NHL takes first meaningful steps towards necessary culture shift

Sean Reynolds and Eric Engels discuss Kim Davis’ impact on where things in the NHL are heading when it comes to changing hockey culture.

PALM BEACH, Fla.— It’s a glimmer of hope -- and perhaps it’s only that for the time being -- that on the same day controlling interest of an NHL team was officially sold for close to a billion dollars the most prevalent topics discussed by the league’s Board of Governors during its three-hour meeting were improving the sport’s culture and paving the way for more diversity.

Gary Bettman and Bill Daly, who typically dominate post-meeting media availability, instead spent close to 40 minutes listening to senior executive vice president of social impact, growth initiative, and legislative affairs Kim Davis give a top-down summary of her extensive plan, which in Bettman’s words was “unanimously endorsed” by the governors. They sat and nodded their heads as Davis fielded the bulk of questions asked by reporters in attendance, and they only briefly touched on the other topics covered in the meeting.

Bettman answered one question about the sale of majority shares in the Pittsburgh Penguins to Fenway Sports Group. Daly said the big takeaway on another topic discussed -- COVID-19 -- is that the vaccines, which all but one of the league’s players have taken, have been effective in curbing how sick people get from the disease.

But the commissioner and his deputy deferred answering all questions on Olympic participation, Wednesday night’s breaking news on the Arizona Coyotes failing to pay their taxes on time and risking being locked out of their own arena, and on any other subject until after Friday morning’s meeting has concluded.

“Tomorrow,” Bettman said, and repeated, when he was asked about anything other Davis’s presentation, and that felt appropriate. That the NHL’s senior leadership realized no other subject should distract from this all-important initiative was a small step in the right direction.

There are many other more significant ones that must be taken for meaningful change to occur, which Davis acknowledged when she was asked when tangible progress might be expected.

She knows, as we all do, that this cultural shift will take time; that change is rarely linear.

“Practising in this space for over 40 years, I can tell you that change efforts are never-ending because the world is constantly changing,” Davis said, “so what we have to do is be prepared to constantly iterate, to constantly pivot, to operate in ambiguity and to, despite what’s happening, continue to move forward.”

“I think that the most important part of this is being realistic about the efforts that are necessary to make the change, and to ensure that those efforts aren’t performative,” she added. “I think that’s what I and my team have been most focused on, in the midst of everything that’s going on, is to be able to say, ‘We can’t go back, but what can we do going forward to ensure that these kinds of things don’t happen and that we create the kind of practices and kind of culture within the organization that helps us do that?’”

These are questions the NHL should’ve been asking itself long before now.

But better now than never.

The NHL can’t go back and change Akim Aliu being subject to the bullying and racist taunts of former coach Bill Peters, and it can’t undo the damage done to Kyle Beach by Brad Aldrich and the devastation caused by the Chicago Blackhawks’ negligence in quietly dismissing Aldrich and allowing him to move along with his career elsewhere and commit the same crimes. But it can create and mandate updated behavioral training for every owner, general manager, coach, trainer, and player in the league.

The NHL can’t take back statements recently made about not needing to engage with former abused player Sheldon Kennedy on best practices to encourage victims of abuse to report issues to the league and feel as though coming forward will lead to significant action, and it can’t completely undo the way executives have all but ignored hiring people of diverse backgrounds. But it can partner with Kennedy’s anti-harassment organization Respect Group and industry leader in connecting with and recruiting talent from diverse communities Jopwell.

There should be some hope gleaned from the league finally taking these initiatives.

Davis said she believes they will be fundamental to the progress the NHL hopes to make to ensure hockey is “safe, inclusive and respectful, both on and off the ice,” and “in all workplaces.”

She referenced the “hockey ecosystem” several times and expressed the world’s top league would be joined by the NHLPA, the AHL, the ECHL, the CHL, the USHL, College Hockey, Hockey Canada, USA Hockey, the PHF, the PWHPA and the NHL’s Coaches’ Association in signing the Respect Hockey Charter and making the commitment to environments that are safe, inclusive and respectful.

We asked Davis how soon NHL personnel would receive mandatory training Respect Group was offering on preventing bullying, discrimination, harassment, sexual abuse, substance abuse, suicide and violence, and she responded that the curriculum would be in place by March of 2022 and completed by all parties by the end of the hockey season.

Then the plan would be to have that training—along with other resources—available to all other leagues and at lower levels of hockey to create a baseline that enables the other elements (reporting, counseling and accountability) of the respect initiative to be properly executed.

In addition to the NHL’s reporting service, which is administered by Deloitte, the league pledged to financially support establishing an independent hotline “to enable stakeholders throughout the broader hockey ecosystem to report misconduct and abuse to an independent third party.”

Regarding counseling, the league expressed its commitment to “support hockey outside the NHL, including governing bodies at all levels of the game in North America, by collating and disseminating information on credible support services.”

And lastly, over the next year, the NHL will organize a “Respect Hockey Summit” to discuss “workplace culture challenges and best practices” with the leaders of organizations in the various other leagues and associations.

That can’t be where the action ends, but this feels like a good start.

Making sure the first in-person Board of Governors meeting in two years was dominated by the subject was part of that.

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