Friday, August 6, 2010

Hockey and whiteness

All hockey fans have heard it. When you talk to a non-fan, you inevitably receive some variation of the phrase, "Hockey is a white people sport." According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 25% of Americans are minorities. Why aren't they fully represented in our favorite game?

It's a touchy subject. We could provide these non-hockey fans with rebuttals like "Jarome Iginla has been captain of the Calgary Flames for seven years, and he's black!" But they don't care. Deep down, even hockey fans know although there are currently 26 black players in the NHL, it's still an overwhelmingly white sport compared to football, baseball, basketball, or soccer.

The idea of being "white" is a complete social construct, but analyzing the definition of the word would be its own blog post altogether. For the sake of clarity, I'm calling individuals "white" if most people on the street would identify them as white. Barack Obama is just as much Caucasian as he is African American, but because of his skin color, most people would identify the President as black.

Many non-hockey fans don't take into account that most professional players are, in fact, not American. Of the 962 people who played in the NHL last season, a mere 207 (22%) were born in the United States. I know what you're thinking. "But soccer hardly has Americans either, and it's diverse as can be! Even baseball features tons of foreigners!" But what countries do these foreign hockey players come from, exactly?

Over half of NHLers hail from the Great White North. There are 520 Canadian-born players active in the NHL, comprising 54% of the league. The remaining 24% come mainly from Sweden, the Czech Republic, Finland, and Russia, with a smattering of other Europeans to round it out.

All these countries are far more "white" than the United States. Even among American hockey players, the vast majority come from New England, Michigan, and Minnesota, which have whiter demographics than the U.S. population as a whole. But this isn't a product of any sort of racism. These parts of the world have colder climates more conducive to the development of hockey, and they happen to be areas where folks of African, southeast Asian, and Latino descent don't live in great numbers.

It's not all "unfortunate coincidence." As evidenced by the Washington Capitals selling out all 41 home games in '09-'10, hockey fandom is alive and well in warmer parts of the US. When kids can't ice skate in the backyard, though, hockey requires a bit more money. In temperate climates, kids have to afford skating lessons, time at the ice rink, and much more equipment than one needs to play basketball. In warm parts of the world, families must be more affluent to support their child's hockey. Since we live in a society where the rich people tend to be white, this means more people who can afford to play hockey in the D.C. area are Caucasian, even though D.C. has a huge non-white community. Part of the reason far more NHLers are Canadian is that Canadian kids don't need as much money to just go outside and play hockey.

But as D.C. hockey fans, we're in a unique situation. I didn't grow up playing hockey. I'm not rich or Canadian. The only reason I started going to Caps games was because tickets were dirt cheap (this was before the team's popularity skyrocketed and took ticket prices with it--they even had Student Nights where you could get $15 seats and a free burrito up until a few years ago!) and I figured, "why not?" Theoretically, I had just as much of a chance of getting into hockey as a black kid from the area. So why did I get into the team, and the black kid didn't?

We had a discussion about it over at my favorite Caps blog, Japers' Rink. Associate editor Becca H writes:

"It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Kids need role models and there haven’t traditionally been many minority role models in the NHL. As adults, we know anyone is capable of playing this game and it doesn't matter what you look like. But for a kid, there's not as much to identify with. If you were a kid looking on the ice and seeing guys whose skin was a different color than yours, who would your role models be? Would you think this is a game that's inclusive and a reachable goal for you? There have always been fewer minority players in the game and that adds to the lack of popularity among minority kids. It's why, as much as we mock the commercials, those 'Hockey Is for Everyone' programs are so important--kids need to see people who look like them making it."

She makes a great point. If I'm an 8-year-old black kid watching a hockey game, not knowing anything about any of the players off the ice, I'm going to identify more with the one black guy on the team than the 20 white guys.

But then I thought of Space Jam. Many of my friends who are fellow hockey fans from non-traditional places got into it through The Mighty Ducks, but I had my own children's sports movie inspiration. I watched this Michael Jordan-Looney Tunes crossover masterpiece over and over in my youth, yearning to be an NBA star like him even though I had never encountered basketball before--at least until I realized I was slightly lacking in the skill department. But clearly I still looked up to MJ even though his skin was a different color from mine. This gives me hope that even in a sport dominated by white guys, a few more Asian and Arab kids can be inspired to lace up the skates.

