Who is Hockey For? The NHL’s Latest Attempts at Inclusion

This month the NHL is promoting an initiative called “Hockey is for Everyone”. Its aim is to use hockey to “drive positive social change and foster more inclusive communities.” The campaign has taken place in the past but this year’s promotion features an increased push for LGBTQ inclusion, including a partnership with the You Can Play Project, an organization devoted to “ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation and/or gender identity”. The launch announcement came last week and provided few details of what events and initiatives the NHL, its teams, and its players would undertake to foster inclusivity. “Hockey is for Everyone” is seemingly an opportunity for NHL hockey to push intersectional action and support of marginalized communities who also share of love of the game and yet at its core those involved fail to understand the multi-faceted nature of discrimination.

The timing of the release was at odds with the promotion’s stated intention. Not only did the league give fans little notice to plan to attended specific promotions such as You Can Play nights hosted by select teams, but it comes at the same time Americans and Canadians celebrate and mark Black History Month. While Black History Month traces back to the mid-1990s in Canada, it has been celebrated in the United States for more than 40 years and has roots stretching back to the 1920s. This is likely why the NHL chose February to launch its “Hockey is for Everyone” campaign in the late 1990s. Yet the campaign does not explicitly honour, remember, and acknowledge the contributions of Black hockey players specifically, nor does it involve concrete action to combat racism in its dressing rooms, stands, and hiring practices.

The league continues to market Willie O’Ree, both as the first Black player to play in the NHL and in his role as Director, Cause Marketing and hockey ambassador for the “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative, a post he has held for almost 20 years. O’Ree’s accomplishments as a player and his work establishing 36 hockey leagues at the grassroots level while helping to ensure “more than 85,000 boys and girls of diverse backgrounds” were able to experience the game is certainly worthy of praise and acknowledgement. Yet the league’s highest honours have regrettably not been granted to O’Ree. His body of work merits inclusion in the Hockey Hall of Fame as a player and as a builder and yet the Selection Committee has neglected to announce his name year after year. The NHL’s Black history doesn’t seem to matter in June when HHOF voting is announced.

The “Hockey is for Everyone” campaign is, this year, failing during a period of heightened discrimination on both sides of the border. The overtly racist, Islamophobic, and targeted Muslim Ban in the United States implemented by executive order created a national crisis. In Canada, a terrorist attack at the Centre Culturel Islamique Québec resulted in the murder of six Muslim men and the attempted murder of 19 others while the group gathered for evening prayer. Both events made news around the world; however, the NHL, its teams, and the vast majority of players were silent amid growing vocal opposition to the ban and increased shows of solidarity in both countries. As numerous acts of violence were perpetrated against Muslims in Canada and the United States the NHL celebrated All Star Weekend while the vast majority of players used those same airports in which violence was being enacted against Muslim people — JFK, LAX, MIA — to travel to the game or to vacations. They knew, they saw, they said nothing.

The NHL was, of course, not alone in the sports world in its equivocation about firmly standing in support of Muslim people. With a much bigger platform heading into Super Bowl week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell reached new lows of moral cowardice when he refused to comment on the Muslim Ban, focusing instead, like his NHL brethren, on the frivolities of a marquee sporting event.

But the sports world also provides examples to follow. Basketball led the way. Toronto Raptors star Kyle Lowry created a viral soundbite when he repeatedly called the Muslim Ban “bullshit” and numerous current and former NBA and WNBA players also criticized the ban on social media and in interviews. Crucially, those in management positions with NBA teams also voiced their opposition. Coaches from some of the NBA’s best teams like Gregg Popovich of the Spurs, Steve Kerr of the Warriors, and Dwane Casey of the Raptors spoke out against the ban. So too did Raptors president Masai Ujiri. These men used their prominence to speak out and in speaking out also gave support to their players to freely voice their opinions and beliefs.

