W hen hockey first touched Mark Fraser’s life, it was all-encompassing, infiltrating every corner of his attention.
“It was hockey cards, it was street hockey, it was mini sticks, it was video games,” Fraser remembers. “I’m the baby of the family, I have an older brother who played. Probably just like a lot of Canadian kids, starting in the driveway playing — if I was allowed to be included — with my brother and some of the other neighbourhood kids, even my dad. Just road hockey, driveway hockey.
“I think pretty much every way we could consume the sport, we would.”
Back then, thoughts of playing in the NHL one day were a million miles off — for Fraser, hockey wasn’t a career path, it was just something he loved. And as the son of a heralded Olympic sprinter, Fraser’s love of the game — any game — was nurtured and spurred on wholeheartedly.
“It was nice having a dad who was a huge sports guy himself, and a great athlete in a few different sports himself,” he says of his father, Hugh. “I have memories of just playing catch in the backyard, going down to the school park behind our house to play basketball. He didn’t have as much experience with hockey as far as playing the game, but certainly was a huge fan of it.
“He had a favourite team in pretty much every sport that was out there. So, we were able to adapt and take on that love and passion for sports as well.”
In addition to excelling on the ice as a defenceman for the local junior-A Gloucester Rangers, by the time he was a teenager Fraser was a track-and-field talent like his father, and a competitive soccer player, too. Even as his high school years in Ottawa wound down, hockey still wasn’t his central focus, just one of a handful of athletic pursuits.
In 2004, though, everything shifted.
A call came in from Kitchener, asking if Fraser would be willing to head west and join the Rangers. The 18-year-old met the team on the road in Toronto, taking the ice for his first OHL game at St. Michael’s Arena soon after. And just like that, everything else fell away — the track, the pitch, the scholarships he’d been pursuing. Like it had been in the beginning, hockey was once again all-encompassing.
“Eight months later, I ended up being a third-round pick for the Devils,” he says.
Looking back on it now, he marvels at the whirlwind that carried him into the pros, first for a club that had won the Stanley Cup just two years before they called his name on draft day, then for two of the sport’s historic Canadian franchises.
“You know, it was a quick transition for me,” he says. “From being a multi-sport athlete to all of a sudden having this singular focus, to moving away from home, to playing on a major-junior team, getting scouted, and getting drafted — all in less than a year.”
The whirlwind hasn’t stopped. On the ice, it spun Fraser through 13 cities, five countries and seven pro hockey leagues, including nearly a decade in the NHL. More recently, it’s carried him into the beginning of another journey in the game, this time off the sheet. In 2020, as the blue-liner hung up his skates and prepared to move on from life as a hockey player, a period of racial reckoning enveloped the sports world, bringing to the fore questions that had long rattled around Fraser’s mind about systemic racism in Canada’s game. Moved to transform those thoughts into tangible change, he was pulled back in. Now, two years into an equity, diversity and inclusion role with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the former pro is bringing a novel, unapologetic approach to educating the hockey world on its inequities.
W hen Fraser’s passion for hockey brought him to a moment that had once seemed unimaginable — a chance to hop over the boards in an NHL jersey, alongside Hall of Famers like Martin Brodeur — it came, fittingly, back in his hometown, where he’d played out big-league dreams on the driveway all those years earlier.
“That was definitely one of my career highlights,” he says of his first NHL shift. “Just getting a call-up and finding shortly after the team was going to be in Ottawa, having all your friends and family be able to witness your first moment.”
His finest moments as an NHLer also came not far from where his love of the game first blossomed — this time just four hours west, after a 2012 trade landed Fraser back in Ontario with the Maple Leafs. His run in Toronto stands out among the rest of the memories scattered throughout his playing days, he says. “I had a great year. I just had this 180 of confidence that was instilled in me. I became a whole new sort of player with the empowerment I felt from the organization, and parlayed that into coming out of the [2012-13] NHL lockout the next year with the Leafs. Which led to a career season for me.”
It wasn’t just the career progress, though. It was the simple things, too — being under those lights, wearing that jersey, part of the Maple Leafs’ century of history.
“When you’re a kid from Ottawa, or any Ontario city, really, regardless if you grew up a Leafs fan or not, putting on the Leafs’ jersey is a pretty special thing,” Fraser says. “You know, from making it to the NHL in general, first game being in my hometown, and then donning the Maple Leafs jersey — and then on top of that, performing, and being a real asset to the team’s success — that was that was something I’ll never, ever, ever forget.”
