The NHL Has a Diversity Issue


Photo via NHL

Marc Goldstein, Editor in Chief

Simply by turning on an NHL game, regardless of the team or location, there is a stark reality that stretches farther than the play on the ice. With a few exceptions, pretty much every single player on the ice are caucaisian. While there are countless reasons for this, it is clear that the NHL has a diversity problem. It might not be one that is the most prevalent for many fans, analysts or executives, but it remains one that needs to be addressed. Hockey arguably has one of the largest global audiences as it reaches the massive audience in Canada, Europe and the Norwegian countries. However, in recent years, the NHL has seen viewership decrease while their NBA counterparts have seen increases during the same spans. Maybe, the market that is being missed by the NHL is the one that has finally been reached by the NBA: the Black and minority communities. 

The first step in any solution to this problem for the NHL would be to acknowledge the elephant in the room. The league itself has realistically not addressed the fact that they have by far the lowest percentage of Black players in any sport. A mere 0.009% of players, 26 total, in the NHL are Black. Out of those 26, only six of them are African American, creating a disturbing 0.0207% being American born. There are people, both within and on the outside looking in, that would look past these numbers. The old adage in the NHL is that hockey is “a white man’s game”. Similar to the way that tennis was seen as a “boys club” before the groundbreaking work done by Billie Jean King broke down any gender-based wall. 

The racial wall is something that has existed for as long as the sport has been around. Like the MLB, the NHL had their own version of the Negro Leagues, the Colored Hockey League (CHL). After the league dissolved in 1930, it was another 18 years before the NHL broke the color barrier when Larry Kwong joined the New York Rangers. Another decade passed before Willie O’Keefe became the first African American to play for the NHL. 

After joining the ranks, the league’s fanbases became the next obstacle for Black players. Fans would berate players with racial slurs, something that has continued to this day. In the past decade, there have been multiple incidents that have occurred that have involved Black players being mistreated by fans. Some of those include former Capitals player Joel Ward being subject to racist tweets after scoring a game winning goal against the Boston Bruins in the 2012 Playoffs. As recently as 2020, a massive story broke about Arizona Coyotes player Mitchell Miller bullying a Black classmate in part due to the racial differences. The plot thickens when it is revealed that the team knew of these red flags yet still chose to select him in the fourth round. 

These troubling statistics and stories do a lot of harm to the league’s public image. For the Black community, hockey has a similar stigma as, in some cases, Donald Trump. That is not saying anything in terms of politics, however, there is a stigma in the Black community regarding Trump and his ideals regarding Black people. In the past, Black viewership is down across the board because there is a belief that hockey is for white people and white people only. Clearly, that is not true, but upon turning on a game, there is only one race being represented for the most part. The inability to reach the Black community is troubling, especially as they represent a huge demographic that is vital for all sports to reach. In recent years, the MLB has made attempts to reintroduce the sport to the African American community, but the NHL has yet to make this effort. 

The question now becomes very vague and uncomfortable for some: how does the NHL market themselves to Black communities? The obvious answer is to get more Black players into the league, increasing the Black representation in any given game. There are countless answers for this from a marketing standpoint, but there is something to be said for actually addressing the racism in the league. Making sure to have a hard, firm stance on racial incidents would demonstrate a concerted effort on the part of the NHL to increase diversity.