The NHL’s Longest Game: Becoming More Diverse and Inclusive For Women and People of Color
Why this matters
The NHL, along with USA Hockey, is trying to make hockey more inclusive and diverse after decades of inactivity. Can the game change its ways and attract new fans beyond the same old demographics – or has the buzzer already sounded?
This is a dream assignment for Bill Proudman. He gets to indulge his love now – equity and inclusion – with hockey, the sport that fueled his development as a child and young adult. It’s a merger he thought would never happen.
As the co-founder of White Men as Full Diversity Partners (WMFDP), Proudman has a singular mission: convince White business executives that they – not the person of Color in charge of diversity initiatives – have to combat racism and sexism and homophobia at work. They have to do their share to overhaul unwelcoming cultures and build more equitable and inclusive organizations. And they cannot load that responsibility on the shoulders of people directly impacted by discrimination and bias.
Instead, Proudman, who was a hockey player at Pennsylvania State University in the 1970s, argues that “we all have to be part of it, and there’s some weight for you [White people] to carry,” says Brian Blake, the National Hockey League’s senior director of diversity and inclusion, who is Black.
Proudman has been bringing his message to NHL executives and employees as part of a broader series of anti-racism and inclusion initiatives that the league announced in September 2020. Spurred in part by activism from current and former players of Color, those initiatives mirrored similar promises and programs made across the sports world (and beyond) following the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing widespread demands for greater social justice.
For a league with a long and ongoing history of exclusion – not celebrating Black History Month until 2019; TNT announcer Paul Bissonnette’s claim that half of hockey’s female viewership is because they find the players attractive – the NHL’s efforts to evolve have transformative potential. Alongside similar efforts from USA Hockey, the national governing body for ice hockey in the United States, they could eventually make a traditionally White sport far more diverse.
So, how are things working out so far?
The answer depends on whom you ask. For Proudman, who has a cherubic face and the mein of the kindly uncle who at Thanksgiving wants to hear what you’ve been up to right now, it’s the “hardest work I’ve ever done.”
Society, he says, has done “an amazingly, unfortunate good job” of creating fear and anxiety about the “other.” For some hockey fans, that is a curdled form of identity. Sure, Proudman heard the territorial inklings among some fans that hockey is a “White man’s sport,” but in the past 10 years, someone finally said that to his face.
Embracing the Vision
It’s doubtful Proudman, who co-founded WMFDP in 1997, has heard that about laundry detergent or laptops. For years, he has brought his inclusive approach to a gaggle of immense companies, including Lockheed Martin, Dell, and P&G.
His fate was sealed in 1987, when he was introduced to the diversity and group identity workshops of Harrison Simms, a Black man. Proudman, who was set to serve as Simms’ apprentice before Simms died suddenly in 1990, entered the world of diversity training, and noticed an appalling trend: White men got a pass on diversity and inclusion. Instead, a non-White person, regardless of their training, was tasked with solving the problem because of their race or gender.
WMFDP doesn’t pretend to have answers but holds “a mirror up for our clients,” Proudman told me this spring. How we think and behave, he explains, are connected. So Proudman helps clients become “conscious and confident about the behaviors that are needed and are valued” in today’s workplace. It’s good for employees and good for business.
Overhauling culture cannot be accomplished with a two-hour lecture, a bathroom break, and a stack of dittos. Now that he’s working with the NHL, however, Proudman wants to make one thing clear: The lessons he’s instilling must be part of its everyday culture. It’s not for show. Proudman describes his intensive, days-long sessions with league employees as “immersion learning experiences.” What is that exactly? That’s hard to say. My request to attend a session as a journalist was declined by WMFDP, which cited clients’ privacy.
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Blake did describe one virtual exercise called “Fishbowl,” where members of an identity group read statements about the advantages they enjoy and obstacles they get to avoid. Blake uses male privilege as an example. After the men have their discussion, they turn off their cameras. Those for whom male privilege doesn’t apply stay on camera to discuss their reactions. Then the men turn their cameras back on and join the group to discuss the previous conversation’s impact and what they’ve learned.
“You almost forget that the people are there and you’re having this really deep conversation,” Blake says of the empathy-building exercise.
Kim Davis, a Black woman and the NHL’s senior executive vice president for social impact, growth initiatives, and legislative affairs, says what Proudman does in his sessions isn’t original. But a White man discussing the value of diversity and inclusion is “far more powerful and effective than if Brian or I stand in front of a room and say that,” Davis says. She prefers to use “our lived experiences as examples or moments” not as “a teachable moment.”
