Lonely. That’s how Buffalo Sabres forward Wayne Simmonds has felt throughout his hockey career, from youth leagues in Scarborough, Ontario, all the way up to the NHL. Being the only Black player on his teams always caused a sense of isolation. No one understood what he was going through, how much the racial slurs and hate thrown his way hurt. Often, it wasn’t even addressed or white players didn’t know how to respond.
There’s no denying the lack of diversity within the league. Simmonds is one of 42 Black, Indigenous, players of color (BIPOC) currently listed on NHL rosters, a mere 5.7%. In comparison, the latest percentages for the NBA, NFL and MLB were 83.1%, 70.1% and 39.8%, respectively, according to report cards from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES).
Whenever J.T. Brown, a forward for the Minnesota Wild, volunteers at various programs to teach children how to skate, he’s always immediately asked the same question. “Do you play hockey? You play hockey?”
“[They're] just kind of questioning it because some kids don't really know that anybody of color plays hockey," Brown told Yahoo Sports.
The lack of minority representation in hockey isn’t just manifested in the NHL, it’s ingrained in every aspect and level of the sport.
Skates. Sticks. Pads. Rink time. Club fees. The costs associated with playing hockey are endless, and they add up quickly.
A survey conducted by Scotiabank and FlipGive of over a thousand Canadian and American hockey parents last fall found that nearly 60% pay more than $5,000 per year, 41% spend between $5,000 and $10,000 a year, and 16% spend over $10,000 a year for their kids to play the sport. And 90% of the parents surveyed said they were worried about the financial impact the cost of the sport was having on their families, though the data didn’t note their wealth or social class.
Per the same report, 35% of parents took on personal debt and 23% got a second job or worked overtime so their kids could play. The sport also comes with a major time commitment; 80% of the parents said they spend a weekly average of five hours or more at hockey-related activities, while 38% are at the rink for over eight hours each week.
With such a steep price of entry, hockey has traditionally been an affluent sport with an environment laced with exclusivity.
Is hockey for everyone?
As soon as Bryant McBride joined the NHL as the vice president of business development in 1993, becoming the highest-ranking minority executive in the history of the league, he was struck by the lack of women and people of color around the headquarters.
McBride soon approached commissioner Gary Bettman, and with his support, he launched the Diversity Task Force, now known as Hockey is for Everyone.
“I had to do something. It was important that if I wasn’t going to do it, who was?” McBride told Yahoo Sports. “So I stuck my neck out.”
One of his first efforts was tracking down Willie O’Ree, who became the NHL’s first Black player in 1958. With a shared goal of “breaking down barriers of access” in the sport, the duo teamed up to advance minority hockey programs, donate equipment and bring players of color together.
“The NHL was doing what they thought at the time was adequate, but it wasn't adequate enough,” said Eustace King, a prominent Black agent for some of the top players in the league. “Now we look back and we know they needed to put more resources, more money against it.”
One group that hasn’t seen the resources it needs to grow the game is the Baltimore Banners, a free hockey program for minority boys ages 13-18 in East Baltimore that places a huge emphasis on mentorship and life skills.
Antoine Green, a coach for the group, refers to his players as somewhat of a practice team. Due to the high price for rink time, they can only afford to have one or two 1-hour practices a week. The kids play local fire and police department teams, as well as adult leagues, given their lack of access and funds to join an official youth league.
None of the kids are previously exposed to hockey, but with donated equipment, free transportation and meals, the Banners help them develop a love of the game.
“You can see the talent, you can see the drive and you can see the willingness to play,” Green told Yahoo Sports. “We couldn't imagine if we could have some funding to actually be able to get these kids to where they can compete because they're gifted athletes. It's just they don't have the opportunity.”
However, when it comes to the root of hockey’s lack of diversity, the expenses commitment and accessibility are just the tipping points.
“It's more nuanced than [cost]. It's much more nuanced,” McBride said. “That’s not the elixir, that's not the silver bullet. It's making the sport more welcoming and inclusive and accepting, so that people feel welcome in that environment, be it a youth hockey rink or an NHL game.”
‘How could somebody say that to me?’
As soon as any minority players manage to get past hockey’s financial barrier, whether it be through a certain program or just having parents that can afford it, they’re forced to face a culture of racism and hate that’s plagued the sport since its start.
Brown, a native of Burnsville, Minnesota, distinctly remembers being called the N-word while playing in a youth league game when he was about 10 years old. Upset and unsure what to do, he skated back to his team’s bench, tears welling in his eyes.
“You have a range of emotions. Obviously, anger is one of them. Sad,” Brown told Yahoo Sports. “And you're just not quite sure. To me, as a young kid, you just think everybody should be treated the same, and when you're not it's kind of a shock.”
After being told what happened, Brown’s coach called referees over, but they wouldn’t do anything because they claimed they didn’t hear the slur themselves.
Furious, Brown’s coach took the entire team out of the arena and forfeited the game. Though the racist taunts continued during his youth hockey career, it was reassuring to know someone had his back in that moment.
