Oh, Canada: Hockey’s Most Diverse Country

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Canadian Flag

Canadian Flag, courtesy of wisegie on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/whizzer/6078031187/lightbox/

As Chicago Blackhawks fans struggled with the existential question of the 22nd Olympic Winter Games–how to root for USA Hockey when the two most Blackhawk-laden (and consequently most successful) teams hailed from Canada and Sweden–a more interesting story passed largely unnoticed here in the States. On Sunday, after Canada (featuring the Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, and Patrick Sharp) beat Sweden (with our Johnny Oduya, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Marcus Kruger) to win the gold medal, Team Canada goalie Carey Price won the Directorate award for top goaltender in the Olympic tournament.

The accolade was well deserved. Price won two key shout-outs–over the U.S. to get into the gold medal game, and over Sweden to win it all–and, in the five games he started in net, had a goals-against average of 0.59 and a save percentage of .972. But it’s his personal story that’s the stuff of feel-good Olympic legend.

See, Carey, the son of former Ulkatcho First Nation Chief Linda Price, grew up in tiny Anahim Lake, British Columbia, a town with a population of 360. According to the CBC, Anahim Lake is so remote and so far removed from hockey facilities that “Carey’s father bought a small plane and learned to fly so his son could play the sport.” Moreover, Linda Price believes her son’s connection to his First Nations heritage is a key to his success:

I think the sense of connection to our land and where we come from helps keeps us all grounded in who we are.  We cannot become disconnected and caught up in a whirlwind of popularity and become disconnected from the “real world.”

Our culture has been to maintain the simple life and appreciate the blessings our creator has given us. Fresh air, clean water and clean environment are important to us and sustainable living habits.

It should not come as a surprise that in a sport that is, frankly, uncomfortably white, one of the few players of Native North American heritage comes from Canada. Since Willie O’Ree first broke the NHL’s color barrier with the Montreal Canadiens in 1958, the League has struggled to attract more diverse players and a more diverse fan base. According to the Boston Globe, during the lockout-shortened 2013 season there were only 44 non-white players in the NHL out of a total of 720. That’s just about 6 percent of the entire League. Wikipedia lists 27 current and 46 past Black NHL players, while Ice Hockey Wikia lists 8 current and 6 past Asian players, and only 4 total players of Latin American descent, of whom 3 are active.

Canada, however, has, in relative terms, been a beacon of diversity in the otherwise lily white world of professional hockey. With a population of a little over 32.5 million, of which approximately 2.5 percent are Black, Canada has produced the vast majority of Black NHL players. Indeed, 20 of the 27 current Black players in the NHL hail from Canada, as did 39 of the 46 past players. That includes luminaries such as Willie O’Ree and Hall-of-Famer Grant Fuhr, one of the best-known goalies of the 1980s and 1990s who won five Stanley Cup championships with the Edmonton Oilers. At the same time, the United States, with a population of more than 316 million, of which 13.1 percent are Black, boasts only 6 current Black players (the other being the Blackhawks’ Johnny Oduya, a Swedish national partly of Kenyan descent), and only 7 past Black players.

Of course, historically Canada has produced far more NHL players than any other country. Even today, with the significant increase in players from Scandinavia and former Soviet bloc countries, a little over half the League is Canadian, whereas the United States produces only about a quarter of the NHL’s players. Still, the numbers don’t lie: Black players from Canada outnumber Black players from America by more than three to one.

While there may be any number of reasons for the disparity–hockey is considerably more popular in Canada than in the United States, and perhaps athletes of all backgrounds have more options here–the numbers suggest that the NHL’s diversity efforts in the States have been far less successful than the League would like. But if a guy like Carey Price can make it from tiny Anahim Lake, BC, all the way to the NHL and to the Olympics’ gold medal game, the institutions of American hockey should be able to do a better job reaching people of color right here at home.

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1 COMMENT

  • David von Ebers

    Hockey is fairly popular in the Chicago area, but you are correct that facilities are still not as available as they could be. More importantly, the facilities that do exist are mostly located out in the suburbs; so, for kids in the city, it’s not an easy task to get to rinks. Many suburban high schools have fairly well developed programs, but, again, not too many in the city. Interesting story: Dustin Byfuglien, who is African American, came to the western suburbs of Chicago to play high school hockey (from far northern Minnesota), and eventually played with the Blackhawks. He was on the 2010 Stanley Cup champion team, but was traded away thereafter for salary cap reasons. It’s too bad, too. It would have been great for a guy with local connections to help the Blackhawks reach out to minority kids.

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