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The NHL is Falling Behind in Sports’ Quest for Equality

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The sport desperately needs its own Kim Ng.

MLB: Kim Ng at Marlins Park Miami Marlins-Handout Photo

If baseball has been criticized for one thing in recent years, it’s been a stubborn refusal to break from tradition. We’ve seen it time and again: players reprimanded for showing personality, celebration and displays of emotion met with extreme resistance, and even violence. All of this has led to the MLB owning a well-deserved reputation of being North American sports’ out-of-touch grandfather.

This past week, however, grandpa flawlessly used a contemporary slang word at family dinner, leaving the kids at the table simultaneously shocked and impressed.

The Miami Marlins, a team that for the past decade or so has served as the butt of many a joke, broke new ground by hiring Kim Ng as their next general manager. Ng, frankly overqualified for the position with three World Series rings to her name and over thirteen years in various assistant GM roles, is now the first woman to be named general manager of a Big Four (NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL, for the uninitiated) men’s sports franchise.

While a sport that has moved at such a glacial pace acting as somewhat of a trailblazer is a great indicator of things likely to come, it is important to give credit to the Marlins in particular. It was them, not the sport, that made the hire, after all.

With her laundry list of qualifications, there’s no reason for the Ng hire to be a source of controversy. The MLB also saw its first woman to be named a full-time coach, Alyssa Nakken, hired by the San Francisco Giants earlier this year, and Jean Afterman also works for the Los Angeles Dodgers in a front office capacity. This progress has been dwarfed by that of other major sports, as well. The NBA is currently home to 10 women in assistant coaching roles, four referees, and two executives. There are seven women on NFL coaching staffs, and 15 more interns, to go with one referee, and five executives, not including owners.

With the aforementioned numbers clear in your mind, take a moment to consider the fact that there is not one woman currently working on an NHL coaching staff, and until the Seattle Kraken announced that their hockey ops staff of 103 boasted 42 women, 96% of NHL hockey operations jobs were occupied by men. The disparity in percentages between the NHL, and the rest of its ilk is nothing less than staggering.

Deniers of hockey’s “old boys” culture that props up barriers against women, BIPOC, and other marginalized groups need only turn on the TV to see why the sport needs a shift. It was just this summer, in two thousand and twenty, that NBC commentator Mike Milbury, while calling the bubble playoffs, said that there were “not even any women [in the bubble] to disrupt your concentration.”

This is not meant to be a piece that solely lambasts the NHL, or implies that absolutely no progress has been made. There are tons of women who are crushing it in all aspects of the game of hockey right now. From writers like Hailey Salvian, Sara Civian, and Alison Lukan, to broadcasters like Leah Hextall and Cassie Campbell-Pascal, and league executives like Kim Davis. The tide is beginning to turn, slow as it may be.

Frustration lies within the fact that the NHL is the last dog at the bowl once again. This sport is staring down a golden opportunity to change its culture, and to flip the narrative that pegs it as a “straight white male sport.” Hockey is for everyone, but the reason that slogan is like nails on a chalkboard for most people is the fact that it appears to be all talk and little action.

Cammi Granato, a Hockey Hall of Famer and arguably the greatest American-born women’s hockey player ever to lace ‘em up, became only the second ever woman hired as a pro scout in NHL history. In 2019. 102 years, and only two women working as pro scouts.

The team that hired her? The Seattle Kraken.

It’s fantastic that a new team is leading the charge for a future wherein hockey does indeed include everyone, but they shouldn’t be the ones that have to do all the heavy lifting. The NHL has been around for more than a century, and has been given more than enough time and leeway to figure this out.

You’d think that a tumultuous few years that has put hockey’s dark, often-hushed history of racism and exclusion on display would inspire them to kick the journey to a more inclusive future into overdrive. Everyone from players and fans have voiced their desire to see the game make meaningful change, and yet, here we sit today. Again, strides have been made, but the end is not nearly in sight.

Critics will say that the jaw-dropping 96% gap is due to a lack of qualified women, but that’s an argument that barely deserves the indulgence of a rebuttal. If this is the case, where did Seattle find over 40 qualified women? If doors are wide open for women to hold jobs in the sport, why did it take until the past few years for the Toronto Maple Leafs to hire Hailey Wickenheiser, and for the Kraken to hire Granato? This is to say nothing of the fact that roughlt 40% of hockey fans are women, so to say the interest isn’t there is simply not true.

The truth of the matter is that NHL squads are hurting themselves by not hiring women, and BIPOC. There are a myriad of qualified candidates, who at the very least, could broaden the hiring field.

The progress that’s been made to date shouldn’t be diminished. Things are changing for the better - the hiring of Brett Peterson by the Florida Panthers is testament to this fact - but hockey needs to pick up the pace. If the game ever wants to evolve, and appeal to an even larger audience, it needs less stories like that of Bill Peters, and Mitchell Miller.

Hockey needs its own Kim Ng, but she’s won three World Series championships. In order for women in NHL hockey circles to build similar credentials, they need to be afforded opportunities. NHL hockey is at risk of being lapped in that race.