Inside the NHL
Martin Luther King Jr. Day featured a matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens, which seems fitting given those NHL franchises epitomize the often inconsistent pace at which Black players and coaches have progressed within the league.
It was 40 years ago next fall that the Oilers started the first Black goalie in league history, with Grant Fuhr launching a Hall of Fame career that included five Stanley Cup championships. You’d think such a milestone career would ignite a seismic shift within the league’s demographics.
But it wasn’t until 12 years after Fuhr’s debut that the storied Canadiens featured their first Black player with Donald Brashear in November 1993.
And when you look at the league’s history, this anomaly between the Oilers and Canadiens is not unique. There are other examples – dating back to Willie O’Ree breaking the NHL’s “color barrier’’ in 1958 with the Boston Bruins – where milestone achievements of Black players did not have the immediate impact you might expect.
After O’Ree’s final NHL game in 1961, it took 13 more years for the next Black player to make the NHL when Mike Marson played for the expansion Washington Capitals. When I spoke with O’Ree two springs ago about that gap, he’d told me he’d initially hoped the league’s 1968 expansion from six to 12 teams might fuel an influx of Black players and give him another NHL shot.
“There were just too many good players out there not getting a chance,’’ O’Ree said.
Instead, it was another six years before Marson played, followed by a trickle of other Black players before Fuhr. O’Ree, now 85 and working since 1998 as the NHL’s diversity ambassador, never got another chance in the broadened league despite being a well-known minor leaguer in the San Francisco area where the expansion California Golden Seals were struggling.
The Kraken have made it a point to hire employees of color, including Everett Fitzhugh, the first Black play-by-play broadcaster employed by an NHL team. It will be interesting to see whether that extends to the player and coaching front as well, with New Jersey Devils defenseman P.K. Subban, who is Black, a potential expansion draft pick if left unprotected — which could make him arguably the marquee face of the new franchise.
Many readers are undoubtedly aware of the NHL’s more modern-day efforts to shed its “whites only’’ image and make the game more accessible to players and fans. There are now about two dozen Black players in the NHL, with Quinton Byfield last October becoming the highest-ever drafted player of color after the Los Angeles Kings took him No. 2 overall.
Still, the resignation last season of Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters after being accused of uttering racial epithets a decade earlier towards a minor leaguer, Akim Aliu, who is Black, shows work remains. During last summer’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, when athletes in basketball, baseball and soccer halted play to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the NHL initially kept right on playing.
Sure, the Peters scandal caused a reckoning on racism throughout hockey. And several NHL players, both white and non-white, realized there was something awkward about their continued play during the Kenosha protests and agreed to pause their games the following day.
But nonetheless, the NHL has much room for improvement before fully reconciling its past with what it hopes is a more inclusive future. A future that seems paramount for the continent’s No. 4 major pro sports league in terms of popularity.
An Ipsos poll commissioned by the FiveThirtyEight statistical website last May showed 77.1 % of hockey fans identified themselves as white. That was the highest of all major team sports, eclipsing 68.2% for baseball, 65.1% for football, 45.6% for basketball and 34.1 % for soccer.
This wouldn’t necessarily be problematic, except the league’s own 2018 policy paper on diversity found that 44% of American millennials are non-white. And a 2017 Magna Global study for Sports Business Journal showed the average age of NHL viewers watching games in 2016 had increased by seven years to 49 from a decade earlier.
In other words, if the NHL wants to grow in popularity, it must attract people that look very different from most current fans. And that’s a challenge when white players still comprise more than 90% of league rosters.
We can use Martin Luther King Day to celebrate how far the league has come from days when Fuhr might be the only black player visiting an opposing team’s arena for months. Or, wonder why it’s been 22 years since Dirk Graham was hired and quickly fired by the Chicago Blackhawks as the first and only Black head coach in NHL history.
The non-progress in coaching is every bit as glaring as the gap between O’Ree and Marson making their debuts. Or, between the Oilers producing their first Black player and the Canadiens — and countless other teams — doing the same.
In fact, the lack of any head coach since Graham — also the first Black player named a team captain, with Chicago in 1991 — is even more eye-opening given it’s an ongoing omission in a league also with only a handful of Black assistant coaches.
And the old excuse of “There weren’t enough Black players to begat enough coaching candidates just yet” doesn’t hold up anymore.
O’Ree made his debut more than 60 years ago. The first American-born Black player, Val James of Florida, debuted 40 years ago with Buffalo the same season Oilers netminder Fuhr did. Fuhr was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2003, the same year Anson Carter of the Bruins delivered gold to Canada with a sudden death overtime goal against Sweden at the IIHF World Championships and one year removed from Jarome Iginla of the Flames winning the NHL scoring title.
Black players have left their mark for decades. While the Canadiens didn’t have a Black player until 1993, they were one of the first NHL teams to draft one — taking Mike McKegney in the fourth round in 1974.
Alas, McKegney never played an NHL game.
Four decades later, in 2013, it was with those same Canadiens that possible-Kraken draftee Subban became the first Black player to capture the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman.
So many NHL diversity milestones, so many inconsistencies.
The NHL has taken a long, slow climb to move beyond the days of O’Ree, Fuhr and other pioneers. But to get where it admittedly wants to be, the league undoubtedly knows it must hasten that progress or risk falling further behind more popular sporting rivals.