A 19-year-old kid from Arizona with Mexican ancestry scored four goals in his first NHL game last night.
Anyone scoring a bunch of goals in their first game after being the No. 1 pick in the draft is a big deal. However, Auston Matthews’ historic debut was a win for a few entities. The NHL, the Maple Leafs (they lost the game in typical Leafs fashion but still), American hockey, hockey in general, and the league’s efforts to expand the game to places that aren’t known for being affiliated with the sport.
What Matthews did last night was a beautiful thing to see. It showed me where the sport is going if the old guard passes the torch. I’m not here to put any pressure on the young man. However, kids who aren’t traditionally a part of the average hockey fan demographic are watching. Seeing players like Matthews, Seth Jones, PK Subban, Josh Ho-Sang, Dustin Byfuglien, and Wayne Simmonds, along with Blake Bolden in the NWHL, shows that diversity can be beneficial for the sport.
A few weeks ago, I was loading my gear into the car in front of the ice rink I play at and three brothers walked by and said “They let Black people in here??” I turned around and said, “Yeah, didn’t you see the Soul On Ice documentary? Black people invented hockey.”
I wasn’t offended. I knew what they were getting at. After all, hockey for all intents and purposes, is still a white sport.
Even though I’ve loved watching hockey since the age of 10, learning to play the game at a young age wasn’t a tangible option for me. I didn’t live near a rink, so I never got involved other that watching.
As I got older, I decided to take my fandom to the next level, I learned how to skate (think Cedric the Entertainer in Kings of Comedy). Next, I drove around the city to find any ice time I could get. As I got better, I worked up the courage to join a team and play a little bit of rat hockey (a pick up game).
I soon found out that I wasn’t the only person who made such a bold move. My league has Black, Asian, Latino, and women playing. Those folks were fans before they became hockey players.
For the sport to grow, fan bases have to become more diverse. For instance, in Chicago, where I live, since the Blackhawks have shed their downtrodden franchise label, I've seen more of their gear in the hood than ever. Also, the number of black hockey fans has gone up.
Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune also noticed that trend in a 2013 in article she wrote. The thing I remember most about her article, was the first entry in the comment section. The commenter asked “What about the white hockey fans?”
As I mentioned before, most hockey fans are white males. They have a solid presence in that demographic. Like we’ve seen in the current political climate, any focus not on them was too much for that person to handle. Maybe that person should diversify their own hockey fandom?
The Blackhawks are ahead of the curve when it came to rebuilding their fan base. The team uses every form of social media possible to reach potential fans. Also, having multiple hockey clinics in the inner city, along with forging a partnership with Univision, a Spanish-speaking network, to broadcast games in Spanish.
Those partnerships have helped the team’s supporters become much more diverse as they’ve proceeded to win three Stanley Cups in recent years.
But let's unpack why my appearance at the hockey rink was such a puzzling experience for those cats. The rink I play at is located on the West Side of Chicago, which continues to have its fair share of heartbreaking violence.
Why do they believe that something that is in their neighborhood isn’t accessible to them? Why do they believe that hockey is only for white people?
(Photo Credit: USA Today)
If Matthews keeps it up, he could do for diversity in hockey what Wayne Gretzky did for the sport in Southern California. Maybe the kid who was reluctant to give hockey a shot is now motivated by what they saw last night.
It’s important for these kids to see someone who looks like them. Seeing a Black or Latino hockey player tells a kid if those guys can do it, so can I.
Diversity isn’t a bad thing. As far as I know, a revolt isn’t planned. Longtime hockey fans shouldn’t be fearful of what the aforementioned players bring to the game.
Diversity will not only add to hockey, it will also help the game thrive.