At my job, I have the luck of watching TV in small patches of downtime. Wednesday night, I had the Philadelphia Flyers-Pittsburgh Penguins 6-5 thriller on. As I was gleefully watching the Flyers Wayne Simmonds and Pens Tanner Glass trade blows in one of the best fights of the abbreviated NHL season, a black co-worker walked by, paused and rhetorically asked,
“There’s a black guy in the NHL?!”
He wasn’t joking. He was serious. He did not realize there were currently any players of color in the league. This is a serious problem.
Could I possibly be overreacting to the naivety of one man? Sure, I suppose. Yet, I have a feeling he is far from the only person (of any race) that believes the NHL has no minority players. Due to factors other than just racism, hockey has been notoriously a “white man’s sport”.
Hockey is a regional game in the U.S. and vastly popular in Canada, a country where blacks only make up 2.5-percent of the population. In both Canada and the United States, the inflated cost of play has made it a game of classism. Sure, anyone can get an old bucket for a helmet, some dusty twig for a stick and partially rusted blades for skates then find a pond and play. But to play hockey at a high-level, you’re annually spending up to several thousands of dollars a year on one child’s registration, ice bill, travel and fresh equipment– have more than one child able to play at the same time, you’re probably making six-figures and/or you budget your family diet to only include the “val-U” brands.
Costs this high creates an issue with the game being inaccessible to those families with a lower-income no-matter the race. With roughly 35-percent of blacks and latinos at or below the poverty line, you can see that this puts their demographic at a greater disadvantage to even begin playing the game.
Programs like the NHL’s little-publicized “Hockey Is For Everyone” initiative and Hyundai’s “Hockey Helpers” were created to help bridge this income gap in playing cost for families. It’s no coincidence that it’s largely targeted towards minority hockey players.
Hyundai got it right in selecting the Subban brothers–Montreal Candiens defenseman P.K. and Boston Bruins 2012 draft pick goaltender Malcom–to be the spokespeople for this program.
They selected someone in P.K. who didn’t get to take the typical route to junior hockey and subsequently the NHL. He and his brothers–the aforementioned Malcom, currently goaltending for the Ontario Hockey League’s Belleville Bulls and youngest, Jordan, forward also for Belleville– are first-generation sons (along with two daughters) to Jamaican and Montserrat immigrants. Hyundai recognized P.K. is the perfect ambassador not only as a minority hockey player but also an exciting young defenseman who can show kids from big families and/or single-income households that you can persevere through these traditional barriers.
While a South Korean car company seems to realize what the Subban’s mean to hockey, the NHL does not.
The NHL has a long history of failing to promote its individual stars. The league might be making an even bigger mistake in failing to promote its players of color
Right now, we are seeing more highly skilled black players in the NHL than ever, yet they aren’t being exposed for bringing diversity to a league that sorely needs new fans. It goes beyond P.K. and Simmonds– consider the Winnipeg Jets (and recent Stanley Cup hero) Dustin Byfuglien and Evander Kane, New Jersey Devils captain Bryce Salvador, Washington Capitals playoff hero Joel Ward and future hall of fame Calgary Flame Jerome Iginla. These are all players of note who–aside from their on-ice performance–have not been noted.
Black History Month in North America has almost come and gone, yet I have not heard the young star P.K. and the legend Iginla speak out on the history of black players in hockey, the present they’re thriving in and the importance of the future. Sure, if you turn on the NHL Network, you’ll see a soft-focus two-minute feature on Willie O’Ree who broke the NHL color barrier with the Boston Bruins in 1958. This will run twice an hour, but still, it’s only two-minutes and it’s only one player.
I never hear anything about goaltending legend Grant Fuhr being the first black player inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Or Tony McKegney, who escaped rampant racism and protests of his play in the World Hockey Association to be the first black player to play a full season in the NHL (IN 1980!!!). Or Dirk Graham, the first black captain then coach in NHL history.
Herb Carnegie was denied access to the NHL, but spent the 30′s, 40′s and 50′s dominating junior and minor-professional leagues across Eastern Canada. In 1948, he had 127 points in 56 games for Sherbrooke St.Francis in the Quebec Senior Hockey League. I never heard of him until watching an innocuous television special on Canada’s hockey history on CBC–a station few get in the U.S.–a couple of months ago.
I found out through doing research for this column there was a Coloured Hockey League in Nova Scotia, Canada during the 1890′s. HOW DID I NOT KNOW THIS BEFORE TODAY? THAT’S SOME MAJOR STUFF. WE KNOW A TON ABOUT THE NEGRO BASEBALL LEAGUES and um, nothing about this.
The knowledge of great black hockey players is something I largely found through independent research. I’m a hockey freak. I own a ton of hockey cards and spend my spare time looking up stats and player bio’s online. None of the information I have on these players was learned by the NHL trying to inform its fans.
Race still matters and will for generations to come. People are most attracted to players they can relate to. It’s easier to relate and identify with those of your own race, that’s why the NBA and NFL are generally more popular in black culture and the MLB is more popular in latino and white culture.
If the NHL continues to neglect showcasing its current crop of black talent, they’ll continue to shut themselves off to an entire demographic.
I’m not accusing the NHL of being racist as much as I’m accusing them of being lazy and stupid enough not to market to a much broader range of people.
I bet you don’t even know more history is on the horizon. The Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks defenseman Seth Jones is son of retired NBA forward Popeye Jones. He is also projected to be a lock top-three pick in the upcoming NHL draft. It is very conceivable he will be the top pick but almost-certain he will be the highest drafted African-American in NHL history.
Aside from a December feature in the New York Times, this story has received very little national coverage for its historic implications. It’s been a major running story in Canada simply from a draft perspective. Other than coverage of the champion United States World Junior Hockey team (which Jones starred on), I haven’t heard his name mentioned on the NHL Network, NHL.com, NBC Sports Network and ESPN likely doesn’t know he exists.
If outlets like NBCSN and ESPN don’t take the reins on reporting the unprecedented potential of Jones, whose responsibility is it? IT’S THE NHL’S FREAKING RESPONSIBILITY. He needs to be known now for the future he represents for people of color in hockey, his game will eventually speak for itself.
I caught my co-worker still in pause and rattled off a handful of black NHL players and some of what they’ve already achieved. A grin grew over his face. I proceeded to tell him about Jones and with a grin turned to smile he said,
“Really?! Seth Jones. I’ll have to keep an eye on that. That’s pretty cool.”
Your move, NHL. Don’t blow this.
Kyle Bauer is an award winning college sports broadcaster and former Sports Director of WXOU 88.3fm, freelance journalist and radio producer who has been published in The Macomb Daily, mlive.com, Oakland Post and MIPREPZONE.com, follow him on Twitter @kyle_bauer