What Can the NHL Do to Diversify Its Fanbase?

We asked advocates and organizations to weigh in on how hockey can become more inclusive.

Is Hockey really for Everyone?

Since launching the Hockey is For Everyone Initiative in 2017, the NHL has taken great pains to improve both the perception and reality of the inclusivity of the game, both on the ice and in the C-Suites. The ’18-19 season saw the league send a large contingent to Pride, launch the Diversity and Inclusion Senior Leadership Council headed by Buffalo Sabres owner and President Kim Pegula, partner with Billie Jean King, and launch the Women’s Ambassador program.

So if you were to ask the NHL if Hockey is for Everyone, the answer would be a resounding “yes”.

Ask anyone else, and the answer is more complicated.

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First, there was the incident in Chicago, where fans directed racist taunts at Devante Smith-Pelly, one of the few black players in the NHL. Then there was the First Nations hockey team subjected to racist taunts at a youth tournament. And course there was the meaningless and ineffective $10,000 “fine” levied on the Ducks’ Ryan Getzlaf after he repeatedly directed a gay slur at a referee during a playoff game. That came only two months after Hockey is For Everyone initially launched.

So while the game is trying to push itself into a more progressive and widely-accessible era, there’s still plenty of work to be done to shift perceptions and fix some of the deeply entrenched negative aspects of hockey culture. With that in mind, we asked a number of organizations and advocates affiliated with hockey to answer the following question:

“What can the NHL do to diversify its fanbase?” 

Renee Hess – Black Girls Hockey Club (@BlackGirlHockey)

In order to diversify its fanbase, the National Hockey League must listen to minority fans and address our concerns about racism, sexism, and homophobia in the league. The executives can begin by educating themselves, hiring more people of color, and addressing the reasons why there seem to be so few minority communities interested in becoming involved in hockey. Assumptions that Black folks aren’t interested in hockey because it is expensive actually reveal the inherent racist structure of an institution that has long experienced gate-keeping at the highest levels. Sports are expensive, but with the proper support system and evidence that we are an important part of the hockey culture, marginalized fans will spend our money and we will put in the work. Low-cost or free hockey programs for kids in low-income areas will expose nontraditional markets to hockey. Punishing racist or homophobic microaggressions on and off the ice will make players and fans feel safer and more welcome in hockey spaces. Continued work by each of the professional hockey clubs and their affiliates to be inclusive to all races, genders, sexualities, and abilities must include equity education for players, coaches, and executives at all levels of hockey.

In the last couple of years, the National Hockey League has begun to put in the work necessary to begin to diversify its fanbase. The 2017 Declaration of Principles is such an important document that all NHL clubs should look toward as a standard of equality for all players and fans. Kim Davis, Executive Vice President of Social Impact, Growth Initiatives & Legislative Affairs, and the only Black woman in the executive level at the NHL, has already shifted the tide toward Diversity & Inclusion for the league. With the Hockey is for Everyone program, which benefits low-income areas and marginalized fans across North America and the first-ever NHL-sponsored Equity Summit, held in Las Vegas in June 2019, the League has shown a commitment to put capital behind this initiative, an important step for any corporation.

Hockey culture is evolving. Minority fans, LBGT fans, women, and low-income fans are gaining a voice in hockey fandom through organizations like the Black Girl Hockey Club. The traditional hockey market is changing and, with it, the entire landscape of hockey. Although change is difficult and oftentimes unwanted, anticipating and encouraging this shift toward inclusion is a move that will benefit institutions and hockey fans alike. Embracing diversity and working toward equity in hockey is the best way for the National Hockey League to move forward into the future of hockey.

Brock McGillis - Former hockey player and Athlete Ally Ambassador (@brock_mcgillis)

“Equality is the soul of liberty; there is, in fact, no liberty without it.”
- Frances Wright

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

- Nelson Mandela

I love hockey. Hockey has such a massive place in my heart, quite honestly it’s my first love. That said, socially hockey has to be better. Growing up, I hated myself and wanted to die due to the homophobic language I heard on a daily basis, language that wasn’t directed at me but made me feel like I couldn’t be myself. It made me feel like I was bad or wrong. Yet I do not blame any of the players or staffs I played with. They are products of a culture. A culture that is filled with people who are all the same.

Hockey is a game filled with cisgender, Caucasian heterosexual males and, before I go any further, I’d like to make note that there’s nothing wrong with cis Caucasian men. In fact, some of the closest people in my life are straight white dudes.

Growing up, hockey players spend the majority of their time either in gyms or arenas so they are constantly surrounded by hockey people. They also move away from home at a very young age, usually younger than most other sports. They move to a new city and automatically have 20 friends on day one. Typically these kids stick together and then when they go home for their offseason, they hang out with the people they grew up with, the other hockey players. By always being around one another, they tend to adopt similar habits. They walk the same, talk the same, and dress the same. They don’t realize it but they conform to the idea of normal because it’s all they see and know. Also, these same people grow up and coach or manage hockey teams, they have hockey babies who grow up to play the game, and the cultural cycle continues.

The issue with this lack of diversity and conforming to this “normal” is that it’s easy to say things without thinking or without humanizing the words you use. Homo-negative, sexist, and racist language is used without recognizing its impact. It also means that gay people, women, and people of colour don’t fit in or feel comfortable in this space.

To shift it, we must understand it and not condemn those who are engrained in it. We must engage with them and educate. Groups like Athlete Ally, educators such as Dr. Cheryl Macdonald and Erik Denison, NHL people like Patrick and Brian Burke, Jessica Berman, and Kim Davis are pushing for and support people like myself in the pursuit of equality.

