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NHL diversity: An idea that needs to be heard

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An idiot fan tossed a banana peel at a black player during an NHL preseason game a couple of weeks ago and, well, that’s hockey. When it comes to the sport that opened its regular season Thursday night, the playing surface isn’t the only thing that’s all white. Why would a racist act surprise anyone in a culture that doesn’t care about diversity?

Those were the prevailing thoughts in some corners after the incident in London, Ontario, involving Wayne Simmonds, but the truth is that’s not today’s NHL. The league embraces inclusiveness, and actually has for some time. It wants more color throughout its ranks.

But the message is traveling slowly.

On the ice and in the stands, the numbers still are overwhelmingly one-sided. The league clearly has a perception problem, and the banana-tossing incident shows the NHL cannot ease off the accelerator. Commissioner Gary Bettman must continue his commitment to diversity. He’ll never be able to eradicate individual acts of racism; after all, future morons are born each day.

The NHL’s challenge is to attract a new group of fans: people who have long believed hockey isn’t interested in them.

“Wherever I’ve played, a lot of the [black] ushers and [other arena] workers told me they appreciated coming to work a little more,” said Washington Capitals forward Joel Ward, who is black. “People like to see their own kind, and we’re definitely getting more minorities in the game. It has come a long way. . . . We’ve just got to keep getting that out there.”

Making generalizations about race is a bad idea; nonetheless, black folk, as a group, historically haven’t followed hockey. Compared with the big three team sports — football, basketball and baseball — hockey is way down the list in black communities. For most black children, aspiring to be a hockey goalie is about as plausible as hoping to be a cowboy.

Many black fans attend Redskins games. If the NBA lockout ever ends, Wizards fans — many of whom are black — will return to Verizon Center. Few blacks, however, will be among the crowd when the Capitals open the season Saturday night, despite the game being played in the heart of a place affectionately known as “Chocolate City” to many blacks because of its racial makeup. That’s just a fact. When I enter NHL arenas, it’s something I’ve noticed.

If hockey crowds were more diverse, it would be easier to dismiss the incidents such as the banana peel as random acts of stupidity. Instead, such events contribute to the sport’s ongoing perception battle.

Since 1995, NHL Diversity, one of the league’s charitable arms, has been a key element of its “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative. The NHL offers support for minority youth hockey organizations, including one at the Fort Dupont skating rink. Current black NHL players have come through the league-sponsored program, and others run by individuals.

The NHL needs to do a better job making stuff like this known. Sometimes, it makes sense to toot your horn loudly, “and we haven’t always done the best job telling our story, in terms of diversity,” said former NHL goalie Kevin Weekes, who is black.

“I can tell you, first-hand, with my own involvement within the last five years, we’re doing a better job now. Clearly, given [the Simmonds incident], it’s something we have to continue to work on.”

A vocal advocate for diversity in hockey, Weekes, who works as an analyst for the NHL Network, privately funded a grass-roots program in Toronto that helped Ward. Out front on the issue for years, Weekes has often been frustrated because “a lot of people, quite frankly, are just misinformed. For lack of a better term, they just don’t know better. They really don’t know where we are. They really don’t recognize the fact that we do have black players in the league.

“Last season, we had high 20s [34 black players played in at least one game, according to the league]. This season, we could have as many as 43. And within the next two to four years, conceivably, we could have as many as 73 on NHL rosters across the league. That’s a pretty substantial number given where we were in the early and mid- ’90s. We have some Asian players. . . . We’re a much more diverse league than people realize.”

The NHL got a relatively late start. Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947. Willie O’Ree became the NHL’s first black player on Jan. 18, 1958.

Last week, O’Ree, active in the league’s diversity program, was part of the first NHL contingent to attend the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s public policy gathering.

Perhaps its recent presence in the District will help the NHL. Chocolate City is home to one of the league’s most talented teams. There’s no better place for NHL to deliver the message that it’s trying to get people together.

© The Washington Post Company