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The NHL Says ‘Hockey Is For Everyone.’ Black Players Aren’t So Sure.

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As Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly sat in the penalty box during a game at Chicago’s United Center in February 2018, he listened as a group of white fans chanted “basketball, basketball, basketball” in his direction. The Blackhawks fans taunting Smith-Pelly, who is Black, were making their position clear: Hockey isn’t for everyone, and it’s especially not for Black people.

Willie O’Ree, who became the NHL’s first Black player in 1958 when he took the ice for the Bruins in a game against the Montreal Canadiens, faced racist abuse throughout his career. When Buffalo Sabres forward Wayne Simmonds was on the Flyers in 2011, he had a banana hurled at him by a fan during an exhibition game in London, Ontario. After Washington Capitals forward Joel Ward knocked the Bruins out of the 2012 playoffs with a Game 7 overtime winner, he faced a barrage of racist abuse by Boston fans on social media. When New York Rangers prospect K’Andre Miller, who is Black, participated in what he must have believed would be an ordinary question-and-answer session with fans on Zoom earlier this year, he was repeatedly abused with racist taunts. In a candid Players’ Tribune essay,NHL’s claim to the contrary.

“>1 former Calgary Flames forward Akim Aliu, who is Nigerian, detailed instances of racist abuse that he suffered during his playing career — from teammates and from his own coach.

The list of racist incidents in hockey is too long to detail in full, and it’s not limited to the professional game — they are depressingly common at the youth level, too. After the incident in Chicago in 2018, Smith-Pelly reflected on how little has changed since O’Ree broke the color barrier more than 60 years ago.

“[O’Ree] had to go through a lot, and the same thing has been happening now, which obviously means there’s still a long way to go,” Smith-Pelly told the AP. “If you had pulled a quote from him back then and us now, they’re saying the same thing, so obviously there’s still a long way to go in hockey and in the world if we’re being serious.”

The hockey world was forced again to confront its own reaction to racism this summer. When players on the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to take the court for an NBA playoff game on Aug. 26 in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, they inspired other players across sports to do the same. In doing so, they made it clear to league officials, team owners and a nation confronting police violence against Black people that they believe Black lives matter. But as basketballs, baseballs, soccer balls and tennis balls were put away in protest, hockey pucks conspicuously were not.

Hours after the Bucks refused to play, and after players in other leagues joined that protest — the intention of their collective action unequivocal — skaters from the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning gathered at center ice at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto for the beginning of Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series as if nothing were happening outside of the NHL’s two playoff bubbles.admitted as much, telling reporters that he has “really no idea what’s going on in the outside world” when asked about the strikes occurring in other leagues.

“>2

While play stopped in other leagues that day, the NHL didn’t move its slate of games, instead choosing to acknowledge what Kenosha police did to Blake with a 27-second “moment of reflection” before the Bruins and Lightning game while the jumbotron lit up with the words “End Racism.” Even that short display was more than the league spared for a game between the Colorado Avalanche and the Dallas Stars later that evening, which proceeded without any acknowledgement at all.

“You can’t keep coming to the minority players every time there’s a situation like this,” said Matt Dumba of the Minnesota Wild.

Dave Sandford / NHLI via Getty Images

Not everyone associated with the NHL remained silent, of course. A number of current and former players tweeted messages of support to the Bucks and the NBA more broadly. Some white players took that stand, including retired goaltender Roberto Luongo, but nonwhite players were at the forefront, including San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane, who is Black, and Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba, who is of Filipino descent. Aliu tweeted his support to NBA, WNBA and MLB players, and he asked the NHL, “where you at?” Dumba, who was the first NHL player to take a knee during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner when he did so before a game in August, even took to the airwaves in Vancouver to explain that the onus to speak out against racism should not always fall on Black players and players of color.

“You can’t keep coming to the minority players every time there’s a situation like this,” Dumba said on The Program. “The white players in our league need to have answers for what they’re seeing in society as well right now, too, and where they stand in making a change, doing good for the league. Because I know that there’s a lot of them that are good people — there’s a lot of good people in hockey. But the silence is as bad as the violence.”

