Hockey Scores Big

How the NHL is challenging inclusion in sports culture

Earlier this year, the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres hit the ice sporting a little more color than usual. Their signature blue and gold uniforms were well represented, of course, but their sticks (and the sticks of their opponents) now had dashes of orange, yellow, green, purple, and red courtesy of rainbow-colored tape. The message was simple (and displayed on the Jumbotron and hashtagged on social media): You Can Play. The “You” in this instance meant all members of the LGBTQ community, as indicated by the signature rainbow flag nods. The event is just one example of how the National Hockey League has become one of the most progressive professional sports leagues; its focus is not as much on selling its stars as forward-thinking (though that is part of it), but on making the hockey rink a place that’s as warm and inclusive as the ice is cold and hard.

And to think, one of the driving forces behind it all was a gruff old hockey lifer who carried around the word “truculence” like a badge of honor.

Brian Burke’s signature porcupine-like white hair and no-nonsense scowl has been an institution in the NHL for decades. The current President of Hockey Operations for the Calgary Flames, Burke has coached U.S. Men’s Olympic teams and held executive positions for the likes of the Hartford Whalers, Vancouver Canucks, Anaheim Ducks, and Toronto Maple Leafs. In 2009, Burke’s youngest son, Brendan, publically came out as homosexual, a move that earned him the immediate respect and support of his University of Miami teammates as well as his high-profile dad. Less than a year later, Brendan died tragically in a car crash. Brian and Brendan’s older brother, Patrick, formed the You Can Play campaign as a way of honoring Brendan’s bravery.

“Patrick and his father are both members of the NHL family, and they brought the initiative to the league,” says NHL Vice President, Special Projects & Corporate Social Responsibility Jessica Berman. “The idea was to promote inclusion, especially to combat homophobia in sports.”

The You Can Play campaign kicked off in 2012, and became part of other efforts to reach out to inner city youth, young girls, and the handicapped under the NHL’s broader Hockey Is For Everyone banner. But this year, the league has promised to take it, in Berman’s words, “to a new level,” working with individual teams to ensure this goes beyond window-dressing and becomes an ongoing part of the game’s culture. “Even though the teams all do inclusion efforts year-round, we asked them to focus on the month of February so we could have it all be more prominent and concentrated.” This included having each team name an LGBTQ ambassador—and the list ran the gamut from noted tough guys such as Montreal Canadiens’ Andrew Shaw and Ottawa Senators’ Dion Phaneuf to representatives of the game’s global reach such as Carolina Hurricanes’ Swedish-born goaltender Eddie Läck and the New York Rangers’ Norwegian forward Mats Zuccarello. In an interview with ESPN, Boston Bruins’ ambassador Brad Marchand stated unequivocally that “guys would accept [a gay teammate], no question. We’re a team in the [dressing] room and a family. It doesn’t matter what different beliefs guys have, or where they come from, or whatever the case may be. Guys would accept it.” Meanwhile, the NHL’s sister league, the NWHL, recently welcomed with full support its first transgender player, the Buffalo Beauts’ Harrison Browne, who identifies as male.

In addition, the teams sponsor free hockey clinics (open to all) and invite diverse groups to come and see games. “I’ve been the most pleased with the breadth of engagement,” says Berman. “Teams doing specific outreach, in terms of the LGBTQ community as well as race and gender, but also initiatives around national origin and newcomers, meaning immigrants. It’s great to see how much our teams have opened their arms to bring in more diverse groups.”

Teams such as the New Jersey Devils have been experimenting with more outside-the-box projects as well, such as screening the documentary Soul On Ice: Past, Present, & Future on their Jumbotron following an early February matinee game against San Jose. The film tells the story of the struggle of black hockey players, and Willie O’Ree—the man who broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958—was in attendance to promote the film. Somewhat serendipitously, Wayne Simmonds of the nearby Philadelphia Flyers had just finished celebrating being named MVP of the All-Star Game a few days earlier.

The program is not without its flaws, of course. Relying on individual teams to spearhead diversity initiatives did reveal some blind spots, as SB Nation Outsports writer Rafael McDonnell pointed out. McDonnell put the Dallas Stars on blast for its weak and cursory attempts to honor the month-long activation. “I’m not angry at the Stars for not making a bigger deal about their ‘Hockey Is For Everyone’ night,” writes McDonnell. “The team is within its rights to market events as it sees fit. But this feels like a missed opportunity to build a bridge between sports & the broader Texas LGBTQ community.”

Still, hockey is rapidly becoming a game without borders, which is not surprising seeing as your average NHL roster literally globetrots from Arizona to Jesenice, Slovenia. Back in 2008, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)—which is home to the iconic Hockey Night in Canada—approached a young reporter with broadcaster dreams named Harnarayan Singh about starting up a Punjabi telecast. Hockey Night Punjabi not only allowed the game to reach those who spoke the third-most-spoken language in Canada (behind English and French), it allowed Singh and his fellow broadcasters to drastically change the visual landscape of hockey TV. Fans unused to seeing turbans in between periods were won over by the team’s energy and the broadcasts’ often made-up slang (as Singh explains in a piece written for Players Tribune, it’s often difficult to directly translate typical hockey terms such as “slap shot” into Punjabi). Singh solidified his icon status in 2016, when his “BONINO BONINO BONINO NICK BONINOOOOO!” goal call become the #1 highlight from the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Stanley Cup run.

Meanwhile, the month of February also saw Fatima Al Ali, a 27-year-old woman from the United Arab Emirates and avowed hockey fanatic, accept an invitation to come and skate with her favorite team, the Washington Capitals. The image of a woman in a hijab jostling on the ice with Russian star Alex Ovechkin and American T.J. Oshie was as indelible as the selfie Ali took later that night when she dropped the puck on a ceremonial faceoff between Ovechkin and the Detroit Red Wings’ Henrik Zetterberg.

“Capitals alumnus Peter Bondra met Fatima while he was in Abu Dhabi hosting a youth hockey clinic at the Pavlikovsky Hockey School,” explains Jim Van Stone, President of Business Operations for Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which helped facilitate Al Ali’s visit. “Fatima was at the same rink and he noticed her stickhandling. He struck up a conversation and recorded her practicing with the puck. He posted the video of her on Twitter, and it went viral, coming to the attention of thousands of hockey fans and the Capitals organization.”

Bondra extended an open invitation to Al Ali to come and visit the Capitals, and the fact that schedules managed to synchronize during the month of February was a bit of serendipity—but it reinforces the league’s and the individual teams’ commitments to growing the game all year long. “There is much potential across the globe to introduce or further develop access the game,” says Van Stone. “And we’re always looking for ways to support programming that offers access to hockey on all levels, whether locally, nationally or internationally.”

In the end, this is the lesson other leagues could perhaps learn from the NHL. Because the push started from such a personal place within the Burke family and grew from there, the focus is on culture rather than sound bites. It’s less about familiar star faces in PSAs and more about making the hockey arena a place where everyone can come and feel included, regardless of race, gender, or sexual identity.

“These are all part of our attempts to rebrand ‘Hockey Is For Everyone,’ and to own that message of support. To create an inclusive environment,” says Berman. “It has been amazing, and really great to watch. From local engagement, from fans and social media—they’ve all embraced the initiative. From that, it will grow.”

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