One of the National Hockey League’s (NHL) most recent campaigns, called Hockey Is For Everyone, was created with the purpose “to drive positive social change and foster more inclusive communities” in the hockey world. Beginning a couple years ago, this initiative appeared to make progress towards this on the surface. However, recent developments coupled with months of mixed signals have made it clear that this goal is far from being achieved.
Back in October of last year, the league publicly released its annual racial diversity report. According to the report, 83.6% of employees in the league are white. Compared to many other big sports in North America, this disparity is staggering; in the National Basketball Association, for example, half of the general managers are people of color. In the NHL, however, there is only a single Black general manager—the recently hired Mike Grier of the San Jose Sharks. Year after year, the league has stagnated in its efforts to increase diversity. They have failed to find new markets and viewership among people of different backgrounds, and few successful attempts, if any, have been made to change this. Not only has this impacted revenue for a while, but it has set the narrative that hockey is a “white man’s sport” even further. This is only the start of the league’s struggles with these issues, though.
As a part of the Hockey Is For Everyone effort, the NHL instituted annual “Pride Nights” for every team. A good start, one might think. But in 2023, the message failed to be delivered yet again. During the annual “Pride Night” game on January 17th between the Philadelphia Flyers and Anaheim Ducks, the Flyers’ defenseman Ivan Provorov refused to don the Pride-themed jerseys and sticks during warmups, citing his Russian Orthodox beliefs. Days later, despite an earlier pledge to wear Pride-themed equipment during warmups, the New York Rangers and their players all came out wearing none of the aforementioned gear. These inconsistencies have continually sent the message to fans of diverse backgrounds that they are not welcome and have shed a poor light on a league already marred by problems of racism and homophobia.
Time and time again, however, leadership has refused to come to terms with these issues. At the recent NHL All-Star weekend in Florida, the league commissioner Gary Bettman stood by Provorov and the Rangers’ actions, saying that they have to “respect some individual choice.” Players, captains, and coaches around the league have either refused to comment or back the actions of Provorov and the Rangers. Flyers’ coach John Tortorella said that his player “did nothing wrong” during a press conference after the game, and brushed it aside. No punishment was doled out, and business has returned to the norm. In reality, the demands of the “Pride Nights” demands were not hard to meet. Instead, the NHL has chosen to dig in their heels and leave many fans and players alike questioning their inclusion and safety within the game. In a time of great social and cultural change, the sport of hockey has remained stuck in the past—and it looks like that won’t change for a while.