As a new target in the United States culture war, the National Hockey League has found itself on thin ice with some conservatives.
In the lead-up to its All-Star Game in Florida on Saturday, the league has sought to highlight its efforts to promote diversity and inclusion. However, those moves drew harsh criticism from powerful conservatives such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a leading GOP presidential candidate in 2024, and Fox News host Tucker Carlson, the most-watched primetime cable news host, and sparked controversy both on and off the ice.
There’s no sign of those tensions abating anytime soon. To address past instances of racism and abuse, diversify its workforce, and foster a welcoming environment for LGBTQ fans and athletes, the NHL and its teams have sought to address calls for change from both within and outside the sport. In order to do so, the league has promoted semi-regular “Pride” nights at games, conducted a top-to-bottom diversity and inclusion assessment of itself, and reached out to racial and ethnic groups that have traditionally made up a small percentage of the league’s workforce.
At the same time, leading conservatives argue that some of these initiatives are openly discriminatory toward straight white men, who continue to make up the vast majority of team and league employees, or violate religious freedom. DeSantis has strategically chosen fights on social issues with large corporations and entities like Disney, the College Board, and the NHL when they operate in his state, which he has said is where “woke goes to die.”
The idea that the NHL’s recent efforts to change hockey culture are too “woke,” according to Shaun Anderson, an assistant professor at Loyola Marymount University who focuses on the intersection of sports and social justice initiatives, is amusing. For many years, it lagged behind modern leagues such as the NFL and NBA in addressing social, cultural, and political issues.
“I kind of laugh,” he said, “because the [idea of the] woke NHL, and I’m like, ‘well, they must’ve woken up yesterday.”
One of the more notable confrontations occurred in Florida. The NHL advertised its “Pathway to Hockey Summit” on LinkedIn several weeks ago, an informational career event that the league eventually hosted Thursday at the start of its All-Star weekend festivities. The forum was designed for “those who have historically not been exposed to hockey” to learn more about the game’s opportunities.
“Participants must be 18 years of age or older, based in the United States, and identify as female, Black, Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latino, Indigenous, LGBTQIA+, and/or a person with a disability,” it said. Veterans are welcome and encouraged to attend as well.”
The league later apologised and replaced the post, but not before DeSantis’ office condemned it in a statement and demanded that the “discriminatory prohibitions” on attendance be lifted.
“We do not subscribe to the woke notion that discrimination should be overlooked if applied in a politically popular manner or against a politically unpopular demographic,” spokesman Bryan Griffin said in a statement.
Following the change, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told The Athletic that he did not “want to get too far into all of this” and “increase the debate,” but that the event had been “mischaracterized.” “We’re not going to indulge in this woke conceit that it’s OK to discriminate against some people if it’s politically correct to do so, and so we made it very clear to the NHL that they were running afoul of our laws,” DeSantis said to Fox News.
“They quickly reversed course,” he said. “And our society is better when we are all treated equally and as individuals rather than as members of groups.”
Republican Florida state Rep. Randy Fine called the NHL’s description of the initiative “openly racist,” and claimed the league backed down on the issue because it lacked “a publicly palatable position.”
“People participate in sports to get away from politics,” he explained. “I think it’s short-sighted and a bad business strategy to use these vehicles to force this down people’s throats.”
He went on to say that he saw nothing wrong with a private company wanting to diversify its workforce, but he objected to the way the event was framed.
“I don’t think it would have gotten on the governor’s radar screen if the thing said, ‘Hey, we’re having a diversity event, and we’d love folks from these groups to come, but everybody’s welcome,” he said. “However, the event explicitly states that white men are not permitted to attend. That should irritate people.”
Florida state Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat, countered that the league’s “backtracking” from the position in response to DeSantis’ pushback was “dangerous” and, when combined with DeSantis’ broad social-issue actions, “should be a national concern for everyone.”
“Hockey is not a popular sport in the Black community,” Jones said. “The fact that the NHL saw it to be necessary to reach across to lend a hand to bring Blacks and others to appreciate the sport, that is the stance of right. That is what it means to be inclusive. That is ensuring that everyone can enjoy hockey. If companies begin to submit to this authoritarian, fascist style of leadership, this will have long-term consequences.”
Despite the league’s change in promotion, the summit took place on Thursday as planned and was focused on diversity efforts, according to the Associated Press. Kim Davis, the NHL’s executive vice president of social impact, growth, and legislative affairs, told the outlet that the league “doesn’t mind being asked hard questions, as long as the assessment is fair.”
The league released the results of an internal diversity and inclusion assessment in October, which revealed that approximately 84% of league employees were white, while 93% identified as straight. The league intends to update the survey every two years, according to Davis.
The NHL did not respond to a request for comment from Davis for this story.
Former NHL forward Brandon Bochenski, now the Republican mayor of Grand Forks, North Dakota, believed that the same social change forces that pushed for progress in other sports would soon shape hockey.
“I suppose the NHL was the next target,” he explained. “It’s difficult because diversity is more than skin colour and sexual orientation. “I believe many people believe that.”
One reason the NHL has traditionally attracted a majority white audience and talent pool is that the game is most popular in less racially diverse countries with long and sustained winters, such as Canada, Russia, and Scandinavian countries.
In the United States, the sport’s high costs for skates, pads, sticks, and other equipment, as well as fees, have often made it a more exclusive sport, limited to affluent communities — a problem that Bochenski believes the league should be at the forefront of addressing.
However, according to Bochenski, the backgrounds of athletes are more diverse than they appear.
“I don’t think the hockey on the cover is as diverse as it is,” he says. “If you get in there and you talk to guys, whether they come from different faiths, different families, different upbringings, how they treat people, there’s a lot more to it. So I think it frustrates people when it’s really just about skin colour and sexuality, because the NHL is made up of a pretty diverse group of people.”
Beyond the DeSantis squabble, the league has run into some sticky situations in recent weeks. Last month, before a “Pride Night” game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Anaheim Ducks, Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov refused to participate in the pre-game skate because he refused to wear the pride-themed warm-up jersey, saying afterwards that he wanted to “stay true to myself and my religion.” The incident elicited both criticism and support for the Russian-born player.
The New York Rangers chose not to wear their scheduled pride-themed warm-ups last week, citing the “organisation respects the LGBTQ+ community and we are proud to bring attention to important local community organisations as part of another great Pride Night,” according to a statement from the team.
“In keeping with our organization’s core values, we support everyone’s individual right to express their beliefs in a respectful manner,” the team added.
Both incidents, according to Bochenski, would have created dilemmas within NHL locker rooms, where culture dictates that individuality is sacrificed for the good of the team. “Having one [player] who wasn’t going to participate was probably difficult for them to decide what to do,” according to the Flyers.
“I believe the Rangers decided not to put that pressure on anyone,” he explained. “And I’m not sure which is the best option.”
In light of each instance, Anderson said the league and individual teams should strive “to always engage in a collaborative effort with the organisation that’s putting out the initiative, and the people who are directly affected by it.
“I’m hoping you do the right thing. “You put these events together and deal with the fallout,” he explained. “Because you own a multibillion-dollar corporation. Everyone who says, “Oh, I’m going to stop watching the NFL or the NHL because it’s woke,” will be disappointed.
“And then,” he went on, “you’re doing the right thing by a group of people who only want a chance to do something great in sports.”