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Posted at 3:30 PM ET, 01/11/2011

Racial homogeneity in the NHL

By Nicole Weissman

Last week I was criticized for my statement that the Caps’ traditions lacked the time-honored quality that makes many team traditions so special. It bears mentioning that I am, in fact, a native Washingtonian, and it bears reminding that I am, in fact, a Caps fan, and that my posts have been overwhelmingly positive. I’m not here to sabotage anyone.

All that being said, there’s an issue I want to bring up that’s unlikely to portray our team, or hockey in general, in a very positive light. Read to the end, or don’t comment, because my message ultimately is in support of strong community relations, and that’s something I’m hoping any Washingtonian can agree with.

You may have heard hockey referred to as a “white man’s sport.” You may also have been to a Caps game, or any other NHL team’s game, and failed to see more than a handful of African American or Hispanic attendees. You may also have realized that at one point, by having Jason Doig, Anson Carter, and Mike Grier, the Caps roster encompassed a large percentage of all African American players in the league. 

Today, the NHL includes more like two dozen players of African descent, almost a dozen players of East Asian descent, and a handful of Latin American and Middle Eastern players, in a league of well over 600 players. To be clear, I’m not laying blame on anyone for the racial and ethnic homogeneity of the NHL’s player and fan base. I am simply offering the issue up for discussion, and I’m also offering up a solution that’s by no means novel, but in my opinion underutilized.

Hockey originated and continues to be played predominantly in the colder climates of Northern Europe and Canada – not a background that situates a sport well for diversity and broad access. But the issue of access is not just geographic, it’s financial. Today, lots of sports are prohibitively expensive, but hockey may well top them all. Between pucks, sticks, padding, skates, and access to an ice rink, hockey has become a luxury largely reserved for the upper middle class. While this is not inherently a race issue (though socioeconomic homogeneity is an issue of its own, perhaps equally present among hockey fans and players), the census tells us that white families have a substantially higher median income than African American and Hispanic families.

So the issue is two-fold, first that we watch the sports our parents watched -- so if hockey is historically followed by white people, it will take a shift to bring minority populations into the fan base. Second, that we watch the sports we play -- so if hockey is prohibitively expensive for some members of our community, it will take a shift to increase access to the sport.

In my opinion, strong community relations provide a solution to both of these issues. A robust community relations program increases access both to games and to the sport in general. The Caps have great programs along these lines, but the one that most comes to mind for me is Capitals Hockey School, a program I’ve discussed before that involves players visiting elementary and middle schools to do a presentation on hockey skills and donate equipment. A program like that one can create fans, and even players, where there might not traditionally be any, and so the cycle begins to break.

It’s not instantaneous, and as we’ve seen over the decades with the Washington Redskins, a sports team’s relationship with racial issues can be complicated. But it’s important to me to distinguish between a complicated relationship and a non-existent one. People who call hockey a “white man’s sport” are hopefully referring to its history, not its future. Building a tradition of supporting this team among D.C.’s minority populations will take time, because like I said last week, a tradition by definition needs to be passed down from generation to generation, building in its depth and breadth.

I encourage Caps fans, and all hockey fans, to support their teams’ community relations programs, to the extent that these are among the largest efforts I have seen to increase diversity in the hockey fan and player bases. Likewise, I encourage the Caps, and all hockey franchises, to pour more funds into community relations programs, because I hope it goes without saying that improved diversity will enrich this sport tremendously.