After an evening of mostly silence from the league and its teams, the NHL and its overwhelmingly white workforcefewer than 50 are Black or people of color.

“>3 finally came around to the idea that players in other sports might be onto something.

Players in the Western Conference bubble faced the media on Aug. 27 to announce the postponement of games that day and the next, with a plan to resume play the following day. The announcement came from Vegas Golden Knights forward Ryan Reaves and Avalanche forward Pierre Edouard-Bellemare, who are both Black, Avalanche forward Nazem Kadri, who is of Lebanese descent, and Dallas Stars forward Jason Dickinson and Vancouver Canucks forward Bo Horvat, who are both white. By all accounts, the action was led by the players and not the league.

There’s ample evidence that the NHL knows it has a racism problem. Its “Hockey Is For Everyone” campaign is proof of this; its slate of Black History Month commercials — which featured no Black players in 2020 — is proof of this; its mobile history museum, which tells the story of the Coloured Hockey League, an all-Black league that formed in Nova Scotia in 1895 and is responsible for the invention of the slapshot and the butterfly goalie stance, is proof of this; the white paper it produced in 2018 in conjunction with the Brookings Institution — which acknowledged that demographics in North America are shifting, that 44 percent of American millennials are not white and that the league needs to get better at reaching out to Black people and people of color — is proof of this too.

Hockey’s fan base isn’t very diverse

Share of major or casual American fans of a given sport who identified as a given race or ethnicity, according to a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll

Non-Hispanic
Sport Hispanic Black Other 2+ Races White
Hockey 6.8% 6.5% 2.8% 6.8% 77.1%
Golf 6.7 17.6 3.3 2.2 70.2
Baseball 17.4 6.6 3.6 4.2 68.2
Football 12.2 14.4 4.4 3.9 65.1
NASCAR 12.8 16.7 2.3 4.0 64.2
Basketball 18.6 24.3 5.5 5.9 45.6
Soccer 46.7 9.3 7.3 2.6 34.1

Poll of 1,109 Americans was conducted May 5-11, 2020.

But the reality is that the league’s fans are overwhelmingly white, skew conservative and are more wealthy than fans of other professional sports leagues. As support for the Black Lives Matter movement had waned among white Americans, it’s fair to assume it was waning among the NHL’s largely white audience, too. And minority representation in the league remains minuscule: Less than 5 percent of the league’s players are Black or people of color, and it has hired only one Black head coach — out of 377 total coaches — in its 102-year existence.

Hockey fans aren’t very liberal

Among those who responded to the question, share of major or casual American fans of a given sport who identified with a given political affiliation, according to a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll

Share identifying as…
Sport A Democrat A Republican An Independent Something else
Soccer 41.0% 23.1% 30.1% 5.8%
Basketball 39.9 26.9 26.1 7.0
Football 33.9 34.6 26.0 5.6
Baseball 30.4 38.4 24.8 6.4
Golf 23.1 38.6 31.8 6.5
Hockey 22.1 35.4 36.5 6.0
NASCAR 19.2 39.8 35.3 5.7

Poll of 1,109 Americans was conducted May 5-11, 2020.

A cohort of current and former Black players and players of color within the NHL isn’t waiting any longer for the league to act. Players including Kane, Dumba, Aliu, Kadri and Simmonds joined together to form the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) in June in an effort to end racism and promote diversity at all levels of the sport. Soon after the NHL balked at the opportunity to show its support for Black lives, the HDA issued a press release detailing how it intends to upend racial inequities in the NHL and hockey more broadly. The HDA’s plan begins with increasing the share of Black personnel hired by the NHL and its member franchises — at the executive level as well as in hockey-related and non-hockey-related roles.

In addition to increasing diversity in the league’s workforce, the HDA proposed that it should be tasked with selecting at least 50 percent of the NHL’s Executive Inclusion Council (EIC), a group of team owners, presidents and general managers whose mandate is to ensure diversity and inclusion efforts are taken seriously throughout the league. Doing so would “ensure that the voices of our Black, Indigenous and racialized players are heard and that they have an opportunity to help change the culture of the league.”

