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Anson Carter recalls watching some of his high school friends drop out of hockey because they were “too white” as he forged ahead with his sights set on a professional career. By the time he reached the National Hockey League, dreadlocks were sticking out from under his helmet as he skated.

“It wasn’t, ‘Well, he might be black, we’re not really sure, we don’t really know,'” he said, a note of pride in his voice. “You knew I was black.”

As one of the few black players in the NHL at the time, his presence during a career that spanned 1996-2007 did not go unnoticed by these Toronto friends. They told him that their children played hockey.

“It makes me prouder than even playing in the league myself because they’re like, ‘You played, so why shouldn’t my kids be playing? ‘” Carter said. “To see that change with the way my friends would think is an amazing thing.”

Fifteen years after Carter hung up his skates, the NHL has made what it considers significant progress to improve diversity on the ice and in the stands, a long-awaited pursuit aimed at expanding hockey’s footprint in the scale and close the popularity gap with other leagues in the U.S. Increasing minority ownership in management, coaching and officiating is part of a long-term plan that executives hope to change the very face of hockey in the years to come.

“Anyone who expects us to wave a magic wand and have these things happen immediately rather than over time, they don’t understand how real change works,” said Kim Davis, who joined the NHL as Executive Vice President of Social Impact, Growth and Legislative Affairs at the end of 2017. “What encourages me is the fact that our owners and leaders of our 32 clubs and at the NHL level are committed to it. People lean on it. They understand that this is, as I often say, a movement and not a moment and that it will take time for us to make the change. But we already see it.

Davis said there are currently 54 active players who are Arab, Asian, Black, Latino or Indigenous, which would represent about 7% of the league. Although the NHL does not keep official statistics on the racial makeup of rosters, this is a significant increase from when Carter was playing.

This post-season has been a showcase of that diversity with several minority players at the forefront.

Nazem Kadri, who is of Lebanese descent, was one of Colorado’s most influential players and scored the overtime winner in Game 4 last Wednesday that put the Avalanche one Stanley Cup victory away. while Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who is Black and from France, is an important newcomer for Tampa Bay in its bid for a hat-trick. New York Rangers fan favorite Ryan Reaves and defenseman K’Andre Miller, as well as Edmonton star Evander Kane, who are black, were all playing in the conference finals.

“There’s this little kid at home right now who’s going to be able to watch a game and say, ‘Look!'” Bellemare said. “Because, naturally, you try to imitate someone that you can see yourself in.”

Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida, said having black stars in hockey “is also going to increase the rate at which young kids black people might start playing hockey. Putting players like Kadri and Reaves at the center of marketing campaigns is just one of many avenues that must succeed to see significant growth.

The push for more diversity in front office hires has so far met with more success with women than people of color. Carter and Davis both pointed to the recent hiring of Al Montoya by the Dallas Stars as director of community outreach as a tangible step forward after his involvement with the NHL’s Player Inclusion Committee – the one of many established following the revelation of Akim Aliu in 2019, he was a victim of racist language from an underage coach and racial reckoning in the United States that began in 2020.

Montoya recently wrote on a notepad, “Sustainable change doesn’t happen over time,” and shares with Carter the theory that more diverse executive offices will lead to the same kind of change on the ice.

“It’s one thing to hire just to hire and you don’t want to do that,” said Montoya, a retired goaltender who was the first Cuban-American and the first Spanish-speaking player in the NHL. . “You want to have the best. Diverse minds bring diverse perspectives, which leads to a great product. I always use the concept that you don’t want all right-handed players on the ice. The same goes for the office. You don’t want everyone thinking the same thing.

Carter compares this to the days when European players were stereotyped as soft or American college players were overlooked for not going the junior hockey route in Canada. The NHL has undoubtedly become a better product since their widespread integration.

“It’s become normal to see various players playing on the ice because they’re normalizing in the front office,” Carter said. “And people might not say, ‘If this guy has dreads and he’s playing, we don’t really know if he’s serious about playing hockey or becoming a rapper,’ if you have a black person like me or in a front office or part of a management team.

The NHL is expected to release its first demographic study and diversity, equity and inclusion report in July, which Davis says will clearly show that demographics are changing in the league in terms of representation. Lapchick said the NHL is working with him on a race and gender report card for the first time, which could yield results in about six months.

“It also gives us a baseline so we can measure and hold ourselves accountable going forward,” Davis said. “We will be looking at youth participation and the number of children of color in our First Shift programs in Canada and our Learn to Play programs. We’re seeing the pipeline of kids moving into elite pathways growing. All of these indicators are moving in the right direction, and that’s what we want. We want these indicators to point in the right direction.

These grassroots efforts to grow the game in Black, Latino and other underrepresented communities — a smart business move for any league — have been going on for a long time. Lapchick points out that despite Major League Baseball’s decades of effort and financial investment, there are fewer black players than ever before, and understands that’s also a challenge for hockey.

“It’s an expensive sport – it’s not that accessible,” Lapchick said. “So it’s an uphill battle at this level.”

Carter, who leads the Player Inclusion Committee and is an analyst for Turner Sports, is in regular contact with representatives from USA Hockey and other organizations to continue working on these efforts, which include the Pittsburgh Penguins. last year by creating the Willie O’Ree Academy which offers free instruction for black players. The Penguins also launched a hockey diversity program led by former Jamaican national team captain Jaden Lindo and worked to open the first rink within the Pittsburgh city limits in decades.

“It’s that kind of intentional work that needs to continue to happen at all levels in all of our markets that’s really going to move the dial on all of these things,” Davis said.

This dial is not at zero. According to Davis, women make up 40% of NHL fans and 25% of the total number are people of color. The job now is to build on that for the future, with the next steps in Carter’s mind involving greater representation of minorities in front office and ownership roles.

“We are moving in the right direction,” he said. “That’s going to happen over time as more and more candidates are brought to the table. You’re going to see it happen slowly but surely.


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Stephen Whyno, Associated Press