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Racial Diversity in Hockey

Over one hundred years of NHL hockey, most of the same qualities of players come to my mind. Most fans would agree that good players are tall, strong and skilled, but the truth is hockey players are overly aggressive, foul mouthed, missing teeth, have huge beards and, most importantly, are white. Throughout its history, hockey has evolved from line brawls and sucker punches at random times to faster, more exciting games. But one thing has stayed the same: it has always been seen as a white man’s sport. It is unlike sports leagues such as the NBA or NFL, who used to be seen as white sports but have changed to be far more diverse leagues. But not the NHL — it has continued to be a predominantly white league. Currently in the NHL, 90 percent of players and officials are white, and 83 percent out of the whole league is white.

Being an Asian hockey fan, it is hard for me to connect with a lot of these players. Due to my race, I have always been looked at in games as a weird hockey fan. Unlike the common demographic, I am not a typical white man with a beard and a beer belly. Or some white kid with a sign, asking for a puck.

While the league can’t compare to the NBA or NFL in regards to diversity, genuine strides have been made to make the NHL more diverse. We have had the first African Canadien player, Willie O’ree, and even retired superstars Grant Fuhr, and PK Subban. Middle Eastern players, such as Nazem Kadri and Mika Zinbanejad, have also improved the diversity of the league. Even Asian players such as Nick Suzuki and the Robertson brothers have played in the NHL. It took forty years for the first black NHL player to come into the league. Willie O’ree, called the Jackie Robinson of hockey, started playing for the Boston Bruins in the 1950’s. He played from 1958 to 1979. Even though he was the first African Canadian player to debut in the NHL, and the first to score a goal, He has never won the greatest prize in hockey, the Stanley Cup. In fact, no African American or African Canadian player won the Stanley Cup until the 1980s.

The 80’s were a huge time for hockey. At this time, Wayne Gretzky was putting up a ridiculous 212 points in a season. The New York Islanders won four Stanley Cups in a row, being the last major sports franchise in North America to win four championships in a row. The Edmonton Oilers, led by Wayne Gretzky, won five Stanley Cups. The backbone of the team’s success, goalie Grant Fuhr, remains as arguably the best African Canadian player of all time. Fuhr paved the way for a new generation of black players. Despite his incredible achievements in hockey, many players don’t even know who Grant Fuhr is. I didn’t even know who Willie O’ree was until reading an article about him. Sadly, this precedent is common for many black NHL players. These players are trailblazers who come into the league, but as soon as they retire, they are forgotten.

Another factor of hockey is that many fans do not realize the racism that plagues its history. In an article by the Toronto Sun, author Steve Simmons declares, “Times change in hockey. The game gets faster, wiser, younger, more skilled, more diverse, less Neanderthal and more advanced. And yet, hatred and ignorance remain a considerable factor for hockey.”

Another article in the Toronto Sun says, “This is an NHL problem and it’s not an NHL problem. Really, it’s bigger than the NHL. This is a hockey problem, across the sport. This is a sporting problem. And yet, hockey seems to bring out the lowest common denominator.” From the 1970s, when racist fans at an AHL (American Hockey League) game, threw cotton balls on the ice because a black player was playing, or PK Subban, arguably the best African Canadian to ever play the game, getting called racist slurs while at a community skating rink. This blatant racism is a sad truth of hockey, making it one of the most racist sports. There has not been that much improvement to these problems. I personally think that this discrimination and lack of diversity is the biggest problem in the NHL. I love the sport of hockey, but I don’t want to watch games in a league that still has a problem with horrible racism.

Even though all of this racism is horrible and still continuing, it is not to say that the league is not improving. The league has gotten more diverse with the rise of players such as PK Subban and Jason Robertson. Muslim player Nazem Kadri won the Stanley cup last year, demonstrating a rise in diversity in the league. The NHL has definitely improved, but we are a far ways away from a sport free of racism. Despite all of the incidents, the NHL has become a much more diverse and inclusive League. All of Hockey has started to become aware of this huge problem, and has started to make a needed change. We should strive to stop racism in every part of our lives, but for now, we know that hockey is a white man’s sport no more.

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