Brandon Saad, the son of a Syrian immigrant, has paid to sponsor 24 relatives to come to the United States from his family’s homeland. Unfortunately, Saad didn’t have that organizational support to share his thoughts (if he wished to) on the ban when he was asked by reporters. Saad plays for John Tortorella in Columbus and it was Tortorella who, while coaching Team USA at last fall’s World Cup threatened to punish players who joined Colin Kaepernick’s protest by refusing to stand for the “Star-Spangled Banner” while claiming such preemptive statements weren’t political. This sort of managerial control was not limited to the American team; it’s worth noting that Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock made a similar point when asked about such forms of athlete activism.

Those in positions of power in NHL hockey strive to preserve a seemingly apolitical status quo, which is in reality, anything but. The league celebrates its stars, current and former, disregarding many athletes’ history of violence against women and sexual assault. Individual teams emphasize connections to the military and in Canada, hockey has deep roots as a form of nationalist expression. Yet such obvious political displays are treated as normal parts of men’s hockey culture. Adherence to these conventions means players and coaches are less likely to challenge any part of the problematic nature of the men’s game. The NHL’s embedded culture positions women, people of colour, non-Christians, disabled people, and LGBTQ folks as existing on the margins of the game and not as longstanding fans and players.

The league and the Players’ Association are attempting to position the NHL and NHLers as allies in the larger effort to create a just and equitable society using the “Hockey is for Everyone” campaign — though it of course has another motive, which is to grow the market of the game financially. A player from each team has been named an ambassador, to help achieve this goal of inclusion. Yet what these players’ specific ambassadorial functions are remains unclear in part because they’re listed as “Hockey is for Everyone” ambassadors on the NHL website but as You Can Play Ambassadors on the YCP site. The difference might seem a silly matter of wording except one title suggests both a broad focus on inclusion and responsibilities contained within the one-month promotion and the other provides a very specific role in combating homophobia and transphobia in NHL hockey.

In other leagues such as the NWHL, YCP Ambassadors have played a role in connecting teammates who are ready to publicly come out with resources and contacts within organizations like YCP to help them navigate the process and inevitable media spotlight. Unfortunately, it’s unclear if NHL players are taking on this specific role. It’s difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of this sort of allyship when it’s not clear what these 30 players are supposed to do.

They frame this type of action as ambassadorship and outreach. They also do this because they do not recognize that women, people of colour, disabled people, people who practice a variety of religions, and LGBTQ folks are already part of the game, and have been for quite some time. It is presumptuous of the NHL to try to invite diversity when the league and its players haven’t made their culture welcoming for the diversity that is already inherently there.

Ultimately, I struggle to see NHL players as allies in the fight for LGBTQ equality for many reasons. The league has chosen to emphasize LGBTQ inclusion in this season’s campaign and yet those 30 ambassadors cannot be LGBTQ allies if those same players are silent when Muslims are assaulted and attacked in both countries. In theory “Hockey is for Everyone” presents an opportunity for intersectional inclusion and allyship; in practice, the NHL and its players do not understand the interconnected nature of oppression and discrimination. You cannot be an LGBTQ ally if you do not vocally and forcefully oppose violence against Muslims because our communities are linked; it’s possible to be Muslim and queer and a refugee.

In a sport that centres and elevates the white, cis, straight, male so completely, there simply isn’t interest in dismantling the false notion that white, cis, and straight is the default. The NHL does not need its “Hockey is for Everyone” campaign to be about welcoming different people to the dominant culture. What the NHL must undertake is a culture change from the inside out to make the NHL and men’s hockey more generally, a truly inclusive space. This means vigilantly opposing sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia, on all fronts, not just declaring “Hockey is for Everyone” to be a success on the sole basis of its existence.

I also have more practical concerns about positioning NHLers as allies, namely, they simply have not earned the title of ally through action and deed. While Bruins rep Brad Marchand has called out homophobia on twitter many of the ambassadors are simply inappropriate given their history of homophobia and transphobia. The selection of Montreal’s Andrew Shaw has raised the most concern given his use of a homophobic slur in a playoff game last spring while with Chicago. Compounding the problem was the fact that Shaw initially denied calling an official a faggot, claiming he didn’t remember what he said, but ultimately apologized after video evidence clearly showed him shouting the word. Using a slur isn’t a mistake, it’s a deliberate action.

