How the NHL Celebrates Black History Month During a Pandemic

We won't see the Black Hockey History Tour driving from town to town this year. Instead, the NHL is rolling out a four-pillar series of content profiling black contributions to the sport.
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The NHL’s Black Hockey History Tour was quite the sight. It cruised from city to city in trailer form, loaded with memorabilia celebrating contributions to the sport from Black people. The league customized it depending on which city it visited. When it arrived in St. Louis for the 2020 all-star weekend, for instance, it featured ex-Blues Grant Fuhr, Jamal Mayers and Ryan Reaves. Conceived by Kim Davis, the NHL’s senior executive vice-president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs, and co-curated Kwame Mason, director of the documentary Soul on Ice, the tour represented a step forward in the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone campaign. It was putting Black hockey history on the map in a tangible and interesting way.

But something terrible bubbled in the background last winter while the tour’s popularity was peaking. Reports of a deadly virus had begun trickling into North America after weeks of stories about its impact overseas. The COVID-19 pandemic was just starting to seize the world. Now, a year later, it has arguably changed life as we know it more than any event since the Second World War.

The pandemic forced the NHL to temporarily cancel the Black Hockey History Tour just as it was picking up significant year-to-year momentum – and just as the hockey world has begun waking up to racial injustice in unprecedented ways. In the past 15 months, we’ve seen the birth of the NHL’s code of conduct; the creation of the Hockey Diversity Alliance; protests before games from the likes of Matt Dumba, Ryan Reaves, Tyler Seguin, Robin Lehner and Jason Dickinson; a league-wide walkout during the Stanley Cup playoffs to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisc.; the creation of the NHL’s Executive Inclusion Council; Black Girl Hockey Club launching the #GetUncomfortable campaign; and much more. There’s still a long, long way to go to achieve racial equality in the sport, and the NHL has mixed in plenty of tonal missteps along with the progress, but it’s undeniable that the game is in a different place now than it was even a couple years ago.

“A lot of people like to say that sports and politics have nothing to do with each other, but sports, politics, it’s life,” Mason said. “If you have human beings playing the game of hockey, then whatever happens with humans is going to affect the game in one way, shape or form. And with COVID, and what was going on in the last four years in American politics, and this reckoning that’s going on right now, it’s bound to make its way into the game of hockey. So we’re in a position right now where our conversations have to be smart, positive, inspirational and move the needle forward, not backwards. “

So how does the game keep the progress moving forward with COVID-19 disrupting Black History Month? The NHL had to think of ways to get the word out about Black hockey history – remotely.

“We’ve all had to adjust in this virtual environment, but the good news is that it has bubbled up some creativity in the way in which we are storytelling around Black History Month that I think is really, really exciting,” Davis said.

So what initiatives is the NHL offering for anyone looking to educate themselves on the hockey side of Black History Month? The plan is to spread the celebration into four pillars across the four weeks this month, Davis explains.

Week 1 is a look into the past of Black hockey history. It includes a unique retrospective on Grant Fuhr and Wayne Simmonds, the only two Black players to be named MVP of the All-Star Game; ‘The Big Men,’ a special edition of Mason’s Soul on Ice Podcast featuring towering ex-enforcers Peter Worrell and Darren Banks; and a first-person story from Alton White, the second Black player in pro hockey after Willie O’Ree and the first in the World Hockey Association.

Week 2 will focus on Black women in hockey. It includes a long-form video on Angela James, the first Black woman inducted into the Hall of Fame as part of the first Hall class of women along with Cammi Granato and Geraldine Heaney.

“Everybody should know about Angela James, but they don’t,” Mason said. “Women’s hockey is at the forefront of people’s (minds) right now. And that’s one person that, if we’re going to discuss Black hockey history, she should really be a part of it.”

A group of prominent Black women in hockey will take over The Soul on Ice Podcast as well, including PWHPA forward Sarah Nurse, Los Angeles Kings scout Blake Bolden and OHL scout Kiana Scott. The NHL will also feature a first-person account from Nurse and a story on Black women rising up the ranks playing NCAA Div. I.

Week 3 will feature moments and highlights. We’ll get a long-form retrospective on Jarome Iginla’s soon-to-be-Hall-of-Fame career; a special Soul on Ice Podcast chronicling the 2000-01 Edmonton Oilers, who had five Black players; and a first-person account from Tony McKegney on being the first Black player to record a 40-goal season in the NHL.

Week 4 will be devoted to the future of the Black hockey community. The NHL will feature three members of the L.A. Kings making special contributions to the game on and off the ice: Bolden and prospects Quinton Byfield and Akil Thomas. It’ll also include a podcast with Tampa Bay Lightning video coach Nigel Kirwan and goalie coach Frantz Jean who, last season, became the first Black NHL coaches to hoist the Stanley Cup. Personalities contributing to the Hockey is for Everyone campaign will pen some first-person accounts, too.

So it’s a large-scale virtual effort to mitigate the loss of opportunity for people to experience Black hockey history in person. Given all the social unrest of the past year, and the domino effect of changes we’ve see in the game since Akim Aliu spoke out against former coach Bill Peters in November 2019, does this year’s celebration carry more weight? Or should the devotion to celebrating Black hockey culture be equally fervent every year?

“No one year should be more important than the other, because of the simple fact that, slowly and surely, people are paying more attention to Black hockey history,” Mason said. “This whole thing didn’t just start with Akim Aliu. We’ve been doing this, we’ve been talking about this, we’ve been trying to get the word out. We’ve been recognizing the history and contributions of Black athletes in the game of hockey. I know, only speaking from my perspective, since 2015, it’s been ramped up. And each year you see that it’s become more and more important.”

“My mantra is that inclusion is a year-round sport,” Davis said. “My goal and my hope with all of our Hockey is For Everyone celebrations is to educate, inspire, for people to take action and to normalize underrepresented faces and voices in our game, not to check the box. And yes, this moment creates an acceleration, and I’ve been saying that all year. But this is something we’ve been focused on at least for the years that I’ve been here, which are now three, and long before that. But we’re doing it because we believe the contributions of Black people, past present and future, and their unique relationship to our society, our culture and our game bring enormous promise and possibility to unlocking the future success of this sport. That’s why this is important. It’s making people aware of past contributions, current contributions and what’s coming.”

To check out the NHL’s Black History Month content, click here.

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