Since assuming an impact role in Gary Bettman’s front office nearly four years ago, Kim Davis has picked up on one common thread with everyone associated with hockey.
Regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, or age: They all profess love for the game.
“If we love the game and we want the culture of hockey to change, we have to realize that it starts with each of us individually,” Davis stresses. “Systems are created by individuals. And individuals hold power and hold influence.”
A trailblazer and self-described “change agent” with a 30-plus-year career of disrupting and improving the worlds of finance and sport, Davis holds the post of senior executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs for the league.
Which is a fancy way of saying it’s her job to spearhead a more inclusive culture in a sport crowded with straight, white men who often hire and promote more straight, white men who often market to people like them.
In the wake of Joel Quenneville, Stan Bowman and Bill Peters, lawsuits hang. Clouds of distrust and disgust hover overhead.
Davis’s role here is both critical and unenvious.
Slogans are just that.
Davis maintains that truly making hockey for everyone is a marathon goal. So, her eyes are on the long-term, to put systems and committees and momentum in place in order for change to be sustainable when she leaves this post.
Building frameworks to deal with bullying, abuse and discrimination is the easy part.
True change? At the root?
“That’s the real work,” Davis says. “It’s about each one of us interrogating ourselves.”
I sat down with Davis last week at the PrimeTime Sports Management Conference in Toronto to discuss where the league goes during this reckoning.
SPORTSNET.CA: With hockey culture taking so many hits of late, what’s the greatest challenge you face right now?
KIM DAVIS: A complex question. I think the greatest challenge is taking these moments where we learn about something that is not a proud moment for us and turning it into a teachable moment. And when you have stakeholder groups coming at you from every angle, it’s easy to be defensive, particularly because you know the work that is underway and the work that’s going on, often behind the scenes, to continue to improve culture. So, the hardest part is keeping everyone focused on staying the course. These moments are really about the bigger movement and staying focused on that and using these moments of despair, whether it’s around abuse or discrimination, as a moment for us to listen and to say, “What can we do to up our game even more?” And my job is to quarterback that with the commissioner and the management team and the 32 clubs.
So, what goes through your mind when you see the Kyle Beach interview?
The first thing that went through my head was, I have a son. I have a 29-year-old son, and I literally felt the pain of a mother when he talked about having that conversation with her. And that was very personal and painful. The other thing that occurred to me was, the fact this happened 10 years ago and is coming to light now means that we’re making some progress. That people are feeling comfortable in having the courage to speak truth. So as painful as that is, it is a moment that says there’s something changing. There’s something happening in hockey culture that is allowing us to break away some of those elements that have held people back from speaking.
Is it happening fast enough?
Well, is it ever fast enough? It’s never fast enough because the world is not stagnant. Every time you make progress, there’s more change in the world. And this is the challenge we have. There’s so much ambiguity in everything today, and we have to change and pivot and not take a victory lap because something else is coming around the corner. We have to be poised and ready for it.
How effective is the NHL hotline, really?
The hotline is the baseline work that we are undertaking, and we are continuing to look at ways to enhance it and to wrap services around it, so that we can really continue to make people feel comfortable that we are responding not only to their ability to report but also the support that they may need in order to continue to progress in this culture change. We can’t rest on any laurels of any system or policy or programs that we put in place. We have to keep thinking: How is the world changing? How do we need to be transparent? What are the expectations of society, our fan base, all of our stakeholders? And how do we stay in front of them?
What does “enhancing the hotline” mean? What does that entail?
Well, there’s more to come on that, so I don’t want to speak before we’ve actually put anything out. Just know that we are in the process of going through a very intense review of everything that we do to make the culture change we need to make.
How, if at all, is the league putting pressure on teams to hire more diversely?
Well, I wouldn’t call it pressure. I think there is a keen understanding and commitment and awareness of the fact that representation counts. That if we are going to respond to changing demographics and our share of the fan of the future, that we must have people that look like that demographic shift in order to inspire those groups. The hard part is helping people know how to source that talent. If you’re in an organization or in an industry that’s been accustomed to going to one or two places for talent, then it’s a new muscle you have to build. You have to get exposed to new networks. It’s easy to get frustrated when people say, ‘I can’t find talent that is female or BIPOC.’ But the truth is, we have to keep helping our clubs and helping ourselves get exposed to new networks and expose them to these talents.
Are you doing that?
We are going to announce in the coming weeks a partnership with an organization in the States called Jopwell that has a network of over 120,000 BIPOC talent that will now have exposure to job openings in the NHL. So, when a club says, ‘I can’t find anyone in sales and marketing that is BIPOC,’ we can connect them into that network.
Would you ever relegate hiring policy? For instance, say to a team hiring a GM or an executive, “You must interview someone of colour and a woman before you hire.”
Diverse candidate slates are a critically important aspect of accountability. Research shows that if you have a diverse candidate slate, made up of women and people of colour, that ultimately you’re going to hire that talent. So, educating our leaders across the clubs on the need for diverse candidates slates, I think that’s definitely coming down the pipe.
Where does the league’s relationship with Hockey Diversity Alliance stand? Is there a relationship right now?
We’ve had a lot of conversations with the HDA over the past 18 months, and we both agree that our most enduring connection is the fact that we both want to see BIPOC growth at the youth level, and that we know representation and mentoring is important. We still have a lot of work to do to work out our own individual differences. But there’s a respect on both sides for that mandate to grow our sport and to provide role models. So, I think there’s alignment around that. We’ll work out the details between the official relationship. But know that behind the scenes there is a lot of work underway on both sides to make sure we both stay committed to that.
What is the next big initiative, in terms of culture change, we should look for coming from the NHL?
We have just completed at the league level, a comprehensive two-day courageous conversation experience for every league employee, starting with the commissioner, deputy commissioner, every single senior executive, all the way down to the secretaries. Seven hundred employees have gone through that immersive experience for two days. Twenty-four per cent of clubs have gone through some form of that experience. And we are absolutely focused on getting 100 per cent of clubs in that kind of experience.
The next most important thing is in the locker room. The top recommendation that came out of the Player Inclusion Committee — comprised of players current and former —- was locker room training. They feel like that training needs to be led by players. Developed in concert with a professional but led through the lived experience of players. We tested that model this summer with officials at their training camp, and players participated in that, and it was very successful. And so our expectation is that we roll out a comprehensive locker room player training experience over the next season.
Like, training how they communicate with one another in the room?
First of all, just the idea of respect. Making sure there’s a common language and a common understanding of how respect and behaviours like bullying or harassment all connect to diversity, equity and inclusion. Because as simple as it sounds, a lot of people don’t connect all those pieces. They think they sit in their isolated little vertical. So, that’s an important level-setting to do across all the clubs.
For players of colour and LGBTQ players, we’re encouraging people to talk about their lived experience in the locker room and bring a level of understanding and empathy to other players, so they’re aware of how behaviours and words count. It’s the ongoing education that I think is required for us to really see culture change. It has to be in the front office and in the locker room.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.