Fraser’s time in the game wasn’t without painful moments, though. The 36-year-old has written before about the discrimination that followed him throughout his life on the ice. About parents telling him to “go back to the bush in Africa,” fans telling him to “stick to basketball,” GMs asking white players if adding a Black player like Fraser would be “bad for team morale.” It followed him at age 14, at age 17, at 33. “The fact is, I’ve known prejudice my whole life,” Fraser wrote.
Looking back at it all now, it’s clear to him where the gap was. Clear what was absent, and why it made those moments feel so stark.
“What would have helped me navigate some of those things is if there was someone in a leadership position who had had a similar experience,” Fraser says. “I think part of the challenge is, when you’re a Black hockey player — especially one who goes as far as I did, to make it to the pro levels and make the NHL level — the further you go, the more on an island you sometimes feel.
“Although you’re in your most comfortable environment, and very comfortable and capable to succeed and to thrive, you’re inevitably going to encounter a bunch of experiences. And it’s not that there needs to be, you know, program support or any type of infrastructure like that, it’s more of just having awareness from your peers, from your superiors. … If there was a missing resource, it would be having others at both equal peer levels of a player, but also leadership levels, who have had experiences [with discrimination], and therefore they’re equipped to perhaps handle the situations.
“But that had never existed. I never had anyone who had that experience, or had that knowledge.”
F raser’s final game as a pro came in 2020, for the German club Schwenninger Wild Wings. After three years of playing overseas — in Finland and Slovakia before that final stop — with the COVID-19 pandemic picking up steam, Fraser decided it was time to go home.
Back in Ottawa, unsure of his next chapter, the game monopolized his attention once again.
“It was post George Floyd’s murder, and hockey’s inability to respond to the social issues that our society and our country and our sports and our world was all of a sudden greeted with — that had broken my heart,” Fraser says. “I had to really reflect and think, like, why I just spent my entire life playing this game that I loved in this institution that might cheer for me when I’m on the ice, but as soon as I take the jersey off and I’m just a Black man walking the street, there’s no awareness to what [hockey’s] Black stakeholders may be experiencing. No awareness to even do the right thing and to think that there might be real, genuine pain being felt by some of its players or coaches or referees or fans. That hurt me.
“I thought, ‘Why did I just invest my entire life to this thing that, at the end of the day, won’t even acknowledge who we are as people when there’s something awful happening in the world?’”
He mulled how he could try to bring about the change he felt the game needed, looked through his contact list, and took a leap.
“I shot a shot,” he says. “I reached out to [Maple Leafs GM] Kyle Dubas, sent him a letter through email and tried to request some time to chat with him about these issues. I quickly heard back from him and we had a fantastic conversation. He didn’t need any educating on the subject. He was very well-aware of what’s happening in the world and what should be happening in hockey, but wasn’t. And he agreed.”
In February 2021, the club hired Fraser in a player development role focused on equity, diversity and inclusion. While he entered with eyes on the bigger picture, the first step was simpler.
“The initial thing the team agreed that I would be able to do for them is to get immediately in the locker room and connect with our players. Thinking back to that time, the conversations understandably would be heavy, and could be difficult. We often say, ‘To create this systemic change, you need to have uncomfortable conversations.’ But I think what the team agreed that my value could be is I won’t be coming to this from a third-party perspective — I’m coming to this as a guy who, only six years or so prior, had been in the locker room myself as a Black player. There’s a number of guys on the team who I would’ve known and a couple still that I would have been former teammates of. So to really speak to the players in their language and to be relatable, I think the team understood the importance of [that].
“In order to help create cultural change in our organization, you need to have the players be advocates for it. They’re the biggest voices we have, and they’re going to be the biggest champions for some of the work that we can do. Having someone that could connect to the players immediately through that lived experience as a player, I think, was the main thing, the main value that the team saw in me.”
It wasn’t a simple transition. For nearly two decades, Fraser’s life had been dictated by the everyday routine of being a player, had been structured around practices, morning skates, and gamedays. Fresh out of that existence, he was back in the game on the other side of the glass, and with a difficult task at his feet — trying to tackle the biggest issues facing the sport. Trying to build a bridge over a river a hundred years wide.
