State lawmaker Eric Pettigrew remembers growing up as one of the few black children in South Central Los Angeles who enjoyed watching hockey over other sports.
So, when the World Hockey Association (WHA) formed as a rival league to the NHL in 1972, Pettigrew and a fellow L.A. Kings-loving pal would go see the new circuit’s L.A. Sharks. Partway through the Sharks’ first season, they traded for Canadian-born winger Alton White, only the second player of color in a major professional hockey circuit.
“I didn’t see very many black people at the hockey games, let alone black players,’’ Rep. Pettigrew, 58, (D-Seattle) said. “So, we’re standing near the entrance where the players come on the ice and we saw him — and I was about to lose my mind. We were two black kids screaming at Alton White, going ‘Alton! Alton!’
“And he looked over and winked at me. It was the best moment ever for a 10- or 11-year-old kid having this hockey player — a black hockey player — acknowledge me.’’
Pettigrew said White’s wink “was probably one of the biggest moments of my life’’ and inspired him to “think outside the box of South Central L.A.’’ He moved from the city to his grandparents’ home at 14 to avoid gang life, eventually earning college degrees at Oregon State and the University of Washington and by 2003 was elected to Washington’s state legislature.
But it took years after the wink for black players to truly start integrating within pro hockey, saddling the NHL with a “white sport’’ label it’s spent decades trying to shed with various diversity initiatives. The Boston Bruins’ Willie O’Ree broke the NHL color barrier in January 1958 — a decade-plus after Jackie Robinson in baseball — and it took 16 more years for a second black player, Mike Marson, to join the Washington Capitals.
Of 89 black players throughout NHL history, only six — O’Ree, Marson, Bill Riley, Tony McKegney, Bernie Saunders and Ray Neufeld — debuted before the 1980s. Future Hall of Fame goalie Grant Fuhr joining the Edmonton Oilers in 1981 slowly led to more, as did NHL-sponsored community programs starting in 1995 that got youths from nontraditional hockey backgrounds playing the game.
Kim Davis, hired in 2017 as NHL executive vice president for social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs and overseeing the league’s “Hockey is for Everyone’’ diversity, gender and LGBTQ inclusion effort, said this isn’t merely about doing “the right thing’’ but cultivating younger, more multicultural fans.
“We understand that for us to continue to thrive and survive as a sport, we have to ensure our sport is welcoming to all audiences,’’ Davis said.
Black players from the U.S., Canada and with Caribbean heritage comprise the largest chunk of players of color in an increasingly diverse NHL, alongside other athletes of Latino, Asian and Middle Eastern descent.
The NHL had 27 black players last season and 20 more with rights held by teams. It’s had at least 20 black players since 2015-16 and is hiring a senior executive to monitor off-ice job candidates and help team offices and boardrooms better reflect the league’s changing personnel.
Still, given players of color exceed 80% in the NBA, 70% in NFL and 40% in MLB, the NHL has work ahead mirroring those leagues.
NHL Seattle last month hired Lakeside High School history teacher Kyle Boyd, 29, to spearhead local outreach efforts as director of youth and community development/training. And his sister, Kendall Boyd-Tyson, 32, is now an NHL Seattle vice president for strategy and analytics.
The siblings grew up in Minnesota, where their father, Dr. Joel Boyd, had been the NHL’s first black team physician, with the Wild. Kyle Boyd played youth hockey there as one of few black players.
“There wasn’t a ton of diversity,’’ Kyle Boyd said. “I think there are still things that aren’t stereotypically associated with people of color, and hockey is one of those things.’’
Part of Boyd’s job is changing that through NHL initiatives like “Learn to Play” programs for first-time players, or implementing street hockey leagues in areas without rinks. He said reaching diverse communities is a reason NHL Seattle picked Northgate Mall for its future training facility, where three ice sheets for public use will be regionally accessible with light rail.
“There are so many kids that want to give this a try,’’ he said. “And our job is to kind of lower those barriers of entry.’’
State legislator Pettigrew’s childhood hockey hero, White, 74, who retired from the WHA in 1975 without playing in the NHL, agreed access is critical. White, living in British Columbia, sounded elated his long-forgotten wink at Pettigrew was so impactful, adding he’d often speak to black youths whom a rink attendant brought to Sharks games in L.A.
“There was a lot of hockey being played, but there wasn’t a lot of black participation,’’ White said. “Hockey’s a sport where you start very young. You have to get a lot of your basic skating and all that stuff in at a young age.’’
At that time in L.A., children didn’t have many places to play.
