As Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly sat in the penalty box during a game at Chicago’s United Center in February 2018, he listened as a group of white fans chanted “basketball, basketball, basketball” in his direction. The Blackhawks fans taunting Smith-Pelly, who is Black, were making their position clear: Hockey isn’t for everyone, and it’s especially not for Black people.
Willie O’Ree, who became the NHL’s first Black player in 1958 when he took the ice for the Bruins in a game against the Montreal Canadiens, faced racist abuse throughout his career. When Toronto Maple Leafs forward Wayne Simmonds was on the Flyers in 2011, he had a banana hurled at him by a fan during an exhibition game in London, Ontario. After Washington Capitals forward Joel Ward knocked the Bruins out of the 2012 playoffs with a Game 7 overtime winner, he faced a barrage of racist abuse by Boston fans on social media. When New York Rangers prospect K’Andre Miller, who is Black, participated in what he must have believed would be an ordinary question-and-answer session with fans on Zoom earlier this year, he was repeatedly abused with racist taunts. In a candid Players’ Tribune essay,1 former Calgary Flames forward Akim Aliu, who is Nigerian, detailed instances of racist abuse that he suffered during his playing career — from teammates and from his own coach.
The list of racist incidents in hockey is too long to detail in full, and it’s not limited to the professional game — they are depressingly common at the youth level, too. After the incident in Chicago in 2018, Smith-Pelly reflected on how little has changed since O’Ree broke the color barrier more than 60 years ago.
“[O’Ree] had to go through a lot, and the same thing has been happening now, which obviously means there’s still a long way to go,” Smith-Pelly told the AP. “If you had pulled a quote from him back then and us now, they’re saying the same thing, so obviously there’s still a long way to go in hockey and in the world if we’re being serious.”
The hockey world was forced again to confront its own reaction to racism this summer. When players on the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to take the court for an NBA playoff game on Aug. 26 in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, they inspired other players across sports to do the same. In doing so, they made it clear to league officials, team owners and a nation confronting police violence against Black people that they believe Black lives matter. But as basketballs, baseballs, soccer balls and tennis balls were put away in protest, hockey pucks conspicuously were not.
Hours after the Bucks refused to play, and after players in other leagues joined that protest — the intention of their collective action unequivocal — skaters from the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning gathered at center ice at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto for the beginning of Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series as if nothing were happening outside of the NHL’s two playoff bubbles.2
While play stopped in other leagues that day, the NHL didn’t move its slate of games, instead choosing to acknowledge what Kenosha police did to Blake with a 27-second “moment of reflection” before the Bruins and Lightning game while the jumbotron lit up with the words “End Racism.” Even that short display was more than the league spared for a game between the Colorado Avalanche and the Dallas Stars later that evening, which proceeded without any acknowledgement at all.
Not everyone associated with the NHL remained silent, of course. A number of current and former players tweeted messages of support to the Bucks and the NBA more broadly. Some white players took that stand, including retired goaltender Roberto Luongo, but nonwhite players were at the forefront, including San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane, who is Black, and Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba, who is of Filipino descent. Aliu tweeted his support to NBA, WNBA and MLB players, and he asked the NHL, “where you at?” Dumba, who was the first NHL player to take a knee during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner when he did so before a game in August, even took to the airwaves in Vancouver to explain that the onus to speak out against racism should not always fall on Black players and players of color.
“You can’t keep coming to the minority players every time there’s a situation like this,” Dumba said on The Program. “The white players in our league need to have answers for what they’re seeing in society as well right now, too, and where they stand in making a change, doing good for the league. Because I know that there’s a lot of them that are good people — there’s a lot of good people in hockey. But the silence is as bad as the violence.”
Players in the Western Conference bubble faced the media on Aug. 27 to announce the postponement of games that day and the next, with a plan to resume play the following day. The announcement came from Vegas Golden Knights forward Ryan Reaves and Avalanche forward Pierre Edouard-Bellemare, who are both Black, Avalanche forward Nazem Kadri, who is of Lebanese descent, and Dallas Stars forward Jason Dickinson and Vancouver Canucks forward Bo Horvat, who are both white. By all accounts, the action was led by the players and not the league.
There’s ample evidence that the NHL knows it has a racism problem. Its “Hockey Is For Everyone” campaign is proof of this; its slate of Black History Month commercials — which featured no Black players in 2020 — is proof of this; its mobile history museum, which tells the story of the Coloured Hockey League, an all-Black league that formed in Nova Scotia in 1895 and is responsible for the invention of the slapshot and the butterfly goalie stance, is proof of this; the white paper it produced in 2018 in conjunction with the Brookings Institution — which acknowledged that demographics in North America are shifting, that 44 percent of American millennials are not white and that the league needs to get better at reaching out to Black people and people of color — is proof of this too.
But the reality is that the league’s fans are overwhelmingly white, skew conservative and are more wealthy than fans of other professional sports leagues. As support for the Black Lives Matter movement had waned among white Americans, it’s fair to assume it was waning among the NHL’s largely white audience, too. And minority representation in the league remains minuscule: Less than 5 percent of the league’s players are Black or people of color, and it has hired only one Black head coach — out of 377 total coaches — in its 102-year existence.
