Little-known fact about top 2016 draft prospect Auston Matthews: his nickname is ‘Papi.’ That’s because his mom was born in Mexico, before coming to Arizona, where Matthews was born and raised. And while Matthews appears to be a lock to go first overall next June, he could be dethroned by defenseman Jakob Chychrun, who hails from Florida originally. And when 2017 rolls around, NHL scouts will likely be keeping an eye on blueliner Max Gildon, a pure Texan. It’s been a long time since Montreal, Northern Ontario and the Prairies propped up hockey, but the diversification of the game is increasing at an incredible rate, and it’s not just in players coming from non-traditional markets in the United States. Top talent now hails from all different backgrounds and ethnicities, while the number of nations producing players is also growing. Simply put, the face of hockey is changing.
Oliver Kylington is a perfect example. The Calgary Flames prospect comes from Sweden, but his biracial family is made up of a Swedish dad and an Eritrean mom. Borje Kylington met his future wife on a plane when he was coming back from a vacation in Greece.
“I started to speak English with her because I didn’t know where she came from,” he said. “Then she said she was from Sundbyberg, outside of Stockholm, so I said, ‘OK, now we can talk in Swedish.’ We laughed.” Borje got her number and, months later, invited her to a Christmas party. That’s how the Kylington clan came together, and though the two have been divorced for nine years now, both were at the draft when their son was selected in the second round by Calgary. He was raised by both parents and is very aware of his African roots, having visited his war-torn homeland twice. “It is poor,” he said. “The people are suffering. The economy is not so good. They don’t have a lot of electricity.” But he also knows how great Eritrean culture can be. His mother’s family is large, and many of them live in Sweden, so holidays and birthdays are big deals featuring home cooking. When he is with his dad, he experiences Swedish culture, so there is a nice plurality. And though Kylington doesn’t fit the blonde, blue-eyed Scandinavian stereotype, he didn’t feel out of place in metropolitan Stockholm. “I grew up in a place with lots of people from other countries,” he said. “For me, it wasn’t a problem, I blend in very well. Maybe there have been some words, but not so much.” Actually, playing hockey is what exposed Kylington to prejudice, particularly when his teams would leave the big city. “In the countryside they don’t have as much experience with foreigners and other cultures,” Borje said. “When he was young, some guys on other teams would call him the ‘N’ word, and there was a big argument about that.” Kylington isn’t the first visible minority to come out of Sweden, but as immigration has become more ingrained in Europe, there will be more global products working their way up hockey’s ranks. Johnny Oduya, who just won his second Stanley Cup, is a Swede with Kenyan heritage. Ottawa’s Mika Zibanejad is Swedish with roots in Iran. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare just broke through with the Flyers and counts France as his homeland and the Caribbean island of Martinique in his roots. And Auguste Impose, a Swiss national with roots in the Congo, will join the Quebec Remparts next season. Similar results are coming in Canada as well. Thanks to a long-standing tradition of loving hockey, finding more players at the grassroots level is key to growth in a nation with a smaller population. Engaging new Canadians and second-generation citizens is one of the only tangible ways of doing that, and the results are coming. Peterborough Petes center Jonathan Ang was a first-round pick in the OHL draft and has been listed by NHL Central Scouting as one to watch in 2016. Cliff Pu, who went from Oshawa to London in the Michael McCarron trade, joined him in the first round. The New York Islanders also have a couple of elite prospects with multi-racial backgrounds in Josh Ho-Sang and Mitch Vande Sompel, while out west players such as Kevin Sundher (Buffalo) and Jujhar Khaira (Edmonton) represented the South Asian community of Surrey, B.C.
