I was checking out the NHL’s social responsibility programs with the intention of writing about the NHL Fights Cancer initiative but a different program caught my attention – Hockey is for Everyone. November 2011 was the inaugural Come Play Hockey month for the program, which was “designed to increase participation in the sport of ice hockey in the United States”. It focuses on providing “children of all backgrounds” the opportunity to play hockey. On the surface this program provides the warm fuzzy feelings necessary for community relations but look with a critical eye and this is some pretty stellar sports propaganda.
The first thing about the program that caught my eye was the marketing visual, which prominently features Julie Chu in the forefront, PK Subban as the second most prominent individual and Evander Kane as probably the third place one’s eye will travel. Then you quickly realize that when they say “children of all backgrounds” they mean – “have you noticed how white the NHL is? Ya, us too. Let’s see if we can’t add some ‘diversity”. Julie Chu as an Asian-American woman is a double-score with regard to diversity in hockey but the program does not appear to really focus on inspiring young women to play hockey. The focus of campaign material is heavily weighted towards black hockey players, or the lack thereof.
Saturday November 5th was named Try Hockey for Free Day, which is pretty self-explanatory but what is not self-explanatory is what do these vulnerable groups (which in this instance largely refers to racialized persons and a short mention of persons with disabilities) do when hockey is no longer free? So the NHL has identified that racialized persons are not well represented in the United States, great. They have also probably put 2 and 2 together figuring that the majority of these racialized youth are also economically challenged, hence they made the opportunity to try hockey free. Now we’ve provided the opportunity for thousands of youth to fall in love with the greatest sport on earth, how do they continue their involvement?
Hockey is an expensive sport. Equipment is expensive. Travel is expensive. League fees are expensive. As much as hockey loves to be sold as a blue collar sport it is definitely a sport that is available only to those with certain privileges. As much as Hockey is for Everyone sounds great the fact remains that it is not.
The other interesting aspect I found on the Hockey is for Everyone page is the highlighting of black NHL players such as Joel Ward, Willie O’Ree, P.K. Subban and Wayne Simmonds. A link is provided to an article titled “Simmonds proud to represent black hockey players”. The article explains
When he finally pursued the sport on his own, Simmonds said he never encountered anyone who didn’t believe he could succeed because of his race.
“No one really ever told me that,” Simmonds said. “I had my family with me every step of the way. They were always telling me that I could do it, that anything I put my mind to, it’s possible.
In fact, Simmonds said that race-based negativity in hockey “really doesn’t happen in Canada. That’s pretty much the way it is.”
If you can play the game, Simmonds said, you can play – no matter your skin colour.
And the myth of meritocracy in sports smiles down upon its disciple. Simmonds provides a very rose-tinted version of race in hockey. The fact that the Hockey is for Everyone program features a complete list of retired black hockey players should be a loud signal that black hockey players are a novelty, not a reality. Simmonds comment that race-based negativity doesn’t happen in Canada is great publicity for Canadian hockey but I think is extremely inaccurate (by the way Ward, Subban, Simmonds and Kane are all Canadian born). Hockey is for Everyone focuses on racialized groups in the United States, which boasts very different racial groups than does Canada. Compared with the United States, Canada’s black population is almost insignificant; however, the groups not represented very well at any level of Canadian hockey (not that I have stats to back this up) would be First Nations, Asian-Canadian and Indo-Canadian. I think we will see a growth in Asian-Canadian players in the next decade or so given the large flux of immigration but this will probably not be proportional to the overall population.
As for Indo-Canadians there are certain barriers to playing hockey that I have witnessed growing up. I used to sell hockey equipment in a store that was located in a predominantly Indo-Canadian neighbourhood. I would see young boys come into the store and be very excited to get hockey gear but I would quickly see religion butt heads with sport. Some young Sikh boys would be wearing their kirpan (ceremonial dagger), which did not fit well with hockey pants. In the Sikh religion the kirpan, as a symbol of baptism, must be worn at all times and that includes during hockey games. Obviously, this is a safety concern but we are making one choose between hockey and religion when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes both religious freedom and the right to play human rights. Another issue is the patka, or the under-turban, worn by many young Sikh boys. Fact – hockey helmets were not designed to be worn with a patka. I had one young boy all suited up from toe to neck and the last thing he needed was a helmet. Problem! His mother and I tried everything to get a helmet on his head. Took his braid down, made the helmet bigger but nothing worked. He could not play hockey. Thus, as far as overt race-based discrimination in Canadian hockey goes, I think there is probably very little of it but discrimination is built into many facets of the game. So how can hockey be for everyone when it was never designed with everyone in mind?
Later on in the Simmonds article he contradicts his earlier statement regarding a lack of race-based negativity. Simmonds explains that his mother used to tell him that often as the only black player on the ice “You’re always going to have to work harder than the next person”. He then said
“I kind of took that to heart. I followed that [advice] ever since I got on the ice, and I work as hard as I possibly can day in and day out.”
To this day, that outwork-everyone-else attitude has been the primary component to Simmond’s game. It’s also what he considered the biggest challenge to being a black hockey player. In his eyes, either he works hard every time, or he gets the ax.
I applaud the intention behind the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone initiative. They have identified and acknowledged an imbalance in the sport and are trying to fix it but the manner in which they have tried to make hockey more equitable does little to change the exclusive structure of the game. Furthermore, the world of sports is far too quick to acknowledge race in times of success and leave it unacknowledged in times of failure. Evander Kane, Tiger Woods and Serena Williams are all put on a pedestal for succeeding in the face of racial adversity but how many never made it to our television sets? For how many does the dream create a barrier in itself?