She adds, “Frankly, it gets exhausting sometimes.”
What Proudman does, Blake says, is “lay some foundational work” and “to provoke and to push conversation.” This involves discussions of the various types of privilege and the concept of “conscious incompetence.” In Proudman’s work, that means holding ignorant beliefs about a group and realizing they need to be corrected. It can be humiliating, but it’s “best to stay in that discomfort,” he says, “because that’s where the learning happens.” Davis has seen her colleagues, notably longtime NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, do that – and more. “He says we have to create a welcoming, safe, and inclusive environment, so that it becomes part of the DNA of how our business operates,” she says. “I’ve got to tell you: That was not his language, even two years ago.”
Under Bettman’s watch, the league is creating “a systems-wide strategic approach that goes beyond just the NHL,” Davis said via email when asked to explain actions Bettman has taken. The NHL is hockey’s “North Star,” she added, so it must “provide leadership, prevention and training tools, and skill building for every part of the ecosystem.”
Change is underway, Davis assured me, but it takes time. For one thing, NHL teams don’t follow the same protocol as the league office. They are responsible for their staff’s DEI training; Blake says 24 teams have engaged “or are about to engage a third party” in training. This season, an “immersive experience” will start in the locker rooms of all 32 teams. Playing schedules make it impossible to get every team done in a year. The goal, Davis says, is to make the training “continuous and iterative” so it can be woven into “all the places where we touch players.”
Again, it’s a long game. “Changing culture is not an event,” Proudman says. “It’s a three- to 10-year process that has a lot of bumps, and you’ve got to start with people’s mindset and recognize that things are not the way that they seem. The game that everybody loves could be so much more to a broader audience.”
Confronting the Reality
Jashvina Shah, co-author of the acclaimed book, Game Misconduct: Hockey’s Toxic Culture and How to Fix It, feels the NHL and USA Hockey’s DEI programs are for show. “Nothing’s changing,” she says. (It is one of her kinder comments.) That sentiment might be best felt in USA Hockey. Shah points to USA Hockey’s 2018 hiring of John Vanbiesbrouck as its assistant executive director of hockey operations.
As recounted in Shah’s and Evan Moore’s book, in 2003, Vanbiesbrouck, the former New York Rangers goalie, resigned after he called player Trevor Daley the N-word at least twice when he was coach and director of hockey operations for the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He also sold his ownership stake in the club.
I asked Stephanie Jackson, director of diversity and inclusion at USA Hockey, how Vanbiesbrouck’s presence aligns with USA Hockey’s DEI strategy. She declined to answer but advised me to email that question to Pat Kelleher, USA Hockey’s executive director. I did. A day later, Dave Fischer, senior director of communications, at USA Hockey, called to address – or, more accurately, dismiss – my question. Our on-background conversation ended with me inviting USA Hockey to make an official statement regarding Vanbiesbrouck, which I repeated via email a few days later. I’m still waiting.
“Even after repeated call-outs, USA Hockey still has never done anything about it,” Shah says. “They’re just sticking to it, and they’re putting him in a front-facing position, and they’re letting him work with younger players.”
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Proudman stresses patience, comparing DEI initiatives at USA Hockey and the NHL to hockey’s enhanced safety measures and its departure from violence as part of its ethos. New information on health emerged, and over time, he says, the game adapted and even improved.
Existing hockey fans of Color aren’t so optimistic.
“To me, the diversity (and) inclusion initiatives start at ground level with little kids,” says Taylor Allen, a Black woman and longtime NHL fan from Atlanta. “It doesn’t make me super excited when I hear about the press releases and the initiatives. I want to see ice rinks being built where there’s no ice rinks or you have to drive an hour and a half to the nearest ice rink, which is what I would have to do.”
The paucity of athletes of Color in the league doesn’t help either. “Most activism and most anti-racism efforts in sports are driven primarily by POC players, and hockey still doesn’t really have that as a significant population that can drive change,” says Christian Collins, a Black hockey fan who lives in Washington, D.C.
With the increase of non-White players in elite youth hockey programs, Davis expects more NHL players of Color in the next decade. In 2021-22, the league had 55 players who identified as Asian, Black, Latino, Middle Eastern, and/or Indigenous, an all-time high. But Collins, feels the NHL has “given up attracting (people of Color) fans” since its season runs parallel to the NBA’s, which has a massive Black fanbase.
Allen says hockey must reach out to areas where BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) people live, even if it’s not profitable for the sport and its corporate partners. That’s how you get different demographics, she says, instead of plucking non-white players from the usual feeder systems – e.g. high schools with hockey programs.
