Vulgar Opinions: Racial Demographics In The NHL
Sunday evening @langluy weighed in on the Donald Sterling controversy by saying that he’d probably be more comfortable in the NHL where a vast majority of the players are white. Predictably this set off a firestorm from people who don’t want to see racial uncomfortabilities lobbed at ‘their’ sport in any way even though the point was really only to illustrate a lack of people of color in hockey which is, you know, statistically supported.
I don’t think the NHL is racist, and I don’t think that Donald Sterling would be more comfortable in a sport that has prided itself on inclusivity. I don’t think Sterling would be very comfortable most places, but I do have an appreciation for making a point in the most inflammatory way possible, and in seeing through to the underlying issues and how they could potentially be fixed.
The above list includes 41 players of color from Black to Middle-Eastern to Asian to Indigenous descent (42 if you include Brandon Yip who only played in two games this season for Phoenix). If every team is dressing the same roster every night, 600 players are seeing the ice or bench during an NHL season. The actual number is usually between 800 and 900 which means that the NHL is at least 93.3% white, and more likely 95-95.5% white.
That is…not good.
Granted, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the NHL is racist, it just means that the NHL is made up of predominantly white players. Why does this happen?
A lot of it is because the countries that tend to contribute hockey players, Canada, the USA, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia, (and others) aren’t very diverse themselves. If you broke down the demographics of those countries and how many players they have in the NHL and created a new NHL based on those numbers, it would still be between 70% and 80% white, and worse if you also consider that the states and provinces contributing the most players from Canada (largely due to a lack of indigenous peoples) and the US are less diverse than those that contribute few or no players.
Some of it is probably a catch-22. Young Athletes of Color want to emulate other Athletes of Color, of which the NHL has very few, so they play other sports growing up. You can’t get Athletes of Color wanting to play without Athletes of Color currently playing and you can’t get Athletes of Color currently playing without Athletes of Color wanting to play.
Some of it is socio-economic. People of Color experience poverty at 1.5 to 2 times the rate as Whites in the United States. Hockey is very expensive to play, even at a pick-up level. Unlike football and soccer, where all you need is a ball and some space, and unlike basketball, which has a hoop in every park, the places and equipment to play hockey are often hard to come by. (Anyone that’s had to find two goalies for a pick-up game is probably nodding their head.) Actual leagues are significantly more expensive, and significantly more rare than their football, basketball, and soccer counterparts.
(And there is a current of systemic racism running through nearly everything, but that is not a problem exclusive to hockey.)
I’m not really sure what you can do about the first two and you make make a decent argument (or at least hope) that high profile players on good teams like P.K. Subban, and Jarome Iginla, analysts like Kevin Weekes, and lesser stars and young players like Joel Ward, Chris Stewart, Evander Kane, Seth Jones, Nazem Kadri, and Devin Setoguchi will provide the visibility in hockey that Athletes of Color need.
The third part is absolutely solvable, at least to a certain extent. If I were the NHL I would invest in a basketball hoop that has a hockey goal built into the bottom and put it in every park possible. I would also invest in non-ice alternatives to hockey, mainly inline and floor (on feet) hockey that are cheaper alternatives because they require both less equipment, and a less expensive to maintain place to play. A lot of making hockey more accessible to young Athletes of Color overlaps with making hockey accessible to people in southern states that lack naturally formed outdoor ice. What’s good for one is good for the other, and both can be very good for the league if addressed properly.
Again, outside of the inherent bias that is present in everything, I do not think the NHL is a racist league, or a haven for racists, or anything other than a league that happens to be very white. At the same time, I think the current demographics are an issue that the NHL should continue to improve upon (even if it is already doing so). A lack of diversity causes everyone to lose out.