Only the Puck is Black

By: Clayton Dobry

Ohh you play hockey eh? When majority of individuals think of hockey, in the United States of America at least, they think of the stereotypical Tim Horton drinking, jean tuxedo wearing, and overly apologetic Canadian stereotype. While the stereotype may not be true this idea is reinforced because over 50% of players in the NHL are Canadian. When it comes to hockey, nationality seems to be a more prevalent topic as opposed to race. While over 50% of players in the NHL are Canadian, close to 95% of the players overall in the NHL are white. If you have ever switched the channel from the NFL or the NBA you notice this drastic racial change right away.

Why is race a widely discussed issue in other sports but not in hockey? Hockey in the past has been framed to be a racist sport primarily due to the excessive amount of racist remarks about hockey players. Framing involves both selection and salience. To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text. Framing promotes a problem and/or treatment recommendation for the item being described. Frames highlight some bits of information about an item that is the subject of a communication, evaluating them in salience. Frames call attention to some aspects of reality while obscuring other elements, which might lead audiences to have different reactions. While hockey has been framed to be a predominately white sport, and even been called a racist sport, I argue that framing hockey as a racist sport is simply a false accusation.

There have been a total of 52 black hockey players to play in the NHL league since 1958, since then there have been several incidents of racism within the NHL, all of which occurred by fans. These incidents have stemmed from both professionals in the league as well as fans. The most noteworthy incident of racism within the NHL, which promoted the portrayal of racism within the league, involved John Vanbiesbrouck after using a racial slur while discussing Dallas Stars defenseman Trevor Daley in 2003.The majority of racist incidents associated with the NHL been conducted by fans and have occurred over Twitter. One of the most widely covered incidents was a barrage of racist remarks directed toward Washington Capitals player Joel Ward after his overtime shootout goal, leading to the elimination of the Boston Bruins from the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Besides the various incidents of racism through twitter the most disturbing incident in recent years was when Philadelphia Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds, who is black, had a banana thrown at him from the stand in a shootout against the Detroit Red Wings. Incidents of racism trace back to the league’s first black enforcer, Val James. When covered by NPR the Val’s story was framed as if he was defenseless against these racist remarks. Throughout the story the incidents of racism it is the fans, not players or coaches within the league, which conduct such heinous acts of racism. Each of these examples leads to the portrayal that racism in hockey happens far too often. Each of these individual incidents has been covered by various media outlets such as the NHL network or Yahoo Sports, which consistently attract a large reader follower-ship and further promote the claim that hockey is a racist sport. While hockey is a predominately white sport, talent is what makes a professional sport enjoyable to watch. For hockey the talent pool just happens to be predominately white as a result of cultural as well as socioeconomic factors.

The NHL is fully aware that it is comprised of predominately white players. I guarantee that the NHL would love to have a plethora of ethnically diverse players and you want to know why, viewership. With the little ethnic diversity as it stands now the NHL only attracts a slim percentage of viewers in the United States. The Stanley Cup final in 2015 only received 5.6 million viewers, the Bachelorette which aired on ABC from 8-10 PM (the same time as the Stanley Cup Final) even received more views with 6.29 million. As a hockey fan this is more than shameful to say the least. If you think that that the NHL purposefully only wants white people to play in the NHL then you are simply a fool; do you truly think that the NHL wants to get less viewers than the poor excuse for a show that ABC calls the Bachelorette (no they do not). One of the main reasons that the NHL is primarily composed of white players is because a slim margin of players, just around 25%, actually originate from the United States of America. The rest of the players within the NHL originate from mostly eastern European countries such as the Czech Republic, Finland, Slovakia, Sweden, and especially Russia. All of these eastern European countries are less ethnically diverse than the United States making it even more difficult to diversify the ethnic population within the NHL. While it’s important for the NHL to incorporate individuals of varying ethnicities to engage with the NHL it does not mean that they should just for the sake of having the ethnic numbers, they need the talent to go along with it.

Even though racism still exists within the NHL that does not inherently make the league itself racist. Hard work, dedication, and a sprinkle of natural talent are the keys to success. The key difference between these four sports is the accessibility factor. For starters there is no excess of outdoor ice hockey rinks in the United States let alone indoor rinks in general, especially in the south, and when you consider low income areas there are even fewer. In addition to the limited accessibility ice hockey is one of the most expensive sports to get involved with. Between equipment and league costs the total price tag for this sport can near $1,000 or more per season.

While for various reasons the NHL remains to be a sport dominated by white players great strides are being made to diversify the league. The NHL has been actively promoting diversity since 1995 when it founded the Hockey is for Everyone program (HIFE). Hockey is for Everyone is the league’s official youth development program that provides support and unique programming to youth hockey organizations across North America that are committed to offering children of all backgrounds the opportunity to play hockey. The program provides each athlete with full equipment, ice time, USA hockey registration and a premier volunteer coaching staff at no charge to them or their families that. The HIFE initiative utilizes the sport of ice hockey as a catalyst to aid children in learning essential life skills, education, as well as core values such as commitment, perseverance, and teamwork. Over 200 young athletes per year have the opportunity to learn and play the sport of hockey thanks to the initiative of this great program. In addition in 2015 the NHL announced it’s partnering with RISE to combat racism. The NHL and RISE debuted a public service announcement featuring current and former players during the 2016 Winter Classic on various networks in order to promote understanding, respect, and equality within the sport of hockey. Jessica Berman, VP of special projects and corporate social responsibility for the NHL’s statement on the partnership was particularly powerful “We understand that professional sports can provide a powerful vehicle for social change, and we are proud to provide our platform to help increase awareness in the areas of diversity, inclusion and the importance of treating all people with respect.” While these initiatives alone will not solve the diversity problem it is certainly a step in the right direction.

When it comes to racial diversity hockey is clearly lagging behind all other professional sports, but that doesn’t inherently make the sport racist. The NHL consists of primarily white players because of the lack of access and popularity within the United States. In addition the NHL primarily recruits international players from countries where ice hockey is widely accessible. When taking these external factors into consideration it is abundantly clear that the NHL has no intentions on discriminating players purely based on the racial background. The NHL is making progress integrating players of varying racial backgrounds but the sport simply lacks the large talent pool to draw from.

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