By Nicole Weissman  | January 11, 2011; 3:30 PM ET
Categories:  Capitals, Nicole Weissman  | Tags:  Capitals, Nicole Weissman  
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I can appreciate what you're asking in your article and it's well written, but as a hispanic male I'd have to say I don't know if what you ask is possible. I grew up an army brat and most of my friends liked baseball and football. Period! I knew soccer (futbol) because one of my Uncles played professionally. The economics of sports kind of dictated what I'd play myself. Baseball...needs glove, ball and bat. I could do that. Football...needs a ball. I could do that. Soccer....needs a ball. I could do that. I could have never afforded the pads, skates and sticks etc, never it wasn't going to happen. As an adult I've fallen in love with the game, but again my kids would rather play the outdoor summer games or play on their stupid game boxes. We could build an outdoor rink for every community and I'm afraid most kids would rather play soccer or basket ball or baseball or football and of course gameboys.
How do you change generations of sport momentum? How do you reset a mindset? Soccer is one of the biggest sports for kids under 10, but by 13 boys are thinking of playing basketball or football. The glory sports. Hockey isn't a glory sport here in the states. To bad it's an awesome sport. Thanks for the article. The NFL and NBA rules everyone else drools to go school yard on you. I'd love to see any QB take one of Ovi's hits though. maybe that's what it'll take. Intersports throw downs. Bye!

Posted by: Berndaddy | January 11, 2011 5:44 PM | Report abuse

Just for the record, we Hispanic are a culture, not a race. I am as withe as boiled fish, and I go to the Caps games. Not as a south American, no as an Hispanic, just as a Caps fan. By the way, south of the border we do not see "race" as a big thing. You are what you are and it is fine.

Posted by: cordobes17 | January 11, 2011 9:30 PM | Report abuse

Considering the climate the sport is played in, I'm surprised at the variety of people who do play. Swedes, Czechs, Russians, Finns, Slovaks, but hey, I guess they're all "white" so hockey is racist.

Posted by: futbolclif | January 12, 2011 9:21 AM | Report abuse

People are so fixated on race. Yeesh.

Sports most likely has more to do with the country of origin's sports culture than anything else. USA is hockey/baseball, whereas Canada, Northern Europe, and Russia are probably hockey/soccer (or soccer/hockey). Then the rest of the world is soccer. The draft proves that if you're a good player, you'll make it. Emerson Etem, for example.

Posted by: GFisher1 | January 12, 2011 10:13 AM | Report abuse

I don't get why this has to be a diversity/race issue. The league is all about growing its fanbase regardless of race, culture, age, etc. I get what you're saying, and I agree that community relations are important--but to me, that has nothing to do with diversity or race issues.

Posted by: Violetta55 | January 12, 2011 10:16 AM | Report abuse

It amazes me when ~70% of the country is white why whites ~15% are hispanic that those two groups are so underrepresented in the NBA & NFL. I think there should be some affirminative action in the placement of players in the sports.

I mean really many hispanic kids grow up playing basketball and football as do white kids and they are being discriminated against.

We need more white and hispanic players!

Yes it sounds stupid when I write this, and it sounds just as dumb when you changed the characters.

Posted by: khornbeak | January 12, 2011 12:45 PM | Report abuse

It does make me sad that the best-performing, best-run, best-to-watch team in DC is largely unknown to the black and Hispanic sports fans in town. And I applaud your effort to try to introduce these groups to the sport. The more the merrier.

But I'm not sure that access to equipment and rinks is the best avenue. The Caps franchise began the year I was born, and I am a lifelong fan. But I never got beyond street hockey as a kid, and I have never put on a pair of skates. I probably haven't picked up a hockey stick in 20 years. Most of the guys I grew up with are in the same boat. Yet we're all big fans. I bet there are more people like us at Verizon Center than you realize.

I think you'd have better luck earning converts by inviting newbies to actually go to games and be a part of the atmosphere. If that doesn't get them hooked, nothing probably will.

Posted by: bryc3 | January 12, 2011 1:23 PM | Report abuse

Why this article was even written and published is beyond me. No matter what race you are, There are sports that people just dont get into. Has nothing to do with race. I'm white and dont like basketball, I've played it and watched it and it's not my thing.

The comment was made earlier, Take a person to a game, And if they like it, Great!!! If not oh well!

Posted by: darrylrbaker | January 12, 2011 3:42 PM | Report abuse

With such a large Asian community in Northern Virginia, no one has mentioned yet how Asian fans have totally embraced the caps!