When people stop conforming to hockey, it will become a comfortable place for all to enjoy or even love the game without fear of racism, sexism or homophobia.

Lali Toor - Founder of Apna Hockey (@ApnaHockey

When I was growing up and playing minor hockey in Edmonton, Alberta in the late 1990s and 2000s, there was a lack of diversity on most teams I played on. Being a hockey player of Sikh descent, I always found myself to be the only ethnic minority on teams throughout my career. So to answer how the National Hockey League can diversify its fan base, I believe it is important to understand the lack of diversity in the National Hockey League and in the sport in general.

Since founding my organization in 2017, our mandate has been to diversify the game of hockey. Apna Hockey is the very first South Asian based hockey network (Apna in Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu translates to ‘Our’). I have had the privilege of providing the South Asian community with initiatives/content that promotes hockey within our community. From ice/ball hockey camps to setting up South Asian nights with NHL/WHL teams, we have become an organization that is involved in all facets of hockey.

But the reason why I started Apna Hockey has more to do with my upbringing in hockey and the lack of diversity when I played. I wouldn’t be the first one to say that the lack of diversity makes it difficult to play the sport. Playing hockey at the highest levels in Edmonton was not easy. My Dad (who immigrated to Canada from India in the late ’70s) and I felt animosity from players, coaches, parents, and organizations. It got so bad that at one point when I was 10 years old, I was kicked out of a minor hockey organization.

So how could I ensure that kids in my community didn’t have to go through what I did? That is why Apna Hockey was founded. From my experience, the culture of hockey made it difficult for me as an ethnic minority to play. Hockey is known as a white-dominated sport and always has been, and I believe the NHL needs to focus their attention at the hockey roots level.

Recently, our organization has been growing internally, and we have a presence from the NHL on our board of directors. Our commitment to grow and diversify the game of hockey is now a mandate the NHL has taken notice of. I met Rob Knesaurek, Vice President of Industry Growth NHL, in November 2018 while we were running a practice session for the Indian National Women’s Hockey team. Since then we have built a relationship that seeks to diversify not only the NHL’s fan base but the game itself.

In my opinion, the NHL needs to continue to build relationships with ethnic minority hockey organizations, as this provides a way for the different communities to get involved in hockey. While conducting a South Asian event for the Edmonton Oil Kings, I met a group of kids that were wearing Jujhar Khaira Oilers jerseys. Jujhar is the only current player of South Asian descent in the NHL, and when I asked the group what it means to them to see a fellow Sikh hockey player in the NHL, they responded by telling me that they themselves had started to play hockey because of him – a very powerful statement. Our organization’s goal is to have male and female hockey players playing at elite levels and have more representation in the NHL. I firmly believe that to diversify the NHL’s fan base, the players in the league must be diverse as well.

Lastly, I want to touch base on the accessibility of the sport. Hockey is not a cheap sport to play; I remember buying used hockey equipment from a garage sale at the age of 5. My Dad worked two jobs to put me through hockey and this was rare coming from an immigrant family. While having talks with Rob about the growth of hockey on a global level, we talked about how hockey takes different forms like ball hockey, inline hockey, and field hockey. Accessibility to ice hockey is a major problem for the sport and limits hockey’s diversity, in my opinion. So it begs the question: why should hockey be limited to just the ice? Why don’t we accept all forms of hockey as hockey?  Would this promote diversity in hockey and its fans?

Anthony Varriano - Grandstand Central (@MNiceSkates)

You can create all the viral content you want and buy all the social media advertising you can, but to diversify the fan base of a sport, the diverse groups need more than one player per team whom they can aspire to emulate. Members of diverse groups must be able to afford to try your sport, because watching it on TV or even in person doesn’t compare to the love players develop for sports they play.

In order of participatory hours, I played baseball, basketball, tennis, and football growing up. My favorite sports to watch, in order of preference, are baseball, basketball, tennis, and football. I didn’t even see hockey until 2011-12, and then lost interest again due to the lockout. Since I didn’t play hockey or soccer, I don’t love hockey or soccer like I do the games I played as a kid. Get kids playing your game. Invest in nonprofits like mine that provide the equipment and means to try your game. Then watch your new, diverse fans become the heroes that further diversify that fan base.

Ainka Jess - She’s4Sports (@Shes4Sports)

I recently interviewed WNBA basketball star and Canadian athlete Kia Nurse. She noted the same pressures female pro basketball players are facing in the WNBA with growing the league and increasing fan engagement. It comes down to visibility. If fans or potential fans of women’s hockey don’t have access to these players, i.e. they don’t see them play on television, in marketing campaigns, or live at a game, the sport can’t grow. You can’t support something you can’t visibly see or don’t have access to.

The NHL can partner with other women’s hockey organizations to promote their programs, provide air time, and include women’s hockey in their marketing and branding efforts. Fans can’t support women’s hockey if they don’t visibly see it in the market or via partnerships. If they don’t get “access” to these women the fan base doesn’t grow.

Dan Szczepanek
Dan Szczepanek
Dan Szczepanek is the founder and Editor in Chief of Grandstand Central, an outlet he helped launch in 2017 to look at the intersectionality of sports and world around it. He's a recovering ad-man, and former politics wonk.


  1. Publicize and support the next hockey Olympics in China where hockey has grown since the announcement of the winter Olympics


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