization with a mission to break down sociological, economic and systemic barriers to the sport for Black women.
“I mean, I really never thought I would see the day when any players — whether they were players of colour or white players — would take a knee on the ice to protest against police brutality.”
Society is in the midst of a painful reckoning wrought by the three-headed hydra of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic collapse and racism, affecting every aspect of culture-including sports — hockey and its governing bodies included.
An argument can be made that the self-examination is long overdue.
“Is there still racism in the game? Yeah,” said Brock McGillis, a former goaltender and now an advocate for LGBTQ rights. “Is there still oppression in the sport? Absolutely. Is there still a lack of diversity? One hundred per cent.”
A handful of racist incidents involving Black NHL players have surfaced over the last decade.
- In a 2011 exhibition game between Detroit and Philadelphia in London, Ont., a fan threw a banana at then-Flyers right-winger Wayne Simmonds, now a Maple Leaf.
- Nearly 20 months later, Joel Ward was the target of a torrent of racist tweets from Boston Bruins fans in the first round of the playoffs, after scoring the series-winning goal for the Washington Capitals.
- Four Chicago Blackhawks supporters taunted then-Capitals right-winger Devante Smith-Pelly with chants of “basketball” as he sat in the visiting penalty box in 2018.
- Last November, Akim Aliu tweeted that long-time NHL coach Bill Peters used a racial slur “towards me in the dressing room in my rookie year because he didn’t like my choice of music” while with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs. Peters, who was coaching the Calgary Flames at the time of the allegations and subsequent investigation, eventually resigned.
- In April, New York Rangers rookie defenceman K’Andre Miller was participating in a Zoom chat connecting prospects and fans when a hacker repeatedly posting a racial slur. In a statement, Miller said he “struggled for months to find the words to express my frustration and anger.”
- In October, the Arizona Coyotes renounced the rights to fourth-round draft pick Mitchell Miller after a bombshell story in the Arizona Republic revealed the team was aware of a 2016 assault conviction for bullying a Black classmate with developmental disabilities, but drafted the defenceman anyway.
According to former NHL executive Brian Burke, while each incident is troubling, it is not evidence of a trend. Now a Sportsnet hockey analyst, Burke has also worked in NHL front offices in Toronto, Vancouver, Anaheim and Calgary, and as a player agent. He also worked in the league office as executive vice-president and director of hockey operations, and sits on the You Can Play project advisory board.
“I didn’t think there was a backlog of abuse in our sport because I don’t think it’s been tolerated for a long time,” said Burke, when asked about previous comments he’d made suggesting the Peters revelations could lead to hockey’s version of the #MeToo movement.
“I thought the line at the door would be short, and I was right. A lot of stuff (has changed in the NHL). For example, hazing — rookie hazing. Pat Quinn outlawed that in Vancouver in 1987. We got rid of rookie hazing in 1987.
“There have been progressive people in sports that have not tolerated racial slurs. I never have; I’ve never allowed that on any of my teams. Or homophobic violence. So we’re much farther along than people realize. We’re making steady progress.”
While Black and Indigenous people have played the sport throughout its history — the Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes was an all-Black organization from 1895 through 1930, while First Nations “likely” invented the game, according to Paul W. Bennett of Halifax’s Schoolhouse Institute on the Acadiensis Blog — today it is primarily white at all levels.
A poll by FiveThirtyEight.com and Ipsos this past spring found 77.1 per cent of hockey fans in America are white, 6.8 per cent Hispanic and 6.5 per cent Black. The same poll also found 35.4 per cent, politically speaking, identify as Republicans and 36.5 per cent independent.
Which is why seeing white NHLers such as Kevin Shattenkirk and Tyler Seguin show public support for Ryan Reaves, Nazem Kadri and other players of colour during racial unrest across North America this past summer was viewed as a seminal moment.
“It’s important for white NHL players to use their platform to amplify Black voices and to emphasize social issues that affect minority communities, because a lot of times (the) privileged, young cisgender white male is not going to have the same issues of Black women in their purview,” Hess said. “It’s not going to penetrate their social bubble, and so to see that there are social issues that these young men — who might not be affected by the issues within the BIPOC, LGBT community — (are) taking up arms for … I think that’s really important, because the fight for social justice should not be on the backs of Black and brown people only.”
While calls for unity during Stanley Cup playoffs in Toronto and Edmonton were important, there is a significant difference between a one-off and an inflection point.
As the NHL plans to return for its 103rd season, with a 56-game schedule starting Jan. 13, the vast majority of players, coaches, executives and fans are white. Data about NHL demographics is not publicly available, so the Star went through individual photos on the team pages of the league’s media website and counted 26 Black players on 31 teams.
When the Florida Panthers hired Brett Peterson as assistant GM in November, the team’s press release said the 39-year-old “is believed to be the first Black assistant general manager in the National Hockey League.”
“What we’ve learned from our research is that the sport has not been culturally available to many of the multicultural audiences,” said Kim Davis, the NHL’s senior executive vice-president for social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. “There is a sense that the sport is not speaking to them.”
Which begs the question: How does the sport make itself more accessible to racialized communities, especially when a majority of the U.S. population will be non-white as soon as 2050, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center report? Closer to home, a 2017 Statistics Canada report estimated that “between 34.7 per cent and 39.9 per cent” of the working age population “could belong to a visible minority group,” and “between 24.5 per cent and 30 per cent” of the population would be comprised of immigrants by 2036.
The answer is multi-faceted. It isn’t simply a cost issue, although hockey is relatively expensive.
Education and growth opportunities are areas where systemic modifications and changes to the sport are being examined, and in some instances slowly implemented. For example, Hockey Canada ran four “mandatory virtual diversity and inclusion seminars” in July for national team players, coaches and support staff involved in the 2020-21 season.
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League has a zero-tolerance policy “so that no discrimination shall be accepted” and lists fines, suspensions and “dismissal for cause” as the potential discipline, although the policy does not explicitly state how steep the fines would be, nor how long the suspensions would last. The Star also contacted the Canadian Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and Western Hockey League via email to ask about anti-racism policies, without a response as of publication.
Davis said the NHL is working with grassroots organizations such as Black Girl Hockey Club and has created “a number of councils and committees” to develop and implement improvements. Also, the league holds racial and cultural sensitivity seminars as part of its annual rookie orientation program, and works with individual teams that run their own symposiums. In an email, an NHL spokesperson added that commissioner Gary Bettman’s office would handle supplemental discipline directly if a player, coach or executive is found guilty of a racist or homophobic slur.
Sports and society are intrinsically intertwined. Hockey still has the chance to expand by growing the game in under-represented communities. If it happens, Hess is hopeful that the change in demographic composition will lead to greater diversity among fans, players, coaches and executives.
“I think we can see already in youth hockey, there’s much more representation from minority communities. And so, I think that as time goes by (with) organizations like the (expansion) Seattle Kraken who have already hired a high number of minority executives and staff in their front office, once we see that happening, other teams will start to follow,” Hess said.
“That’s my hope.”