I will admit hockey is still mostly a "white" sport, but the demographics of the game are changing. A record 11 Americans were selected in the first round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. Emerson Etem (drafted #29 by Anaheim) is not only black, he's from the non-traditional state of California! And in a triumph of the D.C. area, Jarred Tinordi (drafted #22 by Montreal) became the highest-drafted player from our neck of the woods of all time. I envision in a few decades, we'll see a National Hockey League full of players from all over the continent, of all different ethnicities and backgrounds. Hockey may never reach soccer's level of diversity, but I don't think our grandchildren will get teased for loving a "white people sport."


  1. interesting piece.

    I grew up in a small village in the northern part of Sweden, still live there actually. Back then 2-300 people lived here and maybe 30 kids, everyone of us were on the ice every day after school (there were no rink but we had ice) and a lot of fun matches were played (me in a Mats Näslund-jersey if you care to look him up). Northern part of Sweden (Norrland in Swedish) is like that, small towns, smaller villages and nothing much to do but skate or ski in the winter. In all those years I was on the ice, only one black guy showed up and when that happened the first time, everyone stopped, It was his first time on ice and it were our first time to se a black guy.
    Nowdays, at a age close to Mike Modano and Niklas Lidström, I pop a beer together with my best friend (that black new guy) and laugh about the old days.

    no real comment on your post,
    just a small snapshot of my life.

  2. SwedeTom: You should write a book about it! A Swedish version of the famous Canadian children's book The Hockey Sweater, with a Mats Naslund jersey instead of a Maurice Richard jersey.

  3. Jake,

    Great job analyzing the apparent monoculturalism of hockey. I think your basic argument is right on. People who live in cold climates are more likely to play hockey. Until recently, Canada has been a pretty white place, however, we also have really high immigration rates, so I think you'll see the racial/cultural profile of the Canadian contribution to the NHL change within the next half-generation.

    A small quibble with your depiction of Canadian pond hockey - it's not really that common. Most people don't have access to ponds or the inclination to get the ice in shape. for play What is more common are Dads who flood the back yard at midnight with garden hoses (and frozen hands) to make a rink for their little Gretzkys. Also, in the cold provinces (almost all of them) municipal officials will set up free outdoor rinks in parks and playing fields. Usually hockey players take over the rinks at night. Nevertheless, despite the free access, it's still an expensive sport. Most kids don't get the coaching and experience they need to excel in the sport in one of those community rinks so (costly) organized league play is required. Also, the cost of equipment for growing kids can run into serious dollars. (Parents pray their child won't become a goalie.)

    We came from BC (a warmer province) to Ont when my son was 11 and he had few ice skating or hockey skills. However, his college roommates were dedicated hockey players so he took up the sport at age 18 - rather late for a Canadian boy - and now plays rec hockey pretty regularly.

    Final point - check out the challenges of Cdn First Nations people in hockey. First Nations (Indian and Inuit) players are not well represented at higher levels because of the cost of participation, but also because good players are reluctant to break with family and community to enter junior and college hockey programs. (And also, there continues to be too much discrimination against First Nations people in Canada by their non-native countrymen.) There are exceptions of course - Jordin Tootoo and Kenny Nolan come to mind - but there are still very few First Nations players in the professional ranks.

    You write very well. Hope you keep it up.

  4. Canadian mom: I'm glad you got something out of my writing. As much as I love hockey, I don't think I'll ever have the perspective someone like you brings to the table. And your quibble with my depiction of Canadian pond hockey is well taken!

  5. The biggest reason for the lack of colour in hockey is definitely that it favours a cold climate. The second biggest reason is definitely the cost of the sport. Probably the third reason would be racism/prejudice.

    First Nations players definitely face the most racism, they kind of have a double whammy against them. There are plenty of them in cold climates, but they generally face enormous financial disadvantage (live in poverty, high costs to leave community to go to hockey camps, etc.). Guys like Cheechoo and Tootoo probably faced more racism than players like Brashear and Iginla did, though those players certainly encountered their fair share.

    We are starting to see black Swedish players, brown Canadian players and even Newfies. But the financial barriers are probably tougher to overcome than racial ones. Hockey isn't lagging behind, it's the larger issue of the long standing financial advantage whites have had in these countries.

  6. Good piece, Jake. Your Dad steered me to you site.

    I got to see Willie O'Ree play for the San Diego Gulls when i was a kid. He was a real fan favorite.
    John Holbrooke