And these are not fluke occurrences. The First Shift is a program organized by Hockey Canada and Bauer Hockey that seeks to increase enrollment at the grassroots level and remove any intimidating roadblocks to the sport that families less familiar with the game may have. One recent initiative conducted by First Shift surveyed 875 Canadian parents from Ontario and Nova Scotia about perceived barriers, with 200 of those being Southeast Asian immigrants who had been in the country for more than a year. Meanwhile, the long-running Skillz Hockey program has put an emphasis on diversifying the game and has helped produce NHLers such as Wayne Simmonds and Chris Stewart, who now give back their efforts to the group. For a country with a low birthrate that not so long ago was beginning to worry about stagnating participation numbers in its favorite sport, Canada can feel good about finding multicultural talent, because the rivals from the south are catching up fast. While NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has often taken his lumps for expanding the league deep into the Sunbelt, seeing players such as Matthews and Chychrun at the top of prospect charts must feel pretty good. Because the pipeline is already open. Nashville’s Seth Jones played his formative hockey in Texas, and younger brother Caleb Jones, who was just taken by the Edmonton Oilers in the draft, is also a Lone Star State product. Caleb believes there is room to grow, but he’s also optimistic. “There aren’t too many high-end players in Texas,” he said. “There are a few in every age group. It’s tough because there’s high-end talent and then a big drop-off, not a lot of depth. But it has come a long way in the past 10 years. It’s starting to become a hockey hotbed.” The Dallas Stars deserve a lot of credit for their work in helping hockey bloom in Texas, but even states that have lost the NHL are beginning to catch on. Chase Pearson, the son of ex-NHLer Scott Pearson and a 2015 Detroit Red Wings pick, grew up in the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta, for example. “The hockey down there is getting a lot better,” Pearson said. “From when I started to when I finished, you could definitely see the strides it took. Kids are getting more interested down there, and it helps when more players come from there. It opens the game up.” In 1990-91, USA Hockey counted 11,287 players in the Pacific region and 4,462 in the Southeast. This year, the numbers were 45,537 and 46,643. One market that could really open the game up is China. With a population that tops one billion and a culture that has proven in the past that athletics can be made a priority, China will be part of hockey’s future. The fact Beijing was just named host of the 2022 Winter Olympics is huge, since the Chinese will want to put on a good show at the rink, much like they did when the same metropolis hosted the summer games in 2008. China won more gold medals at the summer games than any other nation, and while getting on the podium in men’s hockey will be impossible, there’s no way the hosts will just give up ahead of time. And, hey, the nation already has one NHL draft pick. When the New York Islanders selected defenseman Andong Song in the sixth round of the 2015 draft, a wave of shock and curiosity coursed through BB&T Center in Florida. Who is Andong Song? The NHL’s website didn’t even have stats for him, but he did have a Chinese camera crew following him around and a pretty great story for the assembled press to gobble up. Born and raised in Beijing, Song started playing hockey as a boy when his mother wanted her often-sick child to find a sport. Carving out a passion for the icy game wasn’t exactly easy, however. “Growing up, there were only two rinks in Beijing at the time,” Song said. “It wasn’t even a full NHL rink or anything. It was just sectioned off, parts of the ice, for skating. That’s how I started.” When he was 10, Song captained a Chinese team that came to Canada for a tournament and won the whole thing. That spurred him to move to the hockey-mad nation to take things to the next level. Song played for the Oakville Rangers program in the Toronto suburbs until he was 15, then decamped for Lawrenceville prep school in New Jersey, where the Islanders found him. A big fan of Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom, Song will play this season for Phillips-Andover prep school in Massachusetts (former stomping grounds of Chris Kreider, Cory Schneider and both George Bush presidents). He is currently looking into NCAA options for after that. Right now Song’s a trailblazer – the first-ever NHL draft pick born and raised in China – but he hopes to have a cavalry follow him. “When I started playing, there weren’t a lot of people playing or a lot of support,” he said. “But last year when I went back – it had been about eight years since I saw Chinese hockey – it’s tremendous how far they’ve grown. I’m sure they’ll try to catch up to North America, Europe and Russia. There’s still a gap, but if we focus we can definitely catch up.” Right now, the Chinese men’s team is 38th in the IIHF world rankings. The women are significantly better off, coming in at 16th.
Speaking of catching up, there’s one other area of diversity that hockey is actually a little behind on, despite its best efforts: of the four major North American sports, hockey is the only one yet to have a current or retired player publicly identify as gay. Baseball had Glenn Burke in the 1980s, Jason Collins played NBA minutes with Brooklyn as recently as in 2014, while numerous NFLers have come out after retiring (not to mention Michael Sam, who came out before he was drafted and also tried his luck in the CFL). Hockey? It has happened on the women’s side but not so much with the NHL. Which is strange, since many NHLers have openly supported having a gay teammate. Patrick Burke, the NHL’s director of player safety, is also co-founder of the You Can Play project, an organization that strives to foster a safe environment in all sports for LGBT athletes. “The hockey world has been wonderful with us since Day 1,” he said. “While our players may have some work to do with language, I believe our league is absolutely ready for an openly gay player.” Burke cites Andrew Ference, Tommy Wingels, Ben Scrivens and Henrik Lundqvist as examples of NHLers who have been very helpful to the cause, while many other stars, from Claude Giroux to Duncan Keith, have participated in PSAs for the group. As for why no NHL players have come out yet, Burke believes it’s more a hockey culture issue – the team is always more important than the individual and you never want to draw attention to yourself – than anything to do with fear of acceptance. “There are a lot of people who know ‘out’ retired players,” he said. “Those players just don’t want to do a newspaper article on it. I mean, we’ve had players criticized for high-fiving too exuberantly.” Simple odds and demographics tell you there are gay players in the NHL, but it’s up to them to skate their own path and tell their own story. Until that day, Burke will continue to work with straight players who often have curious and honest questions about homosexuals. And perhaps the sport will become more inclusive just from having a wider knowledge base. So don’t be surprised when an openly gay player hoists the Stanley Cup over his head, or the Hart Trophy winner hails from Scottsdale, Ariz. The face of hockey is changing, and the sport will get much more competitive as it does.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the September 14 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.