What Comes Next in the NHL's Quest for Inclusivity?

The players sent a strong message with their boycott in August. The NHL laid out a detailed plan for change days later. What are the next tangible steps in carrying it out?
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Depending on whether the New York Islanders and Vegas Golden Knights prolong their lives in their respective conference-final matchups, there’s a good chance we’ll see the Stanley Cup handed out before the end of September. After that will come some off-season staples usually reserved for June and July: the draft and free agency in early October. But some other heavy work looms for the NHL. The gap between seasons will provide a crucial glimpse at how the league will begin ramping up its efforts to promote inclusivity. It has promised a lot in recent months, so that stretch of time will be a proving ground of sorts.

Mathew Dumba elevated the racism conversation to a new level when he took a knee and, a day later, raised a fist during the national anthems before his Minnesota Wild started the play-in tournament six weeks ago. Ryan Reaves, Robin Lehner, Tyler Seguin and Jason Dickinson continued the conversation when they kneeled together before a game days later. And then, in late August, as athletes from major pro sports across the continent boycotted play to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisc., NHLers reached a level of awareness never imaginable even a few months ago. The image of players filling the Zoom screens, too numerous to fit in one frame, was one of the most powerful in the sport’s history. And magnitude is only still sinking in.

The players were the leaders of that movement, of course, as was the case in the NBA and MLB. The NHL was sluggish in the days following the Blake shooting, dipping its toes in with a halfhearted pre-game moment of silence that was poorly received on social media. But, to the NHL’s credit, the moment the players banded together, the league was right on board. No one will ever confuse the NHL with being proactive, but it reacted in solidarity. It stood behind its players.

“If you look at any movement in the history of sports, you see that those movements have been player led.” said Kim Davis, the NHL’s executive vice-president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs, in a phone interview with the Hockey News Monday. “I can’t see how you can have a sustainable impact and movement in sport if it’s not led by the players. And I know a lot of people have different opinions about what should or should not have happened, but when you have players leading an effort like this, particularly in our sport – which is, what, 93 percent white? – to build an allyship that was necessary for players to make that decision in our sport, where the majority of it had to be allies that had not yet had that experience, that’s powerful. I think people are overlooking how powerful that was, not only for that moment but for the broader movement that we have created. I’m a firm believer that anything like this should always be player led, and I think we made the right decision having the players take the lead on that.”

The NHL wasn’t first on responding to Jacob Blake but, before that moment, was already deep into planning some major changes in its approach to inclusivity, which were accelerated by conversations with Akim Aliu last year after his revelations about racist language led to Bill Peters’ resignation as coach of the Calgary Flames. The league announced a code of conduct in January and teased the launch of an Executive Inclusion Council in late spring, when the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police sparked continent-wide protests.

Earlier this month, the NHL came forward with a detailed plan about its ‘Initiatives to Combat Racism and Accelerate Inclusion Efforts.’ The breakdown, which you can read here, details dozens of different initiatives. It includes the EIC, made up of owners, former players and league executives, described as follows: “The council, co-chaired by Buffalo Sabres’ Owner Kim Pegula and NHL Commissioner Bettman, will be committed to spearheading more inclusive thinking and more inclusive outcomes throughout the hockey ecosystem by candidly assessing its current state; identifying opportunities for positive change; and developing tangible action steps and benchmarks that will advance both the inclusion and diversity of the sport. This Council will focus on the importance of metrics and accountability.”

And the EIC includes three subcommittees, described as follows: “The Player Inclusion Committee (PIC), co-chaired by P.K. Subban and Anson Carter and comprised of current and former NHL and Women’s National Team Players, the Fan Inclusion Committee (FIC) and the Youth Hockey Inclusion Committee (YHIC) will each develop action-oriented solutions that positively impact the access, opportunity and experiences that underrepresented groups have in the game – and in the business – of hockey.”

And the EIC is just one prominent element of a multifaceted plan. So what’s the latest on the league’s progress? It looks promising on paper, but the next step is to see it come to life. As Davis outlined Thursday, the EIC will officially begin meeting following the conclusion of the Stanley Cup final. Korn Ferry, a consultancy focusing on diversity and inclusion, has already begun the process of interviewing EIC members. The Fan Inclusion Committee officially launched this week. And Ascendant Athlete, an advisory group that works with athletes to help them make an impact on social justice issues, will be conducting interviews with members of the Player Inclusion Committee and Youth Hockey Inclusion Committee in the weeks to come, Davis said.

The NHL is also working with Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport on a private assessment of its employee pool – and the league is playing a part helping other hockey organizations in their own assessments of their ethics and inclusivity. The NHL will be assisting the GTHL, the largest youth hockey organization in North America, in hosting a town hall this week in which families will share their experiences in a safe space.

“That is something we would not have seen a year ago had we not partnered with them to build that muscle,” Davis said. “I think this is a really, really important part of our overarching work, not just doing this at the league level, which is critically important, but now in the bowels of our organization, getting it done to truly change the sport at every single level. That’s where we’re going to see the long-term effect.”

As Davis said, the key is for the NHL to not treat the inclusivity issue as a “flavor of the month.” The boycotts in the name of the Black Lives Matter movement can’t come and go with no long-term results. If the NHL follows through on its detailed plans for change, there’s hope we’ll see some real impact. There’s a long way to go, but it’s a start – and a good sign that the league is moving forward with some specific, tangible initiatives.

“Clearly the murder of George Floyd accelerated our efforts and requires us to, as Gary (Bettman) says, to be better and to do better,” Davis said. “Even though we’ve done a lot, there’s so much more to do. We were already in the movement of creating the change that we are seeking, and we are now at the point where we’ve got leadership up and down the hockey spine, but particularly in our clubs and at the ownership level and president and CEO, completely invested in this. We’re at a real movement of change in sport.”

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