Hockey is for Everyone nights and Hockey is for Everyone ambassadors: Deconstructing the NHL’s commitment to inclusion and diversity heading into 2018

Since we are on the heels of Hockey is for Everyone (HIFE) month, I want to reflect on the last one and comment on the upcoming one. I’ll describe the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone initiative in more detail later on. For now, if you haven’t clicked the hyperlink I just provided, know that this initiative seeks to promote the inclusion of all who wish to participate in ice hockey regardless of their race, gender, religion, socioeconomic status—you name it. In the words of the NHL’s gender and sexuality inclusion partner, the You Can Play Project (YCP): “If you can play, you can play.” HIFE month, then, is a month dedicated to this initiative. Also know that this post goes from discussing gender and sexuality, to racial and ethnic inequality, and back to gender and sexuality on a dime.

Hockey is for Everyone- 2017
I look back fondly on HIFE month (February 2017) because it kicked off a handful of memorable and important moments in my career and activism. For example, I had been an ambassador for YCP, which partnered with the NHL to host YCP nights to raise funds and awareness for the inclusion of the LGBT2Q+ community in ice hockey. On the day I spoke about my research on homophobia in hockey at the Edmonton Oilers’ press conference for their YCP night, I was also promoted from ambassador to co-chair of YCP’s Canadian western board. It was an exciting day for me inside of a month full of opportunities to celebrate and analyze (I’m a sociologist—you can’t escape it) the status of the LGBT2Q+ community in hockey and my place within its battle for equality. I was also pleased to see that the NHL’s dedication to inclusion extended beyond the allotted month as I had the pleasure of meeting NHL staff and players in the Edmonton and Calgary Pride parades through my capacity as co-lead for the YCP parade contingents. I’m also proud of the attention my research received back then; it was picked up by the media and by schools and hockey teams who were interested in learning more about what I do. It made me feel like my dedication to using my research and my voice to make my sport more safe and enjoyable for all who want to participate in was having an effect on the hockey community in some way.

 


Looking back, though, I’ve faced some tough realities in the past year as well. Notably, no NHL player has felt safe enough to come out despite all of the efforts of the NHL, YCP, and anyone else working to make hockey more inclusive. Additionally, my access to the NHL’s You Can Play club ambassadors  had a short timeframe and resulted in none of them coming forward to volunteer for an interview. I didn’t let that stop me, however, and I’m proud to announce that I’ll have study results about former NHL players’ attitudes towards the LGBT2Q+ community to share in the not-too-distant future. I have a couple other tricks up my sleeve, but they are pending ethical clearance from my University.

Hockey is for Everyone- 2018
I noticed two changes to HIFE month since last year that prompted me to do some digging on the history of the initiative and its objectives. It seemed clear to me that HIFE was strongly oriented towards the LGBT2Q+ community, but these two changes made me think further outside that box. Last year, HIFE month featured YCP nights that saw some teams incorporate Pride Tape into their games, the League sold t-shirts brandishing rainbow-themed logos, some teams made videos promoting inclusion, and all thirty teams throughout the League appointed a YCP club ambassador. The role of the club ambassador wasn’t really clear to me, but being a gender and sexuality hockey scholar, I was pretty jazzed about the whole thing because I figured they would make excellent interviewees. Who else would be in a position to discuss the lack of openly gay NHL players than the ambassadors of LGBT2Q+ inclusion in the League?

Bearing in mind my understanding of HIFE month, the following are the two changes for this year. They are subtle in nature, but they were enough for a nettlesome analyzing person like me to go looking for trouble and write a blog post. First, what was known as a YCP night last year is now known as a HIFE night. I’ve posted tweets below from the Oilers last year and YCP this year to show the difference. Second, what used to be called a YCP club ambassador in the NHL is now a HIFE team ambassador. I’ve posted screen shots below from present-day NHL.com compared to last year’s announcement. Note the emphasis on the LGBT2Q+ community in all of the images below.

