For the past several years, the NHL has made an effort to attract a new, diverse fan base with one lofty promise: Hockey is for everyone.
The slogan started as a unity building initiative each February but is now supposed to be a year-round guiding principle for the league. But too often it’s been only a slogan and the league’s actions run contradictory to the message of inclusion.
There was, for instance, the decision to have Kid Rock play the 2018 NHL All-Star Game, or to suspend Anaheim Ducks forward Ryan Getzlaf for only one game after he used a gay slur on the ice. There’s also the fact that the NHL is still trying to determine if former Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov, who has been convicted of domestic abuse, can return to the league.
The NHL has faced scrutiny for these decisions, undercutting the message that hockey is a safe and welcoming space for all. Kim Davis, who was named the NHL’s Executive Vice President for Social Impact, Growth Initiatives & Legislative Affairs in late 2017, hears the critics.
“I think that the league will make the same kind of mistakes that every other sport organization makes and that is probably making decisions about things without everybody having a voice in that decision making,” Davis said when asked about the choice to have Kid Rock, who has used homophobic language in the past and regularly performed in front of a Confederate flag, as All-Star entertainment in Tampa Bay.
“We know well that the way that you’re able to make more informed decisions is to have those voices around the table. And so if you don’t, you may miss the opportunity for someone to say, ‘ Maybe that’s not such a good idea.’ I think that we know that wasn’t one of our finest moments, but you learn from that and you keep going.”
That’s a candid admission from Davis who, over the last 14 months, has taken on the mandate to help make the game and the league more welcoming to all fans and players.
But Davis is still figuring out how exactly to go about changing a long-established culture. The NHL has always been a predominantly white sport, and despite recent increases in player diversity (there are now 27 black players, plus players of Hispanic, Asian and Indigenous descent) the sport tends to favor a strict, homogenous culture that can be alienating for outsiders.
As demographics shift across North America, the league is more aware than ever that opening hockey up to new audiences is going to be vital to maintaining the relevancy and popularity of the league.
Davis says that in the past the league hasn’t pushed forward its agenda in an intentional and authentic way, but instead tried to run the diversity and inclusion programs “in the normal course of business,” which wasn’t always successful. Reaching out to minorities, in other words, can’t be seen as another daily goal that may or may not be met. And slogans or theme months aren’t enough. Teams must take specific steps to make the work happen.
“You’re not going to get a lot of growth traction if you just focus on the flavor of the month with different audiences,” Davis acknowledged. “You have to integrate and curate messages that are culturally relevant throughout the year.”
In addition to its Black History Month programs, the league also has plans to focus on gender equality, LGBTQ visibility and the Hispanic and Indigenous communities in subsequent months.
The overall goal is to bring a more holistic attitude towards diversity and inclusion to all levels of the NHL, starting with team and league officials and going all the way down to individual players.
Davis knows that the work is going to be difficult and must start with acknowledging where they need to improve.
In the short term, that means more meaningful engagement from NHL players, who previously have only been asked to appear in short videos or take on largely ceremonial roles as Hockey is for Everyone ambassadors.
“[The role] has been something that has been going on for the past couple of years, but this year, we were much more intentional about training them on what we wanted their role to be, so that they just weren’t wrapping Pride Tape and thinking that was enough and that was the end of their role,” Davis said.
The players, she said, were told that more would be expected of them.
“They are really intended to be champions of change and to be spokespeople. They have to be authentic about the way they talk about this and to really be advocates.”
Davis points to a recent meeting between a fan group called Black Girls Hockey and the Washington Capitals as an example of how players can truly make a difference. The group of about 50 fans assembled to create a safe space for those that loved the sport but didn’t necessarily feel welcome within the hockey community. After reaching out to Davis the group met with Capitals players and coaches, attended a game and engaged in a robust dialogue about issues of race and inclusion.
Everyone, Davis said, walked away more empowered.
It was especially meaningful that the work of reaching out to a minority group did not, as it too often does, fall solely on minority players. Davis said she has made it clear to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman that real change can only happen with buy-in throughout the league.
“It’s a conversation that I frankly have had with the commissioner about everyone owning diversity and inclusion,” Davis said. “It’s much more powerful when white guys in positions of power are actually the champions as opposed to putting people of color in the forefront. “
Davis knows successful black players like P.K. Subban or Devante Smith-Pelly may attract new fans, but the league must go further than that.
“I am a firm believer that champions have to be those that are in positions of power, which are typically white males,” she said.
Davis also has championed changing hockey’s culture at the grass-roots level.
“The league may be seen as the North Star across the hockey community, but if we don’t use the power and influence we have to actually make change at all the levels of the sport we are only going to be doing Pride Tape,” Davis said.
That shift starts with addressing cultural issues at the earliest levels of play. For years, the NHL has worked to remove economic and infrastructure barrier with programs like Future Goals and Learn to Play that help bridge the gap between kids and access to equipment and ice time. Both serve disenfranchised communities and have been wildly popular at introducing the sport to new fans. But it’s a third barrier, the cultural one, that has proven more difficult to solve.
To stem attrition of diverse talent out of the sport, the NHL is working with USA Hockey and Hockey Canada on c ultural competency programs for coaches, volunteers and board members.
” We have to make sure that the sport is seen as welcoming and this education of coaches and volunteers is critical because these are some of the places where kids are becoming discouraged and dropping out of our sport,” Davis said.
The goal is to begin a new dialogue about racial tolerance, homophobia, slurs against women and much more with younger players.
“We want to root out some of the things that we know sit at the core of why hockey isn’t, necessarily, for everyone. Because we have not created the environment and the culture to really substantiate that,” she said.
Davis hopes, most of all, that fans will appreciate that the league is sincere in its effort to make the sport more welcoming for everyone.
“I’m not easily daunted,” Davis said. “I understand and have experienced the kind of time required for this kind of change and effort. These things didn’t happen overnight and they aren’t going to be solved overnight…we just have to keep growing in the right direction.”