September 28, 2010

What Colour is Hockey?

Harrison Mooney over at hockey blog Nucks Misconduct pointed out that recently the Atlanta Thrashers have gone out of their way to acquire black players, and found it curious enough to comment on. I have thought about the subject before (specifically when most of the few black players were in Alberta - but that's not saying much, as there were only seven at the time!), so I wrote a response. Here it is:

Canada has one sport – hockey. In Sweden and Russia, soccer is huge and right alongside or even ahead of hockey for popular sport. The best athletes here are encouraged to get into hockey, period. In the US, the best generally went into other sports (unless they were from Minnesota, but who counts them? I kid! I kid!), and had plenty to choose from that had a high level of competition immediately: regional and national competitions and a high population base combined with huge visibility makes for an obvious target!

As for natives being in the sport, it’s not like they have been excluded: but few bothered talking about their race. Strangely enough, Johnny Bucyk’s nickname was “Chief”, to which he usually responded “Uh, thanks, but I’m Ukrainian”. For a while there was an unwritten rule about natives not fighting each other (both Gino Odjick and Chris Simon mentioned this); I don’t know whether that’s still in place or not… Guess a quick trip to HockeyFights is in order!

A part of the low numbers for any specific group (hello, Prab Rai!) could simply be, well, numbers. Getting to the NHL is damn hard!

Consider the numbers of kids in competitive hockey just in Canada (“junior A” leagues like the VIHL): to get past even that is hard enough, and by the time the CHL level is reached when US and International players get added it becomes harder still. Of those sixty teams, just 100 players were drafted in 2009 (about 5%), and of them only about half will ever see the ice, never mind play long-term. They are also seeing competition from other hockey nations, American colleges and high schools, and a vastly improved US developmental league.

Bear in mind there is a cumulative effect, as previously drafted players don’t simply vanish, but even so, to further specify a single ethnicity is going to start pushing the numbers into the vanishing point. Add to that the comfort level of the parents getting their kids to play hockey – it’s not a game many visible minority immigrants know when they first arrive! And many immigrants put a huge amount of pressure on their children to succeed financially, and playing games isn’t often a part of that! So it often takes a couple generations before that level of security (financial and social) is achieved.

I did mention earlier when this subject came up a time when Alberta had five of the seven black players in the NHL about ten years ago, but I don’t imagine they were “actively recruiting” them! They were just good players. I do think that Atlanta is actively acquiring blacks, and believe that their market is a very specific reason for it. However, I also hope they refuse to draft players because they are black, or they could end up with the misguided Ice Dogs experiment.

(Quick run down for those who don’t remember it: Don Cherry was the owner of the Mississauga Ice Dogs [before they went to Niagara], and decided the team should only have Canadian players. Frankly, the team sucked until he sold the team in 2003 and that policy changed. End of story.)

I do think this is one aspect of expansion that doesn’t get mentioned much: as the profile of hockey increased in non-traditional markets (there are around twenty professional and semi-professional hockey teams in Texas now as compared to “sometimes two” before the Stars moved in), there will be people from other regions trying to make the big leagues. The first round of this year’s draft had a couple of Californians get picked up, which I don’t think has happened before. (Really hoping Etem would have fallen to us, but hey – that’s the risk you run trading away draft picks.)

With the invention of roller blades, some skills can be picked up without ice, but more importantly kids can play it year-round all over the place, not just where there’s a rink. And far before anyone will play any sport professionally, they have to play for love. The kid you can’t get off the ice, the one who sleeps with his stick – that kid has the best chance of making it.

As for colour? Heck, Iginla looks green by the end of the season! Seriously, look at that guy after eight months of winter sun and rink lights.


posted by Thursday at 7:07 pm


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