 

Oilers 2017 YCP night tweets

2017: You Can Play Night

Yotes 2018 YCP night

2018: Hockey is for Everyone Night

 

What do these changes in wording mean? In the grand scheme of things, they’re relatively minor details, but it sounded to me like the NHL was attenuating its YCP connection and perhaps branching out to other forms of diversity as well, which would have been excellent. So why was there still so much focus on Pride? On NHL.com, the aim of HIFE is described as the following: “We support any teammate, coach or fan who brings heart, energy and passion to the rink. We believe all hockey programs – from professionals to youth organizations – should provide a safe, positive and inclusive environment for players and families regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, disability, sexual orientation and socio-economic status”. Evidently, then, the NHL seeks to include quite literally everyone in hockey, not just the LGBGTQ+ community. But there is very little evidence of that this year despite the change in terminology.

If nights dedicated to the LGBT2Q+ community were now known as HIFE nights, were there also nights in HIFE month dedicated to other identities, like racial and ethnic minorities? What about nights dedicated to diverse forms of the sport like parahockey? Or nights dedicated to girls’ and women’s hockey? If any of these nights exist in the context of this special month, the NHL has not been promoting them on the HIFE section of its website. Moreover, the only ambassadors listed are Willie O’Ree, the first black NHL player, and those formerly listed as YCP club ambassadors from last season. Are these individuals now general diversity ambassadors and not just LGBT2Q+ inclusion ambassadors? And if so, what is the role of YCP given that its focus is on gender and sexuality? In short, my concern is that the tunnel vision afforded to LGBTQ+ activism (and I include myself in this—its my priority too) has erased other important aspects of diversity and equality in sport.

What we know…
I started looking back at old Hockey in Society posts to see if I had missed something and then it hit me. One of the biggest sports stories of the year was how professional athletes approached racial inequality in America and there was absolutely no mention of that in any of the readily available plans for HIFE month…which also happens to be Black History month. I likely don’t need to elaborate on the Colin Kaepernick story and Take a Knee movement in protest of racism and police brutality against the black community. I will, however, remind you that it was addressed by NHL players such as J.T. Brown, Joel Ward, Jacob Trouba, Matt Hendricks, Josh Ho-Sang, Auston Matthews, P.K. Subban and David Backes (for a roundup of their commentary, click here). Of this list, Jacob Trouba and Matt Hendricks were the only 2017 YCP club ambassadors of the group and they both supported athlete activism.

The subject of racial inequality in/and hockey is not new to Hockey in Society. I located two important pieces on the subject, one of which assistant editor Courtney Szto wrote back in 2011 critiquing the HIFE initiative. Courtney asks important questions about how hockey can be for everyone when it was designed for specific people to begin with. For example, she notes that someone who identifies as Sikh and wears a patka wouldn’t have been able to properly wear a hockey helmet.

Upon reading about the patka, my mind wandered to another Sikh member of the hockey community who made waves this past year—Harnarayan Singh. Singh is a Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi commentator who made his English language debut in 2016. Over the past year, he continued to receive attention when he called a goal by Jujhar Khaira, one of the very few NHL players of Punjabi descent. He also interviewed Khaira on Sportsnet to discuss hockey in the South Asian community, among other things. This, to me, was a beautiful example of a celebration of diversity in the NHL and I haven’t heard it mentioned once in conjunction with HIFE month.

Courtney also pointed out in her post that, in 2011, HIFE web content featured a photo of Puerto-Rican/Asian American Olympic hockey player Julie Chu. It also featured P.K. Subban, Joel Wade, and Wayne Simmonds—all black NHL players. I will concede that NHL teams have made strides in terms of gender equality by partnering with Canadian and National Women’s Hockey League teams and the League appointed Kim Davis—a black woman—as its social impact person. The issue is that there is no longer any trace of anyone but Willie O’Ree aside from the HIFE ambassadors on the webpage. Where is that content today? This would be an excellent time to highlight it.

