Diversifying a Colorless Game
March 8, 2007 by Jeff DiNunzio • Print Story •
Only a week removed from the celebratory, occasionally controversial Black History Month (BHM), this column may have been more pertinent last month. Regardless, there's no need to refrain from talking shop about cultural and racial issues just because a designated 28 days — 29 every four years — to do so has concluded. Black folks ain't black just for February.
With the recent developments surrounding Al Sharpton's familial ties to stalwart bigoted South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond and current Illinois Senator Barrack Obama's presidential candidacy, race is going to be around for a while. But this is a hockey column. What does that have to do with pigmentation?
Hockey is an interesting sport. I've been playing for 19 years and I'm a mere 25-years-old. I know the game better than most because it has been such a dear component of my life — dictating my weekly schedule through college and beyond. Unfortunately, knowing the game also requires being aware of the indirect discrimination and cultural implications it has by its very nature: hockey prevents a huge number of people from ever participating because economic security is necessary to do so.
Why does hockey — at all levels — consist primarily of white people? One answer: Canada and Europe don't possess the high concentration of blacks that America does. Accepting that as sufficient for the sake of elongated argument, absent statistical analysis, let's focus on hockey in the States.
Hockey is dichotomous: while experiencing a period of great popularity in the number of new players registering with USA Hockey, its official governing body, the sport continues to suffer waning popularity on a large scale, especially in predominantly non-white regions.
Asking "why?" will invariably lead to token responses like "there aren't rinks in the cities" and "because nobody in cares about hockey." And they both may be true. But more importantly, why aren't there rinks and why don't urbanites care for the game? It's a game of skill, and athletes with skill like games that require it, so basing minimal diversity on geographical restrictions seems illogical. But the fact remains: the majority of the faces inside hockey helmets are pale.
Hockey's dearth in the inner city says a lot about society. Hockey doesn't do well in urban populations because it is expensive. Few activities require the level of financial commitment needed to play hockey and to operate facilities that harbor it. White folks own a disturbing percentage of the wealth in this country. (They also don't own a majority of it due to sheer population volume.) Hockey flounders because the lower class can't pay for it in a system that routinely widens the gap between the rich and the poor; and that's where many of America's minorities exist. Hockey does not lend itself to egalitarianism.
Undertaking a youngster's — or any beginner's — burgeoning desire to play hockey is met with a litany of costs: equipment such as skates/shin/elbow/shoulder pads, pants, sticks, helmets, gloves, socks, practice jerseys, tape, bags; skating lessons (if one is athletically deficient); league and team fees; transportation to games and practices and car washes and banquets; and time, lots of it. Along with the advent of advanced technologies and grotesque marketing campaigns, equipment expenses are growing. One can easily drop a few hundred to a thousand dollars, or more if buying the top gear, before he or she even steps on the ice.
The financial woes are daunting even for middle class families. About 15 years ago, my family's annual income was approximately $50,000. Compared to a growing number of people in the U.S., that is a large sum of money. Still, my skates were old, my equipment stained from a previous owner's sweat, and my sticks hand-me-downs. I was limited to local teams that didn't afford me the skilled development I wanted because the costs were too exorbitant. The then $700-$1,000 fee (on top of everything else) for the travel league that I repeatedly begged my father to let me play has since only skyrocketed ($1,650+ varying on the team with said youth travel organization).
Is it any wonder that a kid whose parent(s) sifts through boxes at UPS or mops halls at an office building is sent to a basketball court or soccer pitch?
Fifty-nine years ago, Willie O'Ree became the first black player in the NHL. He dealt with racism and prejudice just as others blacks did when they broke the white ranks in other pro sports. Does he garner the same attention as Jackie Robinson? Not in the least; but he is no less a pioneer, no less a hero.
In a recent piece from The Wildcat Online about Brandon Robinson, a black player on the University of Arizona's club hockey team, O'Ree said, "With basketball, tennis, football, [etc.], you can just go in the back lot and play, but with hockey, you need ice to play. There wasn't much availability of ice, so naturally, kids turned to other sports." Hockey does not lend itself to egalitarianism.
The arguments about hockey's limitations because of inherent expenses appear in much iteration. But they emphasize the struggles and disadvantages minorities alike encounter in various areas of life that are effectively cut off to them because of being in the minority. When it comes to sports, not playing should be a choice, not a given.
Nonetheless, seeing a need to broaden exposure and increase access to hockey, the National Hockey League is taking steps to bolster its diversity both in the League and throughout the sport. Scott Burnside, one of ESPN.com's top NHL writers publicized it last week:
"The NHL's 'Hockey In The Hood 3' tournament welcomed 204 players from age 8 to 16 representing eight diversity programs. The tournament gave players who wouldn't otherwise have had the chance the opportunity to compete against teams from other programs.
"There are 39 diversity centers in North America. Coaches are certified by USA Hockey or Hockey Canada. The programs provide ice time, equipment, and mentors. Some players also attend USA Hockey summer hockey festivals [and] camps. Each program emphasizes skills and education. The NHL's diversity project began in 1995 with five programs targeting inner city African-American boys and girls.
"[The] diversity efforts have reached places such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, Alaska, Vancouver and Toronto, and expanded to include children from economically depressed backgrounds who want to learn the game. By the end of the summer, the NHL expects to see diversity efforts in 45 to 50 centers across North America."
It may be a long time coming, but at least hockey's powers-that-be have recognized its cultural deficiencies and are working to ensure that every person who wants to play hockey can. Championing the diversity that already exists can enhance such a solid move. (And while it's at it, the NHL could rid of the "Hockey in the Hood" tournament name.) Make Ray Emery, the Ottawa Senators' black goaltender, or Scott Gomez, an Alaskan-born of a Mexican father and Columbian mother and the first Hispanic NHLer, the NHL's own prototypical Tiger Woods.
Let people know that pastiness isn't a requirement for lacing up the skates. On this end, the NHL dropped the ball during BHM, but give it time. Starting local via diversity programs will cultivate a grassroots hockey following; making the jump to the mainstream will give it the attention it deserves.
Hockey is a great sport that goes unappreciated by the mainstream sports media and, subsequently, large-scale audiences. If the game's keepers — of which I consider myself — want to cement it as a world class sport with heritage and ethnicities from across the globe, we must do all in our power to make sure that hockey isn't merely for those with deep pockets. We must make sure it's for those with deep passions.
So, consider this an invitation to play hockey. The only requirement: a desire to play the game. Welcome, one and all.
(Author's note: I'm a white guy who owes much of his understanding of, and empathy with, black folks, and the disadvantaged in general, to my good friend, mentor, and former professor Dr. Frank Johnson, a black man who continues to stoke the intellectual discourse of race at my alma mater, Temple University in Philadelphia, PA.)
 Having a history with part-time jobs in hockey pro-shops, it is astounding to witness the amounts of money parents spend on kids for gear that they will outgrow before the year is over. Just like any advertisement, stars push these new products, feeding peer pressure to get the newest skates or flashiest sticks. It's an unhealthy aspect of capitalism that detracts from what the focus should be: the love of the game.
 Costs are certainly not limited to dollars. I come from a family with two other siblings, one of whom also played years worth of hockey. Stories abound of players — professional and otherwise — whose families made laborious sacrifices for the hockey dreams of a child, often at the expense of others. At times, these sacrifices are costlier, breeding resentment and hostility among family members.