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Women, people of color are reshaping the world of hockey

NHL Diversity Hockey
Posted at 3:45 PM, Dec 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-13 17:47:36-05

Historically, hockey has been a very white sport. Women and people of color have rarely been in leadership roles in the game that is both Canada's favorite pastime and a favorite in the northern reaches of the U.S.

Out of 736 active roster spots in the National Hockey League, or NHL, roughly 20 are currently filled by Black players; that's less than 3%. And the overall diversity picture isn't much better: Official NHL data showed that all players of color only made up roughly 7% of the league's players. 

These numbers lag far behind other major North American leagues. Players of color make up 38% of Major League Baseball and significant majorities of the National Football League and National Basketball Association.

Though hockey has had Black stars — goaltender Grant Fuhr and winger Jarome Iginla shot to fame in the 1980s and 2000s, respectively, and were later inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame — hockey analytics writer Chris Watkins told Newsy there is a bit of typecasting when it comes to Black players. Not many get put in roles where they can become stars.

"I interviewed a bunch of players, current and former players, scouts, executives, all that said, 'Hey, it seems like a very high proportion of Black players are asked to be defensive, in particular a much higher proportion than white players, and none of them were asked to be centers, which is by far the position that wins the most trophies, the most MVPs,'" Watkins said. "All their awards go to this one position that Black people generally don't play."

Also, hockey has a history of racial discrimination that goes back decades.

The NHL integrated later than the other three major North American sports leagues, waiting until Willie O'Ree made his debut for the Boston Bruins in 1958 to see its first Black player take the ice.

That wasn't for lack of trying by Black players. Herb Carnegie — a Black Canadian who played in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s — starred in lower-level leagues but never got to play in the NHL. 

In an interview before his death, Carnegie told CBC Sports about a line he heard from former Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe, who passed on signing him as a teenage prospect.

"I was good enough for the Leafs because, according to Conn Smythe, 'I would take Carnegie tomorrow for the Maple Leafs if someone can turn him white,'" Carnegie said.

Women, in particular, have been way behind the curve in hockey inclusion too. It took until 1990, 70 years after the first men's hockey world championships, for women to have their first sanctioned world championship event. 

No women were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame until 2010. The institution has also capped the number of women who can be inducted each year at just two versus four for men. As of 2020, the rate of induction for eligible women was far lower than the rate for men.

Today, racism and sexism are still living in some corners of the hockey world, with three big scandals in 2022 alone.

Hockey Canada, the national governing body for the sport north of the border, has been the subject of a scandal since it emerged in May. They paid a settlement to a woman who accused eight players of sexually assaulting her in 2018.

The Boston Bruins caused a stir in October when they attempted to sign Mitchell Miller, a former top prospect whose draft selection by the Arizona Coyotes was rescinded after it was revealed that he was convicted in juvenile court in 2016 of bullying and assault. Miller had targeted Isaiah Meyer-Crothers, a Black student with developmental issues.

For someone like Chanel Keenan, an intersectionality consultant who previously worked for the Seattle Kraken and grew up a Bruins fan, this was all pretty heartbreaking. Her video reaction to the planned signing went viral, and she said she hopes more people can speak out when hockey decision-makers make moves like this. 

"The growth that we need to have in this space is that people should not be afraid to speak about these types of issues and especially abuse of any kind, like feeling guilty or feeling scared," Keenan said. "I would say not talking about things like this [is] continuing actually this culture of silence in the sport."

During the public outcry, Meyer-Crothers released a statement detailing the nature of Miller's bullying.

Miller had said publicly that the two were friends, but Meyer-Crothers denied that was the case and said that Miller had mischaracterized the relationship with him after the incident. The Bruins ultimately rescinded the contract offer.

And in November, Jagger Joshua, a collegiate player at Michigan State, came forward about a player on the opposing Ohio State team directing a racial slur at him on multiple occasions during a game. Ohio State responded by sending the player home from the team, but only after Joshua went public. Weeks after the incident, the player is still officially on the team.

Many in the hockey community are working on and off the ice to turn the sport into a more diverse and inclusive place.

Herb Carnegie's family has started an effort to promote diversity in the game, and Carnegie was recognized for his work. The Hockey Hall of Fame inducted him in November as a builder of the game.

Plus, there are consistently more players of color coming into the NHL now, and more prospects are coming up through the minor leagues to continue the trend. 

Women have also earned their way into more prominent spots off the ice. This offseason alone, six women were hired by teams as assistant general managers, a role that often leads to higher-level work in front offices.

Hockey data analyst Meghan Chayka, co-founder of the analytics firm Stathletes, has seen at least some progress in the space already. She thinks that having even a few women already in positions like that can go a long way. 

"Part of the coping aspect is to try to bring other women up or have networks that make sense to grow in and change the environment in which we work," Chayka said. "I don't know if it's completely changed from when I first started out, but I definitely think that the public space allows for people that wouldn't necessarily get jobs to start working with hockey data."

Diversity in hockey has extended to the broadcast booth as well. It's been only five years since "Saturday Night Live" lampooned the lack of diversity in covering hockey, but now, that's not uncommon.

Former players like Anson Carter and Kevin Weekes have made the jump to broadcasting. At the same time, the Seattle Kraken rolled out the first all-Black TV broadcast team in league history last season, when play-by-play man Everett Fitzhugh and former player-turned-analyst J.T. Brown worked a game together.

But even as there are big steps forward, hockey is still trying to reckon with its historically toxic culture.

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