There has been a lot of negativity surrounding hockey culture as of late and it’s hard to say that it hasn’t been mostly well-deserved. Every time we feel like we are making progress, we’re shocked by an allegation, a statement from a former player, or some revelation that makes us wonder if hockey is a sport that will ever outgrow its demons. Beyond the surface, though, while there is a long way to go for the sport, there’s actually been some progress that might have gone underappreciated.
Historically, women have often been made to feel lesser in hockey; whether it be a casual disregard for the knowledge and passion of female fans, or the disrespect shown towards prominent female figures in media and other positions in sports. In recent years, there is some evidence this might be starting to shift. Today, it’s not uncommon to see female bloggers or podcasters welcomed and heard among the more casual fanalyst group. It’s also no longer surprising to see women leading beat coverage of a team and making headway in professional journalism. In 2018, the Toronto Maple Leafs brought in Hayley Wickenheiser as the assistant director of player development and eventually promoted her to assistant general manager. Though it was just one move at the time, an important tone was being set. The rest of the NHL took note and since then, almost 10 new positions were fulfilled by female staff including Cammi Granato, Marie-Philip Poulin and many others in both the NHL and AHL. Ten isn’t the world, but it’s a start.
Last week, EA Sports announced that Sarah Nurse would be on the cover of NHL 23. Imagine a young girl walking into her brother’s room or basement to watch him play a hockey game only to see that the cover has someone she can relate to. Imagine a young female player thinking that she’ll never be valued like an NHL player seeing that she make it on the cover of one of the most famous video games in the hockey world. It may be just a game cover but symbols matter, too. This type of representation sends the message that female hockey players are also the face of the game. Putting a picture of a famous NHL player isn’t the only option to advertise the game. It opens a whole new world of possibilities for a group of very talented players who were often disregarded because they weren’t eligible to be in the NHL. Women’s hockey isn’t less fun to watch, isn’t less valuable and it’s time that we all step up to give them the respect they deserve. There are larger structural issues to tackle along the way, but these types of gestures give me hope.
Let’s switch gears for a second and go back to Game 3 of the Colorado Avalanche and St Louis Blues series. Things got ugly when Blues’ goalie Jordan Binnington was injured on a play that involved many players but more prominently Nazem Kadri. Fans are still debating what happened on that play to this day but Blues fans were set on the idea that Kadri was out there intentionally trying to hurt Binnington. Fans will be fans, so they argue about it until the next big event. Except, this time around things didn’t stop at fan arguments when Binnington decided it would be completely acceptable to throw an empty water bottle at Kadri during his post-game interview. When asked about it, this was a part of his response that sticks to many people “I’m walking down the hallway, couldn’t find a recycling bin on my way down the hallway, and right before I walked into the locker room I see him kind of doing an interview there, smiling, laughing, and I’m there in a knee brace limping down the hallway and I just felt like it was a God-given opportunity,...” and I will tell you why there is so much being said in so few words. Binnington specifically mentioned that he couldn’t find a recycling bin and Kadri was the next best option while also signaling that it was an “opportunity” handed to him as a gift. Many people reacted but so many shrugged it off as something casual or funny. In a sport that hasn’t always been a welcoming place for people of colour, allowing a marginalized player to be told he is a trash can is a big deal. It further alienates fans and any young players who are hoping to break barriers in the league. How can a young player see such an incident go unpunished and feel safe dreaming about becoming part of the NHL?
Fast forward a few months later and Nazem Kadri is back in his hometown celebrating his day with the Stanley Cup at the London Mosque among his family and community. It’s not about having the last laugh but it’s about changing the idea that you have to fit a certain mold to succeed in hockey. It’s about having a role model that you can fully relate to, that had to beat all the obstacles that you once had that were impossible to overcome. Kadri isn’t the first Muslim player in the league but he is the first to win the Cup and make such a noticeable impact in the league. It doesn’t mean things have automatically become easier for younger players whether they are Muslim or of any other race or faith but it shows them that nothing is impossible, it shows them that it has been done before and that they can be the ones to do it again. Once again, symbols matter.
Hockey culture isn’t perfect and likely it never will be. Some things are hard to appreciate or understand if they never impacted you directly. Likely for many of our readers some of these example may seem trivial; believe me when I say they’re not trivial for everyone. It’s no longer just a nice gesture when a team strives for greater diversity; today we can say it’s an expectation. It’s a standard that’s only going to grow and become more inclusive as we move forward. We should expect as much because it can only help the future of the game — there are some changes taking place, but there’s always more to do.