The HDA also asked the NHL to implement a mandatory anti-racism and unconscious bias training education program for all league employees. The HDA committed to funding social justice initiatives that target racism and provide justice for Black, Indigenous and racialized communities; grassroots hockey development programs that increase access and provide support to BIPOC players at the youth level; and anti-racism and unconscious bias education programs in amateur hockey leagues across North America.

Days after the HDA issued its press release, the NHL and the NHLPA (the league’s players union) responded with a joint press release announcing its plans to implement anti-racism efforts, which include mandatory diversity and inclusion training for all players and NHLPA personnel. The NHL and NHLPA also announced plans to work with the HDA to “establish and administer a first-of-its-kind grassroots hockey development program to provide mentorship and skill development for BIPOC boys and girls in the Greater Toronto Area,” with stated plans for a similar program based in the U.S. to come at a later date.

Notably, the NHL did not commit to concrete numbers regarding the hiring of Black executives, hockey personnel or non-hockey personnel, however, instead saying that it is “commissioning an outside audit of these efforts” while “working with The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) on a private assessment of our current employee pool.” Nor did it agree to allowing the HDA to select at least 50 percent of its EIC, which is majority white.

The NHL’s piecemeal commitment to the HDA’s proposal seems to have precipitated the end of the nascent working relationship between the two organizations. The HDA recently announced that it would operate separately from the NHL, stating that the league “is not prepared to make any measurable commitments to end systemic racism in hockey,” and that it “focused on performative public relations efforts that seemed aimed at quickly moving past important conversations about race needed in the game.”

Members of the Black Girl Hockey Club visit the NHL’s Black Hockey History Tour mobile museum in February 2019.

John Russell / NHLI via Getty Images

Current and former players aren’t the only forces putting pressure on the league to take diversity and inclusion seriously. Renee Hess, who founded the Black Girl Hockey Club (BGHC) two years ago as a support network for women of color who enjoy hockey, told The New York Times that the league needs to include more people of color on its new committees “so that true change can happen.” The BGHC recently launched its “Get Uncomfortable” campaign, which aims to develop “a comprehensive set of recommendations on how all entities involved in hockey, at all levels, can meaningfully contribute to the movement against discrimination and oppression of BIPOC communities in society.”

The campaign’s ultimate goals are to make hockey a welcome space for Black girls and BIPOC communities, increase diversity in employment at all levels of the sport and educate the hockey world on issues of social justice and allyship while centering Black women, women of color, BIPOC leaders and anti-racism experts. Kim Davis, the NHL’s executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs — who is Black and who has been instrumental in expanding the NHL’s “Hockey Is for Everyone” initiatives — told The New York Times that Hess is “bringing a new perspective to all dimensions of our inclusion efforts.”

Stopping racism in sports, let alone the broader world, is obviously no easy task. But there are tangible steps that the NHL could take to make the league, and the sport, more equitable and inclusive. One positive change the NHL could bring about is subsidizing equipment costs and league fees at the youth level.4 Hockey is among the most expensive youth sports to play — some families spend as much as $19,000 a year on equipment, league fees and travel. In the U.S., where the wealth gap between white and Black families is as wide as it was in the 1960s, that high barrier to entry is a big reason why hockey is mostly played by white people. And that lack of diversity and inclusion is mirrored in the racial makeup of the NHL, both on and off the ice.

When Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by Kenosha police, it didn’t register with white players, coaches or personnel inside the NHL’s bubbles until players in other leagues — and the Black players and players of color in their own league — forced it to register. When presented with a chance to show support for Black lives, most white people inside the NHL faltered. They remained silent until it became clear that their silence was untenable; they didn’t speak until it was clear that it was safe to do so. The NHL’s Black players and players of color didn’t have that luxury.

Neil Paine contributed research.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

play

2:00

Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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