“Hockey”, “cities”, and “minorities” are not words most commonly used in a sentence. When people think of the sport of hockey, they do not usually associate people of color in general with the game.
I come from a background that traditionally does not participate in winter sports. My parents hail from South America – where ice hardly even exists. The turnaround for my involvement in a winter sport came when I was growing up; despite being encouraged to do lady-like things, I went to a Washington Capitals game and fell in love with the sport of hockey. I learned everything about the Capitals and the entire sport, and within about a week's time, you would have thought I knew everything about the game. Since then, I have remained an avid fan of hockey and the Capitals.
Having lived in the DC-Metropolitan area, many assume that it is an anomaly for people of color to have an interest in the sport of hockey. It’s not too farfetched to guess either; according to the 2009 roster count in the NHL, there are only 25 black players out of the 700+ total players. That is a slight improvement from the 18 that were in the NHL in 2006. What many fail to realize, though, is that there is quite the following in the sport of hockey.
A long-time DC resident, Mike Lewis, identifies with being a Caps fan. He states that even as a black man, he has followed the team since the early days in the 1970s. Lewis stated that had he been given all the supplies to play hockey he would play it: “Probably if I was younger though.”
Lewis also shared his knowledge of the Capitals’ former black players. He knew of Donald Brashear, who played on the Capitals from the 2006-2007 season to the 2008-2009 season, and of the NHL’s second black player, Mike Marson, who played on the Capitals’ inaugural roster in 1974.
He did note a similar thought that many other people of color have expressed before: “If there were more black people in hockey I would watch hockey more.”
This issue of minimal minority players in the game is not because of the lack of effort from the NHL. Aside from their Hockey is for Everyone diversity program that created the 39 inner city institutions in North America, the NHL’s A.S.S.I.S.T. grant system provides $10,000 to the program that seems to have done the most in that year to make an impact on their players.
A player from the Fort Dupont ice hockey club in Southeast Washington, DC, Austin Palmer from St. Alban’s high school, commented on how the NHL does help their program.
“The NHL does enough to support our program,” says Austin. “They’ve donated a lot of money and time and they have the Hockey in the Hood tournament. We also practice with Alex Ovechkin, which is helpful to know that they care.”
Fort Dupont: the example
Being a hockey fan at an early age, I always heard about local hockey programs in the area. The Fort Dupont ice hockey program is the oldest minority program in the nation, founded in 1978. The founder, Neal Henderson, remains the head coach of the team.
At Fort Dupont, the team manager, Betty Dean, pointed out one man on the ice in particular, Ralph Featherstone. He began to play at Fort Dupont when he was in the 7th grade until he was admitted into the Naval Academy. He continued playing hockey there, playing on the Navy’s hockey team from his sophomore year, and becoming the team captain his senior year.
Featherstone has finished his collegiate career and after being stationed at various places around the country, he has returned to the DC-Metropolitan area. Now stationed at Quantico, Featherstone drives to Southeast Washington, DC every Monday and Wednesday for the Fort Dupont ice hockey practice to contribute back to his former program.
After practice, a few players spoke about their experiences in the program. They all had different reasons for joining the program in the first place.
Katherine Baker, a 6th grade center, simply thought that hockey was sport that was the most fun to her.
“I do play other sports,” she said, “but hockey seems like the most fun and energetic, and it takes a lot of work and ethic.”
Others mentioned that others got them into the sport of hockey.
Austin Palmer, from St. Alban’s High School said “I was 5, so I just started to play it since my friend got me into it.”
They take their hockey expertise on other teams than Fort Dupont as well. Austin plays at St. Alban’s and another player, Marc Ray, plays for Gonzaga High School’s program.
Austin seemed the most prepared for his path to continue hockey beyond high school, and hopes to play in college. When asked if he had aspirations to go into the NHL, he seemed positive.
“”Yes that would be nice; The NHL would be great,” said Austin. “I’m looking at Clemson, University of Virginia, UNC-Chapel Hill, Cornell, and Duke.”
His plan to get noticed by the NHL: “I’m going play really hard in college, play really well, and hopefully I will draw some attention.”
Katherine was also positive about her future plans involving hockey. When asked if she plans to play college hockey and to somehow make it into the NHL, she responded with an adamant, “Yes.”
“It’s going to take a lot of work and effort,” she said when asked how she plans to do that, “but I can do it.”
