Analysis: NHL has place to start with demographic study
“We are where we expected to be, but now we have the facts to back it up,” Davis said.
The data backed up the expectations: nearly 84% of employees across the league and its 32 teams are white, and nearly 62% are men. The 24-page report presented to the Board of Governors — the biggest topic discussed at their annual fall meeting — also shows the NHL’s path forward.
The NHL has received plenty of criticism for being slow in the diversity department. Now, with an independent race and gender report card on the way and a baseline set, observers expect to see signs of progress, which could potentially help hockey grow revenue beyond the record $5.4 billion from last season if the growth into some underserved communities happens according to plan.
“If the NHL is able to diversify its workforce and audience, then it can ensure that the league will survive and thrive,” said Mikah Thompson, an associate dean at the University of Missouri-Kansas City law school and an expert on racial diversity issues.
“While pursuing diversity and inclusion is the right thing to do, it is also good for the league’s bottom line,” Thompson added. “A more diverse NHL workforce, including more diversity among its player ranks, will result in greater interest in the sport. The NHL’s fan base will grow once diverse people see themselves represented in the league.”
Representation, Davis said, is key at all levels, not just players, coaches and hockey operations executives. There has been progress in the front office with San Jose making Mike Grier the first Black general manager and six women being named assistant GMs.
But it’s not as easy as recruiting people of color. While the NFL and NBA, in particular, have established a pipeline of talent in nonwhite communities, the NHL is still building one.
“It’s a case of improving our brand with those communities, making sure that there is a sense of welcoming across all dimensions — not just coming in and working, but how people feel in the stadium and what our youth numbers look like,” said Davis, the NHL’s executive vice president of social impact, growth and legislative affairs. “All of those are factors that play into this overarching way that we guide the movement of our sport.”
It could take decades, perhaps a generation or more, before there’s a significant, visible evidence of real diversification in hockey. That’s why Davis said the NHL plans to conduct demographic surveys every two years to chart progress.
It’s also submitting the data to the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, which will produce an NHL racial and gender report card for the first time. The NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball have each taken part for at least a decade.
Not everyone is sold on NHL’s internal report.
Former player Akim Aliu, who was born in Nigeria and whose revelation that a coach used racist language toward him in the minors fast-tracked some diversity projects in 2019, said he and members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance have already been engaging with young people of color for years in the ways the NHL hopes to grows the game.
“No one holds them accountable,” Aliu said. “Until we are all successful and progressing, none of us are.”
Ketra Armstrong, director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Race & Ethnicity in Sport, agreed with Aliu and others who have called much of the NHL’s work to this point largely performative. However, she said she thinks the league’s focus on seven topics — leadership, education, employment, marketing, partnerships, participation and community engagement — has the opportunity to create real change.
“All of these things will tell a comprehensive message that this league is sincere and authentic in their efforts to become more diverse and more culturally inclusive,” Armstrong said. “And it takes a lot of those kinds of things.”
Like Armstrong, Thompson said there should be optimism about hockey becoming more diverse, and they agree the demographic study is a strong first step that shows real intent. Armstrong suggested the NHL “celebrate the small wins along the way,” too, because of how long the process could be.
“You have to put in the effort and the energy and the patience,” she said. “Oftentimes, people are trying to undo years and years of injustice and exclusion and modernization with one or two special programs. They have to be in it for the long haul.”