1-on-1 with Kim Davis: How the NHL plans to battle racism

The NHL's executive vice-president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs shared her thoughts on the racial turmoil in the world right now – and the league's specific plans to improve inclusivity in the near future.
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Photo by Jon Blacker

Photo by Jon Blacker

Racial turmoil around the world, fuelled to a rage by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, has spilled into pro sports, with athletes coming out and speaking their minds about prejudice on social media and some marching in protests.

So where does the NHL stand on the racism and inclusivity in hockey right now? And what plans does the NHL have to fight racism and change the way people of color are treated in the sport? Kim Davis, the NHL’s executive vice-president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs, spoke 1-on-1 with The Hockey News via video conference call to discuss a number of issues related to racism and inclusivity.

THE HOCKEY NEWS: With all the horrors we’ve witnessed in recent weeks and months, from the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others to additional violence at the protests across the continent, how are you coping with everything, as a black woman?

KIM DAVIS: It's exhausting on one hand, as I want to continue to be hopeful and optimistic about this moment being different than past moments. But I have to say, particularly over the past 24 hours, I have been encouraged. Because I’ve been getting emails and calls from different parts of our ecosystem, leaders and those that are in positions of power, to really do some things differently, giving really concrete suggestions of ways we can do things and move some of this work forward. So that’s really been very encouraging to me.

THN: Seeing the protests and the stories people of color are sharing about being victims of prejudice in their lives, are there memories of your own experiences that weigh on your mind right now?

DAVIS: I went to an all-female college for black women, Spelman College, in Atlanta, Georgia. If you go to Spelman, you just by nature are a social justice advocate. The theme and thesis around this school is about academic excellence and social justice. So I’m thinking back to my years at Spelman in the late 1970s, and this was work we were doing. And as I approach my 40th anniversary next year, I’m thinking and reflecting on the fact that so many of the things we were marching for 40 years ago, we’re still talking about. And that’s troubling, because the themes are the same, and it means we have so much work to do, not only in our country but in our world, to create stronger equity and equality.

THN: Speaking in a general world context, in your mind, what is the best solution to bring about change right now in terms of stopping racism? Is it protesting? Speech? Social media? Something else?

DAVIS: I think it’s all of it. It’s not one lever that needs to be pulled, and they have to be together, not sequential. That’s probably one of the issues: it has to be advocacy, it has to be allyship, it has to be action, it has to be policy – all of these things in concert is what’s going to make the difference. It has to be voting in the right people that represent our position at the local level, at the state level, at the national level. It’s all of the above in my opinion that will make a difference.

THN: The NHL has taken steps toward inclusivity in the past half decade with the Hockey is for Everyone campaign and the code of conduct introduced this past December. But is it possible what’s happening in the world right now is a watershed moment that accelerates the commitment and mobilizes the NHL to do more? A number of NHL players have come forward this week with social-media posts, and we’ve seen the likes of Tyler Seguin attending protests, but the players speaking out still comprise a small percentage of the total player population.

DAVIS: Even though it’s a small percentage, the fact is we have more than 110 players now that have used their social platforms to make a statement. That’s a big deal in our sport. And not everyone who understands that this moment is important is going to use their social platform, because they’re uncomfortable, and that’s OK. There are people that have been making action and taking steps in the right direction that don’t feel comfortable tweeting. And we have to leave room and space for everyone to express this moment in the way which is comfortable for them.

But to me, the fact we have more than 110 players doing this says that we need to capture this moment and accelerate our efforts to continue to hear the voices of our players and continue the dialogue of learning and educating ourselves about what we can do more of in our own sport.

THN: Are there any new plans in the works right now to increase the league's commitment to inclusivity, whether it’s events down the road when the NHL resumes play, or something more long-term like a committee or roundtable of players and representatives?

DAVIS: Well, it’s not new – it’s the work we talked about in December and the efforts that have been consistently under way over the past five months to execute against those efforts. We have now pulled together, and will be ready to announce in the next couple weeks, the formation of the Executive Inclusion Council. It will be made up of five owners, five presidents and two general managers. And those invitations have been accepted by these leaders.

That council is going to be supported by the voices of three constituent groups: a players’ committee that’s going to be made up of current and former players, including female players, that will bring voices to their particular issues; a youth advisory board that will bring voices to parents in the system as well as youth leaders; and a fan inclusion committee that will help us understand how to make our sport more welcoming from a fan perspective. So those committees will bring recommendations to this executive council for execution and accountability.

THN: Could you envision a world in which the NHL adopts its own version of the NFL's Rooney Rule for hiring practices among coaching and front-office positions?

DAVIS: My personal opinion is, I don’t think the Rooney Rule works. It’s not working for the NFL. And our particular situation in our sport is different, because we don’t necessarily currently have a pipeline of black and brown coaches within our system that we can point to. So our issues are more fundamental. How do we source and identify in the youth hockey system, as well as players who retire who want to be coaches – how do we create and formalize development programs and mentoring programs to create that pipeline of talent?

And very interestingly, we had a meeting this morning with (executive director) Michael Hirshfeld and (president) Lindsay Artkin from the NHL Coaches' Association. And we’re going to formalize a subcommittee of the Executive Inclusion Council that is going to focus exclusively on creating development pipelines and opportunities for coaches of color and officials of color. (NHL senior vice-president and director of officiating) Stephen Walkom was part of that call this morning). So we have some very definitive efforts underway to do something in this space.

THN: As a major pro sport executive and leader in the black community, you’re obviously someone many people look to for words of wisdom during times like these. Is that an honor or can it be a stressful role?

DAVIS: It’s a little of both, honestly. There’s a responsibility we all have as leaders to be courageous and to be bold, so I take that responsibility very seriously. I also think that when you’re one of a few and when you’re in a minority position in any particular environment, there is naturally going to be an expectation, frankly, that you bring the voice of masses and that you can represent that. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes it’s not. There’s no particular group that’s monolithic. My perspective is only going to be a perspective I can bring around the experience I’ve had, and there are some experiences that aren’t lived experience for me that black and brown people have experienced.

But what I will say is that, in any minority group, it doesn’t matter how successful you as an individual are. Until you see change for the entire group, you’re vulnerable. And I’ve been talking a lot about that this week. Living in two worlds, for me, this false world of material privilege and the real word, it's the constant world of understanding that if one is at risk, we’re all at risk.

THN: Particularly on #BlackoutTuesday this week, we saw a lot of debates on how people who aren’t minorities can help bring about change. Is it best to be vocal or get out of the way and ensure black voices get heard?

DAVIS: Allyship has a lot of different components to it. One component is doing your own research. As an ally, that means not just depending on your black and brown friends to educate you, but being intellectually curious yourself and going and doing research and understanding the historical context that brings us to this day. The second part of that is, talk to and check in with the white folks in your family, in your community, in your networks, who may be experiencing these events differently. Try to understand what their mental models are and make sure they’re checking their own privilege, as we all have to check the different ways we have privilege. Those are two distinctive ways I think allies can show up.

THN: Lastly, is there any message you want to share on behalf of the league, or yourself, to people hurting right now?

DAVIS: I’ve asked all of us to take the feelings we’ve had this week, the empathy, the compassion we have, and try to hold onto that. So, two weeks from now, two months from now, two years from now, that the same feeling that we’re experiencing now – that we keep the energy behind that and we move from emotion to action. Because that’s what’s going to make this moment different from previous moments.

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