After hearing a couple more stories about former players on the Fort Dupont ice hockey club, speaking with current players, seeing how Henderson has remained deeply involved with the program, and their appreciation of the attention to the program, it became apparent that there is, in fact, an interest in the black community with the sport of hockey.
Fort Dupont is not the only place where a large group of inner city kids get the opportunity to play. There is the Ice Hockey in Harlem program, programs in South Philadelphia, and more to create the 39 total inner city programs throughout North America.
If logic presented itself in this situation, there would have been a positive correlation between the number of inner city programs, and then number of minorities in hockey.
However, the statistics in the NHL do not support this evidence of a growing population of hockey players and fans in the minority community.
But there still are so few players of color in the NHL! Why?
So if the NHL is doing all in its power to help create young players of color for the future, then what is the problem?
John Drysdale, a sociology professor at American University, suggests that the lack of players of color in the NHL actually is founded in the lack of players in the college ranks. According to a study by the JBHE Foundation (a group of black sociologists), blacks make up only 2 tenths of 1 percent of the 3,500+ hockey players in college hockey.
Drysdale continued, “Most famous college hockey programs do not bother to venture into inner cities and into racially diverse areas. They tend to remain in well-known hockey regions, where the population will be mostly whites.”
Drysdale responded to the possibility of the lack of black role models in the sport of hockey causing young black players to become discouraged to continue on to play in the professional level and to even try for college level. He agreed with the idea, further stating that, “if there are only less than 20 black hockey players in the NHL and even fewer at the college level, then the odds of them getting to those ranks are very low.”
He expanded the statement, saying, “This is what pushes minority kids to move on to more popular sports among their community, where they feel as though have a better chance at going pro.”
With all of this in mind, and in trying to find out the DC Department of Parks and Recreation’s role in increasing the publicity of ice hockey in the city, they did not say much on how they support of hockey programs in the city.
“It’s rather difficult to support hockey programs because of our budget so we can only accommodate to the Fort Dupont club,” said communication director John Stokes of the department.
From the information gathered then, one can state that much as there is a general interest in the sport of hockey, and some support from the NHL, the problem of the lack of players of color seems to involve reasons that the NHL cannot control, like the lack of attention from college recruiters and city funding for more programs.
So is there anything that can increase the number of minorities in the game?
One solution that could help increase the numbers of minority players in hockey involves requiring college recruiting programs to have a minimum amount of players from a southern region. This move would allow different types of people with different styles of playing to become involved in hockey at a higher level. The same recruiting rule could be instituted for the NHL in scouting programs as well.
The result of seeing a more diverse group of hockey players various regions can provide others a new mindset to the game and a chance to seriously consider a career in ice hockey, seeing that the odds of them making it are much higher.
Either way, if the NHL really hopes to increase its numbers of minorities in the game, they will have to reach out to selecting players to show an example for others.
“It would be nice to see more,” said Austin from Fort Dupont, “It’s exciting, kind of inspiring to see more players of color in the game. I’m as inspired as you can get, but it wouldn’t hurt.”
If these programs aren't producing pros, then what is their purpose?
For now, these programs in inner cities can provide a place for young kids to have another choice for a sport to play, and for kids to just have fun, aside from being a place to help build potential profressionals.
As a product of the inner city hockey program in Fort Dupont, Featherstone spoke on what he learned from the program that helped him in his future experiences in hockey at the Naval Academy.
“It may be a little cliché, but Fort Dupont taught me teamwork, especially putting the team’s needs over self needs. I also was taught about hard work, and to keep on pushing when you’re tired.”
Also a current contributor to the hockey program, Featherstone explained the importance of Fort Dupont and how it serves the community.
“What drew me back to the program was the evolution,” he said about returning to help coach at Fort Dupont. “When I started to play, Fort Dupont was the only outlet for young black kids to play hockey and take part in the game.”
Featherstone added, “Now the program has grown so much. There are kids from all different backgrounds. There used to be only lower income kids who came in to play at Fort Dupont. Now there are kids from all kinds economic backgrounds; it’s much more diverse now.”
The interest in ice hockey from inner city kids and people of color has been proven to exist. However, whether this interest that has increased over the years can be translated into a more diverse NHL has yet to be seen. Nonetheless, these programs should continue to grow and provide opportunities for kids from many different backgrounds to be exposed to such a great sport. After all, hockey IS, indeed, for everyone.
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