Late in the 6th Round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, the New York Islanders quietly choose to fill a pressing need along their blue line by drafting a 6’0” defensemen from the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. In doing so, however, the Isles may have just opened up an entire nation to the speed, skill, and drama of the NHL; and, the NHL may have just gained entry into one of the most lucrative markets in the world.
…all while continuing to overlook what could be a great opportunity right here at home.
AnDong Song became the first Chinese-born player ever selected in the NHL draft, joining only a handful of players of Asian descent to have ever played North American professional hockey. While many Asian-Canadians have donned skates, to know that the 18-year-old began skating on undersized rinks in Beijing before moving to Ontario says a lot about the global reach of the game.
A Canadian passion sometimes struggling to gain a foothold in the States, hockey has always been seen as a sport of privilege – as well as one clearly needing very particular conditions to play. As with most social structures, young athletes do not inherently gravitate toward one sport or another just because of their background. All it takes is an introduction – Tiger, meet golf; Yao, here’s a basketball; Ichiro, how do you feel about bats? – to give a young person the chance to love a game that might be just a little foreign. For Song, it was watching the U.S. men’s olympic hockey team play Russia at the 2002 Salt Lake City games that piqued his curiosity. And now, with China bidding for the 2022 Winter Olympics, a burgeoning hockey market might just be dangling from his stick.
Before Song, however, hockey was already making inroads in markets outside of the traditional “hockey nations.” Twenty-year-old Edmonton Oilers prospect Jujhar Khaira is of Indo-Canadian descent, and is quickly rising through the Oilers’ farm system. He hopes to join Robin Bawa and Manny Malhotra as one of the only players of East Indian descent to ever play in the NHL. Toronto Maple Leafs’ center Nazem Kadri has seen a great deal of success recently, tallying 89 points in the last two seasons. He holds the distinction of being only the fourth player of Lebanese descent to play in the League, and the first Muslim ever drafted by the Leafs.
But back at home, Black America is still struggling to keep up. At current, there are 31 active players of African ancestry who have played at least one NHL game; of them 7 are African-American, with another 6 African-Americans preceding them into retirement. While Song becomes a trailblazer for young Chinese skaters to emulate in 2015, our “Jackie Robinson” came along in 1977. Drafted 184th overall by the Detroit Red Wings, Valmore James wouldn’t receive his call-up to the League until 1981 with the Buffalo Sabres. Though he only played 11 NHL games, his legacy as a power-punching enforcer lasted throughout the 80’s. His inclusion in the league paved the way for players like Mike Grier, the first U.S.-born and entirely U.S.-developed Black NHL’er, to enter in the 90’s and leave a significant mark on the league.
Black presence in hockey predates Grier and James, however. The most prominent player of African descent in NHL history remains to be Willie O’Ree: a Canadian-born forward whose career spanned from 1957 to 1979, including two non-consecutive seasons playing in the NHL with the Boston Bruins (oh yes, the irony persists). O’Ree has been celebrated by the league as the “real” Jackie Robinson of ice hockey, and in retirement was tapped to become the Director of Youth Development for the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force in 1998. Existing under the Hockey Is For Everyone (HIFE) umbrella, the NHL’s diversity program has exposed over 40,000 boys and girls to “unique hockey experiences.”
Which brings me back to AnDong Song. The International Ice Hockey Federation reports that only 610 people – out of 1.3 billion – play hockey in China, a number disputed because of various lapses in reporting. With the 2015 Southeast Asian Games including ice hockey for the first time, along with the new-found visibility of Song in North America, that number is expected to grow in the near future. While the NBA and NFL continue to try to tap into Asian markets, if Song makes it to “The Show” in the coming seasons, Gary Bettman’s NHL may leapfrog them both. Money and opportunity (read: ice time) have historically made hockey a sport for the privileged, but if the game translates overseas then why not here at home?
I am a proud product of the Detroit Hockey Association, and thankfully many other organizations like it exist in cities across the country. The diversity efforts of the League through NHL Diversity are alive, even if they are lacking in scope and reach. Black Canadians have long seen the game as their own in some way; Black Americans have a long way to go to see the same. As Val James notes in his book, Black Ice, there is a lonesomeness that comes with being a minority in a predominantly white sport. “There was no one else in the building that looked like me, either on the ice or in the stands,” James writes. “As a black man in a white sport, I was all by myself.” In just about every respect, that must change if our children are going to believe that they stand a chance.
Periodically, a beacon arrives: in 2013, Seth Jones – son of former NBA player Popeye Jones – made headlines as the consensus #1 prospect heading into the draft. Moreover, Jones generated significant buzz as potentially being the first player of African descent chosen #1 overall in the NHL draft. While eventually taken 4th by the Nashville Predators, Jones has been a standout defenseman for both the Preds and the U.S. National team. Though not a household name in most Black homes, his presence should signal the possibilities that exist for others to follow suit. Yet as he launches into his career one has to ask not only “who’s next” but, is anybody out there?
While our community has always [notoriously, and unrealistically] seen basketball and football as paths to glory, we need to remove the stigmas that exist around sports like hockey. We have the athletes, without a doubt; talent can be cultivated or even bred through good coaching, and skating is not the most impossible skill. If we eliminate the belief that a once-socially exclusive sport is a haven for racism – a claim refuted by many Afro-descendents who play the game at a high level – maybe a self-imposed barrier can be removed and the NHL will begin pouring money into American neighborhoods as they search for the next high draft pick.
Change the narrative. Change the outcome. Change the game.