And yet, in another way, it was nothing new for Fraser. Such is often the reality for BIPOC players in the game.
“With respect to some of the big-picture needs, and shifting focus to certain questions, that’s something that I had been pondering and thinking and sort of ideating around well before I had this position,” he says. “I mean, just from being a Black hockey player, you have the experience and you have conversations with some of your peers who might look like you.
“Those are conversations that aren’t new to me — I’ve been having those for years and years. It’s now having an opportunity to maybe do something with those conversations.”
It’s why, when Fraser finally got to this point, when he finally had the chance to take a run at changing the things he’d seen over the course of his playing career, he had an existing vision in his mind of where he hoped he could help take the sport.
“I wanted to be able to create an education and an awareness, but I also wanted to focus on how there’s a huge demographic of fans that we’re going to lose if we’re not intentionally connecting with them. Our business is going to suffer if we’re not intentionally connecting with them,” he says. “Beyond that, there was a real education and learning that I wanted to bring into hockey and through our organization, to just unpack what certain individuals have to do or experience every day, sometimes just to enter our building.
“Just to show that in this large family of ours, there are disparities that exist. And I don’t think it’s okay for us to just continue to go about our business with our head down anymore.”
Two years on, Fraser’s efforts have branched and grown, spreading throughout the organization, touching those in the locker room and in the stands, too.
A central focus of those efforts has been growing the conversation, leaving space for difficult discussions about discrimination and injustice, but making room for celebrating culture, too. To do that, Fraser turned to the dinner table. He spearheaded a video segment that brought together a group of players — Auston Matthews, Wayne Simmonds, Jason Spezza and then-Leafs goalie Jack Campbell — for a meal from Albert’s Real Jamaican, a Toronto staple, breaking down the history of each dish served up. And then another that saw Fraser visit local Indigenous restaurant Tea N Bannock alongside Kalley Armstrong — a former on-ice pro herself, and granddaughter of Maple Leafs legend George Armstrong, an Indigenous icon in the sport — the segment similarly highlighting the history of Indigenous culinary traditions.
“I think there’s just so many ways that growth and learning can happen,” he says. “In those particular situations, no pun intended, but it’s trying to find digestible ways to introduce new concepts, digestible ways to connect with people on lived experience and to be able to encourage them and empower them to see new perspectives.
“Food is an easy way [to do that]. To sit down and consume a meal together and be able to have conversation and learn together — that’s not a new concept that I invented, that’s just fact.”
While those efforts were aimed at educating those outside the locker room, Fraser exposed those within it to important voices and perspectives, too, bringing in community leaders like Chief Stacey LaForme, Chief of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, and Bernice Carnegie, daughter of trailblazing Hall of Famer Herb Carnegie, to speak with the players. And out in the community, Fraser helped direct the spotlight and the resources that come with the Maple Leafs’ name towards grassroots organizations similarly pushing to make hockey a more inclusive space, connecting the NHL team with groups like Black Girl Hockey Club, Apna Hockey, Hockey Equality and Hockey For Youth.
“It’s been incredibly important, and a real honour for myself, to be able to do [that],” he says. “Toronto is the most diverse city in the world — in my circle, in my network, hockey fandom looks diverse. But it doesn’t always look that way in our traditional hockey spaces, whether that’s just hockey in general or in Maple Leafs spaces. … There are a number of organizations out there that don’t specifically represent just one demographic, but they represent a number of marginalized demographics that, traditionally speaking, have been long, long, long-time fans of the game, but still don’t in any capacity at all see themselves represented. They’re just not present anywhere.
“In the Black or Indigenous communities, the history of our experience in hockey is well over a century old, and yet there’s still so little representation. So having the ability to find organic ways to bring new community programs in, new youth groups, have marginalized youth come to their first NHL game or interact with a former NHL player, sometimes even just get a free T-shirt or toque or something — it’s very small gestures, but people, you find, are just so appreciative.
“Because they’re feeling seen or acknowledged for the first time. And what we’re doing is creating fans for life.”
As for how Fraser’s efforts have been received internally, the fact he’s continued to be empowered to do this work is evidence enough of the reaction from the Maple Leafs’ higher-ups, he says. And in the locker room, he’s found kindred spirits.
