For the Growth of the Game: Addressing Racial Discrimination in Hockey Recap

Co-written by Brett Pardy, Madison Danford, and Martine Dennie

On December 10th, the MacEwan University Office of Human Rights, Diversity and Equity held a virtual summit addressing racism in hockey. The event brought together people from academia, grass roots hockey organizations, the National Hockey Hockey League, and hockey media.

Speakers included

  • Harnaryan Singh, Play-by-Play Commentator, Hockey Night in Canada
  • Brian Blake, Senior Director, Diversity & Inclusion, NHL
  • Jeff Scott, Vice President, Community Development and Growth, NHL
  • Dr. Marvin Washington, Professor, University of Alberta School of Business
  • Keely Brown, In-House Legal, Oilers Entertainment Group
  • Lali Toor, Apna Hockey Creator
  • Devin Buffalo, Indigenous Sport Council of Alberta
  • Dr. Courtney Szto, Assistant Professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University
  • Moezine Hasham, Hockey 4 Youth Foundation
  • Erica Ayala, Firebird Media, NYC-based Podcaster & Sportswriter specializing in women’s hockey
  • Hunter Cardinal, Co-Founder and Director of Story at Naheyawin
  • Jacquelyn Cardinal, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Naheyawin
  • Irfan Chaudhry, Office of Human Rights, Diversity, and Equity, MacEwan University

Hockey in Society contributors, Madison Danford, Pretty Pardy, and Martine Dennie, attended the event and offer us what we learned, a brief overview of the sessions, and concluding thoughts.

Harnaryan Singh opened up the event with a personal story related to growing up in Canada. He gave credit to hockey for helping him forge friendships and, had it not been for hockey, he would have had a much more difficult time fitting in. But he quickly pointed out that there’s still lots of work to do. Singh also discussed the importance of getting name pronunciation right. He talking about having his name butchered in school, but still raising his hand and going along with this disrespect. NHL culture is pretty terrible at getting players names right — even many European players are pressured into North American pronunciations. Some announcers make passive aggressive comments when they are asked to change, such as, “Kiviranta, who we were calling Joel, but is now Yoel.” Two years ago, the Vancouver Canucks were asked to pronounce their new teammate Elias Pettersson’s name. Troy Stecher answered in a very Anglicized pronunciation and defensively shrugged his shoulders, “I’m Canadian.” Ben Hutton laughed while only saying “Petey.” Names are only hard to say if we make them strange. If hockey culture cannot adapt to something this simple, how can it be a welcoming environment?

The summit featured a panel of representatives from the National Hockey League. The panelists dropped many buzz words such as representation, having authentic conversations, and having systems in place to support BIPOC. These are strong words from a league who recently parted ways with the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA). (Note: The HDA separated from the NHL citing lack of commitment and action by the NHL as its reasons for cutting ties). We learned about the potential plans that the NHL is hoping to take to increase diversity, and create a welcoming environment for all within the hockey ecosystem. The session: Powerplay: “Movement, Not A Moment” featured Brian Blake (Senior Director, Diversity and Inclusion – NHL), and Jeff Scott (Vice President, Community Development and Growth – NHL), was moderated by Harnarayan Singh. Blake shared that the NHL is currently in the process of launching an organization-wide learning protocol that is aimed to roll out in 2021 for all members within the NHL. Additionally, they are working on a curriculum for players and coaches on diversity and inclusivity. Scott explained a couple steps the NHL is currently taking include a zero-tolerance policy, that would include any racist behaviour from anyone (players, coaches, staff, fans, etc.) within the NHL, at any time, will not be tolerated. Scott also talked about the launch of the “NHL Hotline,” which aims to give people who have experienced racism somewhere to turn. Scott shared this outlet has been a long time coming and that once the calls are made, real action will be implemented. However, it is important to note that hearing Blake and Scott discuss the (potential) initiatives and steps the NHL is hoping to take is simply the first step. Making committees, writing curriculum, and monitoring a hotline are strides in the right direction, but are far from a “breakaway.” Many of these plans are still works in progress. To this end, only time will tell if the NHL is serious about anti-racism and inclusion within the game.

In Dr. Marvin Washington’s keynote address, he discussed reasons why diversity is hard to achieve. One of the reasons he posited is that, as humans, we like to categorize ourselves based whether others are like us or not (in-groups versus out-groups). We tend to stay in our in-groups because it makes things such as communication easier because we look like each other and we share similar experiences. Simultaneously, it’s easy to categorize people with whom you do not share experiences with and ultimately easier to keep them in an out-group category. And, the small out-group will always feel excluded. In a sport that is 97% white, it is no wonder that BIPOC feel excluded.

In Dr. Courtney Szto’s keynote, she explained that racialized inequality is built around power, privilege, and access (further discussed in the Policy Paper for Anti-Racism in Hockey). Szto explained that power is the hardest to address. It refers to who has the power to make decisions and to make people feel included. Recruitment needs to be done outside the traditional pathways and the quality of representation also matters. As Szto said, we need to “hire radical BIPOC.” Furthermore, Szto emphasized that to end racism, it is not about putting a handful of minoritized people in power. Rather, there needs to be an environment where minoritized people will succeed. Change the environment, and you will change the people. Szto addressed that many anti-racism approaches to hockey focus on expense, which is valid, but is not the only reason racialized people often feel uncomfortable in hockey. She pointed to clubs for racialized people in affordable sports, like Black Girls Run, as examples of how access cannot be approached as an issue of class alone. Going back to the NHL’s presentation at the summit, where they made statements like “the process is very top down and bottom up” and “we need to meet in the middle to create this change,” makes one wonder how much addressing the environment is in their plan. The good news is it was clear most of the NHL’s plans are still in the committee stage. 

Similarly, in the panel on “Addressing Racial Discrimination in Hockey,” Erica Ayala discussed how to make an inclusive culture and pointed to the encouragement of people to speak. We need to give them a pathway to engage. Accordingly, rather than claiming representation and talking about having systems in place, the NHL needs to do what it preaches and create space and pathways for the HDA and BIPOC in hockey to succeed.

As stated earlier, only time will tell if the NHL’s claims of representation and anti-racism will translate into meaningful action.

If you registered, you can view the recorded For the Growth of the Game: Addressing Racial Discrimination in Hockey presentations here.

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