”You have to go into it immediately knowing it’s not going to yield results,” she says. “You have to put the groundwork down. Maybe you have to reshape it. Maybe you have to knock it down and rebuild it a couple of times.”
Davis says the strategy doesn’t address what the NHL wants to accomplish.
“Solving for systemic racism requires a different approach than solving for cultural availability,” she explained via email. “Offering access/opportunity to those who cannot afford [it] while bringing them into a non-inclusive environment will not solve systemic racism; and if you think the business of hockey is systematically racist (as many suggest), then funding needs to hit internal change management/culture programs, not only grassroots hockey programs and fandom growth strategies for the significant affluent BIPOC population that can afford the sport TODAY.”
When the NHL released its anti-racism and inclusion efforts in September 2020, the league promised to partner with the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) on a grassroots program for young hockey players of Color. The collaboration ended before it began.
As Alex Prewitt of Sports Illustrated reported last year, the partnership was announced without much contact between the HDA and the NHL, and program details never came out.
“We had every hope of partnering with the HDA in the early days of their formation, particularly as our NHL Councils and Committees were launched – unfortunately that never transpired,” Davis said via email. The door isn’t closed: “We continue to leave room for partnership and collaboration,” she added. (The HDA and its chairman, Akim Aliu, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Over the past two years, Davis added, the NHL, in partnership with the players association’s “Growth Fund,” has contributed “over $10 million in financial investments toward combating systemic issues, culture change, and fandom growth and development.”
Collins is just happy to see the NHL highlight inclusion. It means the longtime Columbus Blue Jackets fan isn’t totally ignored.
Then again, he says, “My expectations were not very high.”
Where the Money Is
Bumps in the road don’t change the destination. Inclusion is where the fans (and their money) are. Women, Davis says, citing the league’s fan analytics, make up 40 percent of the NHL’s fanbase; BIPOC fans make up 25 percent.
“We can no longer look at the involvement of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ and disabled and marginalized groups as just charitable,” she says. “These are the markets and the fans of the future.” About a quarter of the NHL’s 32 clubs, she believes, understand this because they’re in markets where “demographics have significantly shifted.” As for the stragglers, Davis says, they have “long-term seasonal commitments” or are in markets where “the demographic imperative isn’t readily apparent.”
In other words, the money is still coming in and the audience is still there, so there’s no incentive to change course.
Contented organizations are in for a reckoning. “That kind of thinking I saw in investment banking 20 years ago,” Davis says. “When you don’t look around the corner, the corner comes up on you real fast.” Badgering teams to get current isn’t the way, she says. Competition is. Data and evidence showing how inclusion will grow and benefit the sport are.
Regarding some of the NHL clubs that have fallen behind on the executive DEI training, Davis isn’t worried. She deems the participation “extraordinary” after two seasons disrupted by COVID-19. The NHL’s initial D&I impact report was released in early October. The desire of franchises not to lag behind, Davis predicts, will fuel complete participation.
Clubs were encouraged to hire people with DEI experience, Davis says. Fourteen teams, Blake reported in late September, have created senior-level DEI positions. It’s all part of a “bigger movement” Davis says that she and Blake are building.
Later, via email, I asked Davis and Blake how many team executives care about DEI beyond it being good for business.
“LOTS,” Davis replied.
Implementing the league’s anti-racism and inclusion program excites her. Teams are like any other business owners: they know what’s good for them. For USA Hockey’s Jackson, some days go well; other days, it’s like being stuck at a stop light. Enlightening 1.2 million members is a challenge, says Jackson, who notes “there’s no one recipe of change” and that the organization is “figuring things out literally as our communities change and as our world changes.”
Mistakes are inevitable, she says, but they’re nothing to hide from: “We want to make sure that we understand that we’re learning, and we want other people to know that we’re learning, too.”
Proudman likes what he’s seen so far from USA Hockey and the NHL, but “there’s enormous work” left – and it will never end. “Until leaders understand their own sort of behavior and their mindset,” he says of all businesses, “they can change the policies all they want and that will fail because at the core of that is still the old mind-set.” There’s a risk people will feel isolated, but not taking a stand won’t cut it, Proudman says. Neither will doing something because it’s required.
There’s a risk people will feel isolated, but not taking a stand won’t cut it, Proudman says. Neither will doing something because it’s required.
Time can’t push hockey along, Jackson says, because there’s no guarantee that there will be a lesson to pass on to the next generation to further drive change.
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