This brings me to the second important post I found in the Hockey in Society archives—also by Courtney—that answered my question about the current state of the HIFE initiative and its apparent lack of diversity. This post is from 2017 and its title speaks for itself: “This Just In: Hockey (and many of its fans) Still Racist.” This piece was motivated by public reaction to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ decision to accept President Donald Trump’s invitation to the White House upon having won the Stanley Cup that year. She offers substantial commentary on racial inequality, but I want to highlight her rejection of the broader argument that sports and politics don’t mix. She calls on athletes to use the platforms created by their visibility to effect political and social change. I agree with this; sports and politics go hand-in-hand.

The US women’s national hockey team’s decision to boycott the world championships in the name of gender equality was political. Athletes’ statements on Russia’s ‘gay propaganda’ laws before the 2014 Winter Games were political. Both athletes and the NHL have the right and the opportunity to promote diversity and equality and that means making clear that anyone and everyone should feel safe and welcome in ice hockey. Political (whether capital P or minuscule) decisions say a lot about an individual or organization’s values. Lately it appears that the NHL is trying hard to show that it values the LGBTQ2+ community, but ‘everyone’ else has been left behind. The worst part of this, for me, is that no one in the League has come out as openly gay regardless, so it’s easy to see this entire movement as futile at times. Why is this happening? What is the NHL’s goal at this point?

Getting to the point…
Now, hear me out: I’m stoked that there is such an emphasis on the inclusion of the LGBT2Q+ community in hockey. That’s my jam. I’m honoured to have participated in the Oilers’ YCP night and participate in Pride parades and I’ll fight that fight every time. I see the positive change in the hockey community. For every two issues with homophobia I see, there is always one glorious moment of progress. I may not like the ratio, but it’s not lost on me that ten or fifteen years ago, there was no room to even discuss the subject. Did you know that there was an openly gay male professional hockey player in Sweden who was purportedly murdered for being gay in 1995? Swedish hockey teams have only recently (circa 2015) begun to support queer rights and we now see that openly gay competitive hockey players such as Brock McGillis and Voight Demeester have had relatively, if not overwhelmingly, positive experiences coming out. I believe in this.

My issue is that NHL teams are hosting Pride nights (in the form of YCP nights) and not Hockey is for Everyone nights. These changes in wording make the aim of the movement incredibly obscure on the surface. As much as I want the LGBT2Q+ community to feel welcome in hockey, I want everyone to feel welcome in hockey. I really hope that the NHL is able to make that happen because it is a hockey powerhouse. These movements are an ongoing process and I do not allege that I know the best or right way to carry them out. If anything, I almost feel unappreciative given that the League has focused so much on the cause that’s nearest to my heart. But I do know that for what it’s worth, I want to use my tiny voice to remind the hockey community that everyone is important and there have been moments in the past year, at times difficult and at times heart warming, to prove it. Let us not lose sight of those moments in the fight for equality for those on the periphery.

_____________________________________________________________________

Here are two other relevant Hockey in Society posts and some of the pieces that came up in a Google search for ‘Hockey is for Everyone blog’.

Roundtable: P.K. Subban’s ‘third way’?
Hockey in Society: Exploring critical issues in hockey
Courtney Szto with guest writers Brett Pardy, Aaron Lakoff and Cheryl MacDonald

Make ‘hockey is for everyone’ for everyone
Contexts: Understanding people in their social worlds
Justin Maietta

Hockey is for Everyone—And everyone can make that happen
SB Nation: All About the Jersey
John Fischer

Hockey Is(n’t) For Everyone
SB Nation: Silver Seven
Beata Elliott

Why the Arizona Coyotes saying “Hockey is for Everyone” matters
SB Nation: Five for Howling
Sarah Hall

The Flyers response to ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ month has been very disappointing
SB Nation: Broad Street Hockey
Travis Hughes

DRUNK HOCKEY: Hockey is for Everyone?
Jillian Fisher: Sport Anthropologist

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