It has been 63 years since Willie O’Ree laced up his skates for the Boston Bruins becoming the first black player in the National Hockey League, paving the way for others.
Yet despite the league’s message of “hockey being for everyone,” only seven per cent of its players are visible minorities, a number that pales in comparison to other professional sports leagues.
The league currently has 90 BIPOC players in its system, with 44 of them active. In total, there are more than 700 players in the NHL.
Former NHLer Bill Riley, who played for the Washington Capitals in the 70s said he isn’t surprised that the numbers remain low, despite it being decades since O’Ree broke the colour barrier in the sport.
Riley, who was the third black player in the league, said the lack of representation of visible minorities on the ice comes into play and thinks there needs to be a connection made at the community level.
“They need to take some of these real good young black hockey players that we have into some of the poorer neighborhoods and put on a free hockey game or a free clinic or something,” said Riley.
“So these kids can see it and say … we can play hockey because as you know, growing up, the biggest majority of the black population is in the U.S. and their role models are coming out of the NBA, the NFL and the Major League Baseball,” he continued.
Former player Anthony Stewart, who spent over a decade in the NHL, said the lack of diversity on the ice is due to the socioeconomic factors that children and their families are facing.
“It’s way too expensive,” said Stewart.
“You have new families that come to Canada and they see the price of hockey. They’re like, ‘Well, no, we’re going to pick up a basketball. We’re going to pick up soccer.’ You know, the cost of ice is hundreds of dollars an hour, equipment and skates … so you’re at a disadvantage before you even touch the ice,” he continued.
The Scarborough native who runs a hockey school and coaches in the Greater Toronto Hockey League alongside his brother Chris, who also played in the league, has taken it upon himself to try and make things more affordable for the children in his programs.
Stewart wants to the see the league come up with commitments that would lower the costs and allow more children from diverse communities the chance to play, which he said is why the HockEquality initiative was set up.
“It’s about the movement. It’s not about any particular person and we’re just now trying to now make it more accessible. This is not just for black hockey players, it’s for LGBTQ, it’s for people with disabilities, it’s for girls,” said Stewart.
“There’s an underrepresentation of girls hockey all over the world, so we’re not trying to take a speedboat with a select group, we’re trying to take a cruise ship with everybody. And it may take a little bit longer to get there, but I’m in it for the long haul,” he said.
NHL Senior Executive Vice President of Social Impact, Growth Initiatives & Legislative Affairs Kim Davis acknowledges that the league lacks diversity and said the league has several initiatives in place dedicated to making it more inclusive.
One such commitment she said is a partnership between the league and the NHLPA to make the sport more available to youth across North America.
“One of those programs is the Future Goals Program, which is a classroom initiative that uses STEM to teach hockey and with that program we’ve put over $20 million in and we’ve touched over 50,000 kids across North America. A significant percentage of those kids have been kids of color,” said Davis.
She added that the root cause of the problem stems from communities of colour not having access to the infrastructure such ice hockey arenas.
She said the league established a set of programs that O’Ree was responsible for in ensuring that kids of colour were exposed to the sport all the while breaking down barriers.
While they have seen some progress made, there is still a lot of work to be done to make hockey the most inclusive sport in the world, Davis added.
“One of the ways that I think we have to look at inclusion is, is how do we bring not just people of color, but all people into the bubble of making the sport more available,” she said.
“And the truth of the matter in our sport is that some 93 per cent of our players are white, so for us to pretend that we’re going to change the percentage significantly over the next three, five, 10 years is unrealistic.”
“What we can do from an inclusion point of view is to educate our allies and our partners so that they understand the mandate for allowing people to be their authentic self, to making the sport more welcoming so that more kids of different backgrounds participate in the sport,” Davis said.
Moreover, while the NHL is working to make good on its commitments, Stewart said he is optimistic the league can get to the level that other professional leagues are at today. If other former players come up with programs at the grassroots level then more children of colour could make it to the big leagues.