“For the players, I think it’s been received well,” he says. “Regardless of who your audience is, you don’t have to focus on changing everybody all at the same time. The point is to leave thought-provoking little pieces everywhere. … We’re trying to leave information or examples or analogies or experiences on the table for people to take back home with them and think, ‘You know, I haven’t thought of it that way before.’ And I think the athletes that we have today, they consume information much differently than athletes even when I played. I think there’s a genuine thirst from a lot of our athletes to understand these things a little bit more.
“But also, understandably, it’s scary sometimes to make yourself vulnerable and just ask questions, for fear of sounding ignorant or naive or not saying something the right way. I’m not here to criticize or punish anyone — I’m here to help individuals and feed that thirst, that curiosity and desire to grow and understand new perspectives beyond their own. And, to be honest, to understand perspectives that are actually just represented in our locker room, but maybe haven’t had a place to speak, or the confidence or empowerment to speak up before.
“I love having conversations with some of the guys, and they ask how can they help me, or what is it that they can do to get more involved — you know, I’m grateful to know that had I not been here in this position in the first place, that might be a thirst that would go unquenched.”
To hear them tell it, the Maple Leafs’ players — particularly the team’s biggest stars, who have the potential to be the loudest advocates — are grateful for the approach Fraser’s taken.
“He’s an easy guy to talk to,” Matthews said of Fraser early last year. “It’s been really good having him around. I think we’ve learned a lot, and there’s obviously a lot of room to grow in that area. I think it’s just good to hear stories or hear experiences from a guy like Mark, or a guy like Simmer. You know, obviously we all walk in our own shoes, but to get perspective from other people in different walks of life, and what they’ve gone through, I think it’s really eye-opening.”
For those like Simmonds, already a long-time advocate for creating a more inclusive and diverse game, Fraser’s presence means something else.
“It’s been huge,” Simmonds said of having Fraser back in the organization. “Obviously, with Frase being Black, he’s gone through a lot of things that I’ve gone through. And it’s nice to hear it from someone else that’s not yourself. You know, I feel like sometimes you get thinking in your mind that people are doubting you, doubting everything that you’re saying, and not necessarily all the time are people believing what’s going on.
“But when you have so many people attacking the issue at the same time, I think it makes it a lot more believable.”
Believing, of course, is only the start. For the hockey world to get to where Fraser hopes it does, it’ll require much more. But in order to aim higher, there are square-one barriers that still need to be hurdled, like convincing the detractors that his isn’t a divisive effort, but an inclusive one.
“What I’m hoping to see happen, the change I’m hoping for, is that there’s more tolerance for these things. That people stop questioning why we’re doing it, or airing their discomfort of why they have to witness or experience it or feel inundated by it,” Fraser says. “Because the reason we’re doing it in the first place is because there’s inequality that exists among us, and it’s systemic. It’s not something that just exists in thin air, [where] some people have to experience it and others don’t, or there’s just these one-off situations. No, there’s a system in place that has operated for a very long time, and even if you were to remove the negative people from it, the system will continue to perpetuate the same result. That’s systemic racism. That’s systemic prejudice, right there in a nutshell.
“We’re not asking you to, you know, invest all your money. We’re not asking you to picket in the street. We’re asking you to be aware, and understand that people also love this game but this game has been structured in a way — the institution has been structured in a way — where it invites in some groups and not others.
“There’s a lot of purists who wouldn’t want to see things change. But change is inevitable. Evolution and innovation are inevitable.”
Hoping to be the catalyst of that inevitability, to bridge the gap between fear and understanding, between holding on to the way things are and accepting that they could be better, is Fraser, doing what he can to pull the two sides together.
And though the road ahead is long, the barriers along it still daunting, he won’t relent. Because he sees the bigger picture.
“There’s a lot of tradition in the game, and tradition in fandom,” he says. “We’ve seen it on our social channels, where we used to do things and it would be, you know, ‘I’m here to watch hockey highlights, I’m not here to listen to political opinion.’ But we know that it’s not political opinion. We know that what we’re doing is social impact and social good.
“At the end of the day, we’re fighting for humanitarian rights, but just within the game of hockey. To be acknowledged, and to be celebrated, and to be heard. And we want to encourage our fans, and the culture of hockey, to follow us on this journey.”