“I don't know if I wouldn't have had the coaches, or if I weren't to have the support that I did, if I'd even be here at this point,” Brown said. “Maybe I would have eventually changed sports or gotten mad enough that I didn't want to deal with that anymore.”
Many players haven’t been as fortunate to say the same.
Though it was hard to fully process at the time, Simmonds remembers the first racial remark thrown his way. He was also 10 years old when a player told him, “Stick to basketball,” in the middle of a game.
At first, he was in disbelief. Are you kidding me? How could somebody say that to me? Thrown off and not sure how to process the remark, he attacked the kid. Simmonds was kicked out of the game and suspended, while nothing was even said to the other player.
Seeing that her son was clearly confused after the incident, Simmonds’ mom tried to explain to him that some kids were just ignorant and didn’t even know what they were saying; it was simply passed on by their parents.
“They just want to get you off your game, that’s all they’re trying to do,” she told him. “The best way for you to get back at someone like that is to go score a couple goals and win the game. By doing that, you make them feel like they’ve accomplished nothing and you haven’t let them defeat you.”
He’s followed that advice throughout his career. And though he does his best to mask it on the outside, it still stings.
“Obviously it does,” Simmonds told Yahoo Sports. “There's no way it can't.” Like when he had a banana peel thrown at him during a shootout of a preseason game in London, Ontario. Or when he was playing in the Czech Republic during the NHL lockout in 2012 and the crowd chanted the word monkey at him in the country’s native language. Even more hurtful was the fact that none of his teammates said anything to him.
Both Brown and Simmonds noted that every other minority player throughout the NHL has similar stories. Racial remarks and slurs from the likes of fans, parents and other players were common occurrences that came hand in hand with playing the sport they loved.
“There's no diversity in the NHL, so when something happens, sometimes it's like a disbelief … it's just turning a blind eye,” Simmonds said. “And that's the way hockey's always been. It's kind of like you're made to be somebody who is kind of, like you’ve got to stay in line. And if you step out of line, then you'll be dealt with.”
What is hockey’s pathway to change?
It’s been 62 years since O’Ree fought his way into the NHL. The next didn’t come until 1974. When McBride formed the Diversity Task Force, there were just three players of color in the league. The increase to 42 is progress, but not nearly enough. It’s not even close to what you’d expect at this point in time. The racial incidents are still happening at every level of the sport; they never stopped. Simply put, the culture of hockey still hasn’t changed.
After Akim Aliu shared his story last November of being called racial slurs by coach Bill Peters in the American Hockey League, several minority players in the NHL started a group chat. They had been upset about the lack of diversity in the league along with how incidents of racism were being handled, and it all festered to a tipping point.
Things slowed as the season picked up and everyone got busy, but the group planned to start working on a collective effort to combat such issues once the league finished play.
“Our voice isn't loud enough,” Simmonds, a member of the group, said. “So we just wanted to make something where we could Have a loud voice by representation and standing strong together, and trying to get the league to do things the right way, in which we saw.”
Once the country witnessed the brutal killing of George Floyd while in police custody on May 25, which forced many who weren’t aware or had long ignored issues of systemic racism to acknowledge it and have those tough conversations, the group knew it had to launch quickly to take advantage of the crucial moment in society. So they officially formed the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA).
“We want to make hockey a place where every single kid is confident and secure in themself going into a locker room, and they can be themself,” Simmonds said.
While many of the players have expressed disappointment and frustration with the league’s previous efforts surrounding diversity and racism, Kim Davis, the NHL's executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs, says it's been a priority since she was hired in 2017. Though she acknowledges the problems as well.
"There has been, in my opinion at least, as I've come into the league three years ago, always an interest and a willingness for change,” said Davis. “I think the pathway to change has been the issue, and the concreteness of that pathway has probably been the issue.”
Those discussions are now turning into specific plans of action from the league.
On Sept. 3, the NHL announced a series of initiatives aimed at combating racism and increasing diversity in the sport. Some of the highlights include required educational workshops “focused on anti-racism, unconscious bias, dimensions of identity, microaggressions and cultural competency,” more resources to create and fund youth hockey programs for minorities and numerous committees, among others.
“We can't fix the past, but we can do is totally disrupt the future and make sure that all these things that [players] have experienced, I've experienced, Willie O'Ree has experienced, are not going to happen moving forward,” King said. “Now, it's going to take time, because remember as quickly as we got here, it's going to take us two times as long to get out. But we're gonna have infrastructure in place to change it, and you're gonna have more people of color, it's just what it is.”
King makes a key point; diversifying the NHL will take time, and that can’t happen until the levels of play preceding it, from the minors to youth hockey, expand their palate as well. Even with a specific plan of action, a culture embedded in a sport doesn’t diminish overnight, over the course of a summer, or even in a matter of months. But now everyone is on notice, the momentum is there and the clock is ticking faster.