Early in an NHL season, you expect conversations around the league to be driven by everything new. New faces in the locker room, new names on the backs of the jerseys, new dreams, new rivalries, new uniforms or even new arenas. But in that mix, you don’t necessarily expect new data on the identities of the people who make up the league, presented in the hopes of spurring further conversation.
That’s what the NHL released today in the form of a first-of-its-kind report on the league’s efforts, progress and thinking around diversity, equity and inclusion. “Accelerating Diversity & Inclusion” was created not just to serve as an internal reference point, but also a public document, shared to fans and media alike. It outlines the NHL’s big-picture plans, broken down into seven pillars — leadership, education, employment, marketing, partnerships, participation and community engagement — and includes a demographic survey that provides an unprecedented look at the racial and gender identities and sexual orientations of the league’s full-time workforce.
On the eve of the report’s public release, I spoke with Kim Davis, the NHL’s executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives & legislative affairs, to better understand why the league conducted the study, what the findings signal and how the NHL hopes to apply what it’s learned to create positive change.
SPORTSNET: At the beginning of the season, I don’t think hockey fans or media are expecting an exhaustive report on diversity within the league and the game. But that’s what we have. Why did you do it?
KIM DAVIS: We did it because it’s the right thing to do given the fact that we know our sport’s future growth is going to be dependent on our attracting and retaining these growing demographics that are represented across Canada and, frankly, across all of North America. And so, it was important for us over the past couple of years to get very intentional about how we are conducting our outreach, across all dimensions, to these diverse audiences. And this is really the stake in the ground so that we can be transparent and accountable to that work over the coming years.
Now that you have the data, what do you hope to do with it?
We are going to hold ourselves accountable to doing this kind of comprehensive report every two years, so that we can start with the stake in the ground, and then measure our impact, our change, the areas that we need to accelerate over time. We will use this as the way to measure and hold ourselves to account.
Are there specific benchmarks you’ve set that determine what success looks like?
We are focused particularly in the area of marketing to new audiences. This work came out of the Fan Inclusion Committee that has been in existence now for the past two years.
Their goal is to grow our BIPOC fanbase by 25 per cent. And so, we are going to be looking at that as an important benchmark. In addition to that, in every one of those seven dimensions that we outline, we want to see improvement. We haven’t said to the clubs, ‘You have to hit a certain number,’ but our goal is, we should see 100 per cent participation, particularly in areas of training and education and leadership, because those are foundational to all of the other aspects of growth. We’ve got the support of the owners and the Board of Governors in this work, and that’s really what leadership is about.
One thing that stood out to me is that a new D&I educational experience for NHL players and locker room staff is in development. When is that coming and what will that entail?
We have been working with the Player Inclusion Committee and the Players’ Association to develop this locker room experience. Our goal is to have it out this season, probably in the first or second quarter. And obviously the challenge is with active players being able to find the time to do it. We’ve been working with the clubs and the PA on negotiating that, but I think what’s really been exciting about that is number one, that its player led, and number two, the Player Inclusion Committee has been very intentional about why this is important.
Ryan Reaves, who’s on that committee said, “You can only get better if you do better.” And this is part of that learning experience. When you know better, you do better. I think that’s going to go a long way in the locker room.
The workforce demographic survey is meant to accelerate inclusive hiring. How does it put the league and clubs in a position to accelerate inclusive hiring?
That is really important analysis for a lot of reasons. Number one, it is self-directed, so it’s how people see themselves and the dimensions of themselves that they see. The way the clubs are going to use it is that they can look at that data and say, as an example at the macro level, “While we have 38 per cent of our workforce represented by females, with ethnicity we have a lot of work to do,” and so we can then home in on strategies to attract more BIPOC women, right? So, it allows for some very bespoke work. It allows for some very detailed and intentional work, and it allows for the creation of these plans that clubs can have, to decide exactly how they’re going to go after improving their numbers, as well as the league.
I notice you said “strategies.” Affirmative action is a very divisive topic. Are there actual benchmarks around hiring, that you’d like to set? And why or why not?
I’ve never been a proponent of setting specific targets. I have worked in industries over many years that set targets and what typically happens is you get numbers but you don’t get culture change. One of the reasons why diversity and inclusion hasn’t been sticky, if you will, within many organizations, is that people don’t understand. You can go out and attract talent, but if you don’t create a culture where you are developing and, most importantly, retaining that talent, then you aren’t really changing. In fact, you’re probably doing a disservice because people leave dissatisfied. They talk about that and then now you have an issue with the perception of your brand.
We’ve been really focused on making sure that we understand the connections between all of these elements. For example, when we talk about looking at the workforce data and saying, “Okay, let’s go out and recruit Hispanic employees.” Well, the first question is, how is our brand perceived by the Hispanic market? How do people feel about their ability to not just survive but thrive in a club or in the NHL? How is the culture going to receive them? What kind of mentoring and sponsorship programs are available?
So, it’s not one dimensional, it’s multidimensional. And I think that’s a lot of the consulting work that my team and I have done with the clubs, helping to educate them on all of the dimensions of this and how everything relates to everything. Only so much can be done top-down from the league level.
Obviously, there has to be buy-in within the clubs. To date, 14 clubs have employed or are about to employ at least one professional whose job function is dedicated to D&I. What is that gulf between currently employ and about to, and is there a timeline for the other 16 clubs?
