Exactly three weeks after the protests first began in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, the tenor of the movement has seemed to shift from emotion to action.
In the context of professional sports, and the hockey world specifically, that means appreciation for the wave of statements made by players and teams acknowledging systemic racism has transitioned to calls for meaningful change in the game.
No one has a better grasp of how that change will come than Kim Davis, the NHL’s executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. Speaking to Sportsnet 650’s Randip Janda and Dan Riccio Tuesday, Davis shared her thoughts on how this movement can engender long-term growth.
“I think it in large part has to do with having a concrete set of plans, goals and accountabilities and walking through that process in a way that holds ourselves accountable,” Davis said. “And getting input from others outside of ourselves, that also will hold us accountable to change.”
As for those inside the game, working at the highest levels of the sport, the key to encouraging collaboration in the mission to make the game a space dedicated to inclusion and anti-racism will lie in the angles at which we look at the benefits of that mission, says Davis.
“We have to be good listeners and learners. If you think about any part of our business that we need to strengthen, the first thing we do is we collect data and we understand the gaps that exist, and we educate ourselves on how we fill those gaps — this work is no different than any other aspect of our business,” she told Janda and Riccio. “So, we have to educate ourselves, and that means being proactive. Not expecting people of colour, and people that come from underrepresented groups to, one, have all the answers, and, two, do all of the educating and the identification of our areas of need. It requires each of us to be introspective.”
Elaborating on how to explain, from a business perspective, that immense need to diversify the game, Davis pointed to the future of NHL audiences.
“I think we have to first recognize that there’s a need and understand and believe that there’s a business case for change — and I think the business case is very obvious. The demographics don’t lie,” she said. “I mean, if we are going to grow our sport and grow our business, we are going to have to embrace the audiences that are growing at the greatest rate across North America, and those audiences are people of colour. So, I don’t think there is much more convincing to do of that fact. Now the next step is, how do we then start moving forward?”
In an interview with Sportsnet 590’s Lead Off on Tuesday, Davis said she’s seen those in positions of power around the league step up and commit to working towards this type of meaningful change amid this current period of reflection.
“I’m seeing an amazing level in wanting to be listeners and learners. I think we typically find that people — particularly men and particularly white men in positions of power — are used to problem-solving. Understand problem, find solution. And when it’s an area that they don’t have competency in order to do that, they do the work. And I have used this analogy with our owners, our presidents, our CMOs, those positions of power, that just like any other business problem, this requires you to do the work,” Davis said.
“And I’ve had many both group and individual conversations over the past three weeks, and I haven’t had anyone be resistant. Much different than that, they have reached out to me for support and help.”
Davis also pointed to a number of specific initiatives the league is putting in place to move the game forward. First, the upcoming executive inclusion council, which Davis discussed in the open letter she penned earlier this month.
“We’ll be announcing in the next two weeks or so work that we have been putting in place for the past six or seven months, and that is the creation of an executive inclusion council that is made up of a number of owners, a number of presidents, and a number of GMs — the first time in hockey’s history that we’ve had a group at that level be focused on their own listening and learning around these issues,” Davis told Sportsnet 590.
The hockey community also saw another group come together to combat systemic racism in the game, with a number of current and former Black NHL players recently forming the Hockey Diversity Alliance. Davis told Janda and Riccio that she believes the Alliance can work well alongside another player-based committee the league will be putting in place, and discussed the dialogue she’s had with the Alliance.
“We’ve had a very constructive dialogue — in fact, I was on the phone with them almost two hours last night. … I almost see the Alliance as an offshoot of the players’ committee, where I use the term ‘special forces unit’ that’s going to be laser-focused on issues of racism, particularly for players of colour. And their insights are going to be critical as we think about inclusion in a more holistic way,” Davis explained.
“The player inclusion committee is going to be focused on diversity and inclusion broadly across all of the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, but the Alliance I think is going to be that special forces unit that’s going to provide insight and intelligence on the ways in which we can work specifically on the growth of the game through the eyes of players of colour.”
As has become clear from the calls to action from said players of colour, one of the key issues halting the game’s growth is its accessibility at the grassroots level. Janda suggested using ball hockey as an entry-point into the sport for those new to the game, to which Davis said the league has been testing out a plan that would do just that.
“[That’s] something that we’ve been spending a lot of time working on. We see [ball hockey] as an on-ramp to ice hockey. But we also believe that ball and street hockey, and dek hockey, can be a ramp unto itself for kids who want to consume the sport and ultimately can be fans of the sport,” Davis said. “So, we’ve been working on some interesting innovations and testing models where we’ve gone into both rural and urban areas … in Boston and Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, where we are retrofitting basketball hoops so that you can actually go on a basketball court and connect a hockey net and have hockey sticks there, and have kids get pick-up games.
“So that they just sort of see hockey as yet another sport that they can consume in their neighbourhoods, on courts right in their communities. We are going to have to continue to look at those kinds of innovations if we’re really serious about growing the sport.”
Davis also described the work currently being done to improve diversity in the coaching ranks, where there’s a clear need for a greater presence of people of colour.
“A couple weeks ago, we had a very robust conversation with the NHL Coaching Association, talking about creating a development program so that we can identify a pipeline of diverse coaches and start moving them into positions where they have access and they have mentors, so that they can ultimately move into NHL roles,” Davis told Janda and Riccio.
“And last week, the Coaches Association had a major event where they invited over 100 coaches and they reached out to us because of that conversation a couple weeks ago, to help identify a number of potential coaches of colour. And 15 were identified. So, now we are beginning to look at those 15 and, how do we cultivate those relationships? How do we create mentors with NHL coaches?
“It starts with that kind of work. It starts small and it goes from there, and that’s how you build.”
While much work must still be done to bring about the type of meaningful change needed to have the game reflect the population it serves, Davis said it’s crucial to judge that growth by where it began, rather than where it will hopefully finish.
“I think we’re making great progress, and I try to measure progress from where we started to where we are versus where we need to go, because that’s one of the ways in which people get very exhausted and frustrated in this work, is we look at our start point and we measure progress relative to where our ultimate goal is, when you have to measure along the way,” she explained.
“One of the things that I know to be true in this kind of work is that you have to be cognizant of the fact that you have to do a lot of back-work to ready your organization for the kinds of programs and initiatives that you want to launch — programs and initiatives are great, but if the organization and its leaders, those in positions of power, haven’t been educated, if they don’t understand why this is about growth and not about charity, if they don’t see it as a business imperative, then it’s just going to be a check-the-box exercise, and it’s not going to be substantive change.”
With Davis at the helm, substantive change seems within reach. Outside the NHL’s walls, the call is for the same, with those taking to the streets in protest no doubt hoping for a similarly systematic approach to righting systemic wrongs.
And on that front, Davis believes change too will come.
“We’re seeing something unlike anything that we’ve seen in the past 50 years,” she told Janda and Riccio. “It is very much like some of the things I remember in the ’60s and I am old enough to have remembered and experienced some of that.
“I really think we’re at a point where there’s no turning back.”