The National Hockey League is too white, and its Black diversity executive vows to change that.
An internal report on the racial makeup of the 32 teams that comprise the NHL found 83.6% of the league's workforce is white. That percentage is even higher on the ice, as more than 90% of players and nearly all coaches and officials are white.
"The whole purpose behind doing a workforce study is to provide a baseline: a fact-based baseline so that you can begin to develop very intentional and specific strategies around where you need to hire, how you need to hire, how you need to improve your brand," said Kim Davis, a Black woman, who was hired as the NHL's executive vice president of social impact, growth and legislative affairs in 2017. "This is a good start, but there's a ways to go."
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the data from the 24-page report will shape policies "that will produce the greatest impacts in the years to come."
Boosting a more racially diverse league cannot start at the top, even if this report has, according to Davis.
"The thing that you should take away from the workforce study is that it is a progressive outlook on how you begin to manage your talent," she told reporters Tuesday. "And it's progressive in that it's a self-identified report."
She said it starts with improving how underrepresented communities see and feel about the sport itself. The NHL, eager to diversify its fan base, mapped out seven courses of action, from education and community initiatives to marketing and partnerships.
"A number of those steps are already in progress," she said. "You can't expect to recruit [Black, Indigenous and people of color] folks to work in the league if you don't at the same time have your stadium fan code of conduct underway so people feel like the sport is really serious about growing the fan base.
"You also have to make sure that you are reaching out to the communities from a youth participation perspective, so all of those efforts are underway."
The league hired Davis in 2017 to spearhead diversity and inclusion efforts, which picked up in 2019 when Nigeria-born player Akim Aliu revealed a coach used racist language toward him a decade earlier in the minors. That sparked a broader conversation and led to the formations of several league committees focused on the subject even before the racial reckoning in the summer of 2020, when a handful of current and former minority players founded the Hockey Diversity Alliance.
One of those members, Minnesota's Matt Dumba, said recently he still sees racism in hockey, adding he is sick of "the old boys' club and them dictating who is and who isn't welcome." He and Davis spoke last week about the topic.
"We talked about [how] there may be different ways of thinking about this work, but at the end of the day we are all in service of the same outcome and that is to grow the sport and to make sure that folks that look like him and me feel comfortable and welcomed in the sport," Davis said. "We both agreed that that was the goal."
Aliu, who along with Dumba is a member of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, pushed back on the NHL's report in a lengthy response to The Associated Press.
"A lot of patting themselves on the back. Nothing tangible. A lot of words without much substance. Half of the report is about attracting the BIPOC community and youth engagement. It's literally what we are doing as current and former players of the league," wrote Aliu, referring to the HDA launching a pilot program to promote hockey to underserved communities in Toronto this spring.
"We all know there is a major issue in this game, when most of us are saying there are major issues and massive change is needed," Aliu added. "But [when] a few of you on the inside are saying everything is OK, it confuses the general public on who to support. Until we are all successful and progressing, none of us are."
Aliu is a journeyman minor leaguer who appeared in seven NHL career games and whose revelations in a pair of social media posts led to the Calgary Flames firing Bill Peters. Aliu revealed Peters directed racial slurs at him while he played for the coach in the minors.
Racism still occurs at various levels of hockey. As recently as January, a minor league player was suspended for 30 games for directing a racist gesture at an opposing player who is Black.
Bettman wrote the league is "committed to reckoning with those difficult moments as opportunities to demonstrate our values and create a better future."
Davis acknowledged such incidents hurt the NHL brand even if they do not happen in the league itself. She said she also hopes people see progress being made, including teams hiring nine people of color for C-suite positions since the report was taken and San Jose hiring Mike Grier as the league's first Black general manager.
"Change can feel uncomfortable," she said. "There are going to be moments that are very, very uncomfortable; but we have to have a plan of action. We have to keep moving in that direction."
The racial scaling of hockey is an age-old debate in Americans sports. Baseball was once split into leagues over race, before Jackie Robinson was hailed for breaking the color barrier.
Sports broadcaster Bryant Gumbel, who is Black, denounced the Winter Olympics as unwatchable because there were not enough Black athletes. He made his remarks on the eve of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, slurring the Republican Party as too white, too.
"Try not to laugh when someone says these are the world's greatest athletes, despite a paucity of Blacks that makes the Winter Games look like a GOP convention," Gumbel said.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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