Posted by: skkyskky | January 13, 2011 1:40 AM | Report abuse

This is just silly. Hockey has a lot of diversity in the number of nations it represents. Why is it that you look at a hockey bench and say "gee- there aren't enough (insert whatever minority)'s on the team - THIS MUST BE CHANGED!!!" It is what is, and for no horrible reason. The Caps do plenty of work (as you've already mentioned)concerning this. I don't see anyone saying "There aren't enough Asians/Indians playing! There aren't enough Arabs playing!" I am sure there are plenty of minorities in Canada who choose to not play the sport. Get over it and go find a true social cause if you want to change the world.

Posted by: irascible1 | January 13, 2011 10:45 AM | Report abuse

"Racial homogeneity" ~ wow Nicole, such big words for someone so ignorant. I suggest looking no further then the NBA for a prime example of racial homogeneity. And yes, it's an expensive sport but I'm willing to bet that most hockey players in the old days weren't born with silver spoons in their mouths. They stepped out their back doors onto frozen ponds and played the sport their friends, relatives and ancestors played because it was cheap and fun the culture grew grew from there. It has nothing to do with race.

Posted by: AmyS1 | January 13, 2011 11:08 AM | Report abuse

I agree it's a great idea to expand and promote the game and make it as diverse as possible and yes there is obviously a racial divide even if it is not intensional. But there is a better way to address it.

You will get more bang for you buck if you concentrate promotional activities in areas where hockey is more economically feasible.

As has happened with all ethnic groups in America, as their incomes rise they tend to move to the suburbs. Hence, there are a growing number of suburban minority communities across North America with the economic means to engage in hockey. By encouraging a groundswell of interest in these communities where it's more likely to catch on, you will increase the visibility of minorities in the sport. Then you will be more likely to get broader interest and acceptance amongst all groups.

So for example, maybe the Caps could try to target some wealthier suburban minority schools more than or at least in addition to the inner city schools.

Posted by: congero | January 16, 2011 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for an excellent column, and I'm a little surprised by the reaction so far on the boards. There are two relevant aspects of this problem that are good to think about.

First is that the more people know about a sport, the more they like it. I worked in NFL marketing, and a major part of their effort is to reach the group of people who are non-fans but who could be at least casual fans. Family members of fans are a key target, and perhaps the key strategy NFL teams use is education about the sport. So to people here who say "meh, some people like X and some people don't, that's just how it is" are actually incorrect. One is not born with a hockey or football gene. It's like with wine or music: you cultivate a taste for it. Nicole is exactly right that many demographics simply don't have the opportunity to cultivate that taste, and if they do, a certain percentage of them will become fans.

The second point is that sports are the type of cultural phenomenon that can unify a city, give it an identity, and bring diverse people together in a positive way. Having a more racially diverse fan base would be good for DC. Further, when a city is truly behind a team, it helps the team and the whole sport. The NHL can't even rate an ESPN contract and is rarely on network TV. Out of market games are nearly impossible to find on TV. The NHL Network channel isn't even on basic cable in some packages (e.g., U-Verse). TNT hasn't even heard of the NHL. My local Dick's Sporting Goods doesn't even carry street hockey sticks and pucks. Etc.

Reaching broader demographics would help the NHL in far-reaching ways that we would ALL enjoy.

As a teen in the I got into hockey after the Sega NHL video games taught me the rules and my Dad took me to a Caps game. I was instantly hooked. In college, my friends and I would play street hockey with trash cans at tennis courts (till we got thrown out). I've never played ice hockey and doubt I ever will have that chance--for one thing, i just can't ice skate that well.

So in my opinion, exposure and education, particularly in schools where the peer influence is stronger than the family influence, could bring about change. But I'd place less emphasis on people actually playing ice hockey and more on street hockey and media forms, from the NHL on TV to the NHL on the Xbox.

Posted by: jbardzel | January 17, 2011 11:15 AM | Report abuse

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