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A cohort of current and former Black players and players of color within the NHL isn’t waiting any longer for the league to act. Players including Kane, Dumba, Aliu, Kadri and Simmonds joined together to form the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) in June in an effort to end racism and promote diversity at all levels of the sport. Soon after the NHL balked at the opportunity to show its support for Black lives, the HDA issued a press release detailing how it intends to upend racial inequities in the NHL and hockey more broadly. The HDA’s plan begins with increasing the share of Black personnel hired by the NHL and its member franchises — at the executive level as well as in hockey-related and non-hockey-related roles.
In addition to increasing diversity in the league’s workforce, the HDA proposed that it should be tasked with selecting at least 50 percent of the NHL’s Executive Inclusion Council (EIC), a group of team owners, presidents and general managers whose mandate is to ensure diversity and inclusion efforts are taken seriously throughout the league. Doing so would “ensure that the voices of our Black, Indigenous and racialized players are heard and that they have an opportunity to help change the culture of the league.”
The HDA also asked the NHL to implement a mandatory anti-racism and unconscious bias training education program for all league employees. The HDA committed to funding social justice initiatives that target racism and provide justice for Black, Indigenous and racialized communities; grassroots hockey development programs that increase access and provide support to BIPOC players at the youth level; and anti-racism and unconscious bias education programs in amateur hockey leagues across North America.
Days after the HDA issued its press release, the NHL and the NHLPA (the league’s players union) responded with a joint press release announcing its plans to implement anti-racism efforts, which include mandatory diversity and inclusion training for all players and NHLPA personnel. The NHL and NHLPA also announced plans to work with the HDA to “establish and administer a first-of-its-kind grassroots hockey development program to provide mentorship and skill development for BIPOC boys and girls in the Greater Toronto Area,” with stated plans for a similar program based in the U.S. to come at a later date.
Notably, the NHL did not commit to concrete numbers regarding the hiring of Black executives, hockey personnel or non-hockey personnel, however, instead saying that it is “commissioning an outside audit of these efforts” while “working with The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) on a private assessment of our current employee pool.” Nor did it agree to allowing the HDA to select at least 50 percent of its EIC, which is majority white.
The NHL’s piecemeal commitment to the HDA’s proposal seems to have precipitated the end of the nascent working relationship between the two organizations. The HDA recently announced that it would operate separately from the NHL, stating that the league “is not prepared to make any measurable commitments to end systemic racism in hockey,” and that it “focused on performative public relations efforts that seemed aimed at quickly moving past important conversations about race needed in the game.”
Current and former players aren’t the only forces putting pressure on the league to take diversity and inclusion seriously. Renee Hess, who founded the Black Girl Hockey Club (BGHC) two years ago as a support network for women of color who enjoy hockey, told The New York Times that the league needs to include more people of color on its new committees “so that true change can happen.” The BGHC recently launched its “Get Uncomfortable” campaign, which aims to develop “a comprehensive set of recommendations on how all entities involved in hockey, at all levels, can meaningfully contribute to the movement against discrimination and oppression of BIPOC communities in society.”
The campaign’s ultimate goals are to make hockey a welcome space for Black girls and BIPOC communities, increase diversity in employment at all levels of the sport and educate the hockey world on issues of social justice and allyship while centering Black women, women of color, BIPOC leaders and anti-racism experts. Kim Davis, the NHL’s executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs — who is Black and who has been instrumental in expanding the NHL’s “Hockey Is for Everyone” initiatives — told The New York Times that Hess is “bringing a new perspective to all dimensions of our inclusion efforts.”
Stopping racism in sports, let alone the broader world, is obviously no easy task. But there are tangible steps that the NHL could take to make the league, and the sport, more equitable and inclusive. One positive change the NHL could bring about is subsidizing equipment costs and league fees at the youth level.4 Hockey is among the most expensive youth sports to play — some families spend as much as $19,000 a year on equipment, league fees and travel. In the U.S., where the wealth gap between white and Black families is as wide as it was in the 1960s, that high barrier to entry is a big reason why hockey is mostly played by white people. And that lack of diversity and inclusion is mirrored in the racial makeup of the NHL, both on and off the ice.
When Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by Kenosha police, it didn’t register with white players, coaches or personnel inside the NHL’s bubbles until players in other leagues — and the Black players and players of color in their own league — forced it to register. When presented with a chance to show support for Black lives, most white people inside the NHL faltered. They remained silent until it became clear that their silence was untenable; they didn’t speak until it was clear that it was safe to do so. The NHL’s Black players and players of color didn’t have that luxury.
Neil Paine contributed research.
CORRECTION (Oct. 19, 2020, 6:30 p.m.): A previous version of this article referred to Wayne Simmonds as a member of the Buffalo Sabres. He left the Sabres and signed on Oct. 9 with the Toronto Maple Leafs.