I’m hoping the natural competition of these kinds of reports will help spur that, frankly. Those varying states of readiness have a lot of different factors. The largest one being, when you look at how much of this work we’ve accomplished over a period of time, it’s the last two years where we’ve seen this great acceleration, and that was during a time when we know that the economy was down. The revenues of our sport were way down. Some clubs rebounded faster than others, and so some clubs are still in the process of rehiring their basic talent to run their organization. I think we will see this shift over the next 18 months because no one has resisted this. Everybody understands that [a dedicated D&I staff] is an important element of what they need to move the needle on this, and I think it’s just going to be a timing issue given some of the economic situations occurring across the 32.
In the demographic survey, 83.6% of the league’s and clubs’ full-time staff identified as white. I was somewhat surprised that number wasn’t higher. What does that number tell you?
I think a lot of people had the reaction that you had. There’s been a lot of speculation about this, and facts don’t lie. So here we are, we’re being transparent and open about this is what the landscape looks like now. Now what I would tell you is, in the last three years, just in the last three years, we have seen the appointment of 10 Black C-suite executives across the 32 clubs. This notion of being intentional, this notion of having an integrated approach and a systems framework to help the clubs understand how to navigate this work is resulting in some real change. And I think those are the things that we want to continue to highlight, amplify, support, and to make sure that the mechanisms are in place to ensure the success of these folks that come into these roles.
I know you do this work thoughtfully, understanding that there’s a ripple effect to every decision. One of the ripple effects of working with this much intentionality and transparency is some may look at someone like Mike Grier — and some have — and say, “Well, Mike Grier is a diversity hire because this is of emphasis.” How do we get beyond that way of thinking, when we know we have to do this work, but also some people live with the consequences?
That is such an important question to ask, particularly this week, because in the Washington Post this week, there was a major article that talked about a research study that has just been completed that shows that when a person of color, specifically a Black person, ends up in a CEO or C-suite position, they are typically overqualified relative to their white counterparts, and they’re overqualified because companies and organizations are so cautious and careful about hiring folks as the first, the only, that these people have been navigating so many different roles. They have worked in so many different parts of organizations that they have a level of experience, and they quantify the experience in this report.
It takes courage. It takes bravery to be a first, particularly when you’re a person of colour and you come into an organization where there’s no one else that looks like you. And the truth of the matter is when you look at people like Mike Grier, we didn’t have to go to MLB or NFL or any place to get Mike Grier. Mike Grier has grown up in the sport of hockey. He has done his work. He has been successful in so many different roles.
People have to look at the facts and not the myth and the perception and, maybe, the bias that they bring to this conversation, because the data says something.
The most forward-facing people in the league are obviously the players. Will you do the same sort of demographic work on the players and share that? Are there benchmarks that you’re looking to in terms of that workforce?
We know going into this season that there are 44 BIPOC players that are on the bench. Obviously that number changes throughout the season, as people go up and go down in the AHL and so forth. But that number is up from where we started over the past. And, as you know, this is a function of what the pipeline to the elite level is looking like and how many kids we’re putting through that pipeline.
So, from a youth participation perspective, historically our industry growth fund has been focused on sticks in hands — how many kids, particularly diverse kids, can we get involved in the sport and get sticks in their hands? We have now begun to look at that fund and say, “How can we look at existing programs — like Anthony Stewart’s program that we are now supporting and providing financing for — and say, “These are kids that are on an elite pathway. How can we help scale and build capacity around those kinds of programs so that we can get more in the funnel, which will ultimately deliver us more professional players at the NHL level?”
Only 52.88 per cent of employees claimed a strong familiarity with hockey prior to joining their current employer. I know what my takeaway was from those numbers. What was yours?
We know that we are three times more likely to get a fan from a family that has had someone play the sport or had some connection to the sport. But we have to also understand that as we are looking to attract these underrepresented audiences, these new audiences in Canada, these immigrant audiences, that it’s not going be the case that they have exposure to the sport.
So, we have to come up with new pathways and new strategy to excite and delight these folks that don’t have a history with hockey. There are many roads that lead to fandom. I think we have to look at some of those other pathways.
How do you compare where the league is now to where it was when you first laid eyes on it?
When I did my work as a consultant with the league and we made some recommendations, I thought given the culture of the league at that time, that any kind of change effort would be more evolution than revolution. I think, accelerated by both the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, I would say that the change that we’ve seen has been far more revolutionary than I would’ve imagined. That gives me a great deal of hope that, despite what we often hear, our avid fans, casual fans and our fans-in-waiting all want to see hockey on the frontline of change.
We know we have a lot of work to do. We are not taking any kind of victory lap with this report, but we are putting it out there so that we can hold ourselves and be held accountable for our future work.
Is there anything fundamental you’ve learned in the five years you’ve been working full-time with the league that you didn’t know when you joined?
I had not worked in the world of sports, and so I did not understand, particularly men’s sports, the depth of how hypermasculine these environments and cultures are, and how much work you have to do to make sure that you clear through that kind of culture. The way you do that is, as a starting point, through education. We are exposing a new generation, particularly of players, to things that are going to be important for them not just as hockey players but as citizens of the world. And the world is changing, and society is changing, it’s changing for the better. People are feeling more open to use and find their voices. We have to make sure that our sport is prepared for that.