“Now they have great programs where kids are getting to start at a young age and really honing skills,’’ White said. “And there’s more black participation because black players like Mike Marson, Ray Neufeld and Grant Fuhr came along. Once kids identify with these players, they say, ‘Well, if he can do it, so can I.’ ’’
The same 1981-82 season as Fuhr’s debut, Buffalo Sabres forward Val James became the NHL’s first U.S.-born black player. Mike Grier in 1996 became the first U.S.-born black player developed in this country, while Canadians Jarome Iginla — one of three black captains in NHL history — Anson Carter and Jamal Mayers also debuted that year.
NHL pioneer O’Ree, 83, inducted into the Hall of Fame last year, has been the league’s diversity ambassador since 1998. He said there are 36 programs across North America helping grow the game compared to five when his role began.
“There are more boys and girls playing hockey today than ever — especially girls,’’ O’Ree said. “I can tell you, these kids are just hungry to get on the ice and play.’’
He said it matters that black youths see NHL stars that “look like them” — having had no black NHL role models growing up in New Brunswick and leaning on an older brother who preached the value of working hard and ignoring racist taunts.
O’Ree played in a six-team NHL and felt diversification would eventually come after the league’s expansion to 12 squads in 1967 and 21 following its 1979 merger with the now-defunct WHA.
“There were just too many good players out there not getting a chance,’’ O’Ree said.
The league’s historical lack of black players is often blamed for a similar dearth of executive representation. Following repeated pledges of a commitment to diversity, NHL Seattle hired six women and two employees of color — including Kendall Boyd-Tyson — among 11 vice-presidents.
Dartmouth graduate Kyle Boyd moved here last year and landed his NHL Seattle role after a chance on-ice meeting with CEO Tod Leiweke while skating in Kent.
They met again for coffee, during which time he told Leiweke his sister, Boyd-Tyson, was also a Seattle resident and Topgolf executive. She’s now an NHL Seattle vice president focusing on analytics encompassing both the team and KeyArena — including strategies for sponsorships, marketing, ticket sales and arena operations.
Boyd-Tyson played Division III basketball at Emory University, but her college hockey was limited to captaining a non-varsity club while attending Yale University’s business school. She described it as “one of the best leadership positions I ever had’’ helping dozens of second-year classmates and future business leaders of varying on-ice skills with skating and hockey basics.
But it was her business skills NHL Seattle coveted, particularly having vetted Topgolf growth opportunities like computer applications and new technology. And though her father was a racial pioneer in hockey, Boyd-Tyson doesn’t view herself that way.
“What I’m most impressed about,’’ she said, “is everyone who’s been hired (by NHL Seattle) — male, female, minority — is a rock star.’’
She added: “I strive to get hired on my merits and experience, and my education has always been a big piece. The diversity piece, for me I see it as the skin I live in. An example to others, but I certainly don’t lead with it.’’
NHL executive vice president Davis said the league is now a global business requiring the same non-hockey executive skills as major companies like Amazon. And teams must be inclusive, she added, to attract top executives.
“We know from data that people are going to be more apt to be interested in being recruited into any organization where they see someone that looks like themselves and can envision and imagine and see a trajectory for themselves in that talent pool.’’
Davis said NHL teams employ about 29% female administrative staffers, which is high relative to other leagues. But ethnic diversity numbers “are not as robust.’’
Ex-players, traditionally white males, comprise most NHL coaching and hockey operations hires. But that’s slowly changing — for example, NHL Seattle recently hired analytics specialist Alexandra Mandrycky as hockey operations director.
Given that, and with NHL players of color now more frequent, the game’s administrative ranks could soon look significantly different.
Davis said NHL street hockey programs have been very successful attracting athletes of color from nontraditional markets like Las Vegas and Southern California. Also, NHL-backed financial subsidies help offset expensive equipment and travel costs that similarly impact families of white hockey players and those of color.
Washington lawmaker Pettigrew never played his favorite sport because of cost and no rink access. But the self-proclaimed “hockey geek” is exactly the fan the NHL’s diversity efforts are cultivating. He loves his hometown Kings, keeps a Simmonds jersey from when he broke in with that team and routinely enjoys Canucks games in Vancouver with his legislature buddies.
Pettigrew can’t wait for the NHL’s arrival here and sees growth potential beyond traditional hockey communities.
“Who knows?’’ he said. “There might be an Eric Pettigrew out there that gets winked at by a Wayne Simmonds and the next thing you know, they’re a top-notch player.’’