Shaw’s YCP approved allyship has been opposed by many LGBTQ fans but just as many mainstream cis and straight writers have come to his defense, believing he has changed, that he deserves a second chance, that the good he does on the ice outweighs any bad. Except — fuck that, it’s not up to those outside the community to forgive and forget his offense and applaud his change of heart. And when prominent writers who cover Shaw’s team go out of their way to defend Shaw’s what, eight-month commitment? To be a champion of the gays, claiming that everyone deserves a second chance, what is highlighted is Shaw’s redemption, what is emphasized is Shaw’s personal journey, what is celebrated is the player’s ability to overcome adversity entirely of his own making.

This “redemption” arc obscures the reality that LGBTQ folks experience in relation to discrimination. It ignores that Shaw’s second chance could have and should have been in his own dressing room and with his family and friends. Those are spaces where Shaw can prove that he regrets his actions. You call out your friends, you call out your family, you act better. All away from the spotlight. When someone is granted a second chance, it shouldn’t be used as an opportunity to centre themselves.

While sportswriters can afford to give Shaw a second chance in the spotlight, LGBTQ folks can’t. I can’t just forget when someone has said something homophobic or transphobic, especially if they’ve directed it at me personally, because my survival depends on always being aware of who is bigoted, who is likely to yell something offensive, who is likely to follow it up with something physically violent. Shaw doesn’t pass the test.

Yet for all the much deserved consternation over Shaw’s inclusion on the list, other incredibly problematic players, like Braden Holtby, have been ignored. A picture of Holtby carrying a Pride flag in Washington D.C.’s 2016 Capital Pride parade is featured on the “Hockey is for Everyone” main page and last year’s Vezina winner is generally regarded as a staunch LGBTQ supporter around the league because he marched in a Pride parade and because he supports the Human Rights Campaign financially. Except; you can’t be an LGBTQ ally if your transphobic. You can’t be an LGBTQ if you find transphobia funny. Holtby wore a “bearded lady” costume to the Caps 2016 Halloween party. It wasn’t just an insensitive and ignorant costume played for cheap laughs; it was a costume that referenced the long misogynistic and transphobic history of the treatment women and afab people with facial hair have received. But no one noticed because the NHL and its players do not care about transphobia, because YCP does not prioritize combatting transphobia, and because hockey culture and our society more broadly, are deeply transphobic and committed to continuing such blatantly discriminatory practices.

Claude Giroux’s inclusion on the list of Ambassadors seemed to generally meet with approval and yet his past actions must raise concerns for anyone concerned with true allyship designed to combat homophobia. In 2014 Giroux was arrested in Ottawa for drunkenly hitting a male police officer’s butt several times. Giroux claimed his actions were nothing more than an attempt to “mock” the officer in question. To many, it’s a fun story about drinking and the incident was laughed off by many in the men’s hockey community.

Yet it illustrates deeply problematic behaviour on the part of Giroux. Hitting a hyper masculine figure like a male cop on the butt can only viewed as “mocking” through a lens of homophobia. The joke rests on the notion that a man who leaves his butt exposed (associated with anal sex) is somehow lesser; less masculine and weaker. But it’s not a joke, it’s assault. It’s problematic behaviour for an ally but it’s also an issue because it’s behaviour tolerated and promoted in NHL dressing rooms. Bonding rituals in men’s hockey at the junior and pro level reinforce such rigid and limiting understandings of gender and sexuality. These performances of masculine strength undermine the real needs of players; the short and long term effects of injury are downplayed or ignored, mental illness hidden so as not to be construed as weakness. Ultimately, NHL masculine culture is built on a narrowly defined cishet hyper masculinity that is violent, that is misogynistic and homophobic, and that is crucially steeped in whiteness.

And that’s the rotten core at the heart of any NHL effort at inclusion and intersectionality. The culture of the NHL and the men’s hockey community thrives on exclusion, discrimination, and violence. To be inclusive, hockey must change but such change would fundamentally challenge and alter the game. Many NHLers, teams, and the league itself have no interest in making these changes, though clearly they don’t mind launching a PR campaign that gives the illusion that they are.