The lacking representation of black athletes in hockey is staggering. There are several factors that hinder diversity and inclusion in the sport, but when looking for growth and change, Jalen Smereck and Rico Phillips say there’s no better time than now.
“Being the only black person on a team, people say this sport isn’t for you,” Detroit native and professional hockey player Jalen Smereck said. “You don’t belong here, things like that.
Smereck understood his reality at a young age- that he would be a minority in the game he loved. It’s a game that took him from his hometown of Detroit to a professional career most recently in Europe. He received a racist gesure while playing in the Ukrainian hockey league. It was a moment on social media that went viral, but something all too familiar to Smereck. He says in some ways hockey has been welcoming to him.
“In some ways for sure, but there’s also been some hate there and some moments that I felt like it hasn’t loved me as much as I loved it.”
Unfortunately, that sentiment of a bittersweet relationship with hockey is generational. Rico Phillips is the founder of the Flint Inner City Youth Hockey program. Phillips won the NHL’s Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award for his work with diversity in hockey. He currently serves as the OHL’s director of cultural diversity and inclusion. He played hockey and made a career out of refereeing, but he can relate to experiencing racism, just as Smereck can.
“Growing up in Flint, I had my own strife with the game of hockey,” Phillips said. “Being called the ‘n-word’ and tell me to go play basketball where you belong. I can tell you that hurt.”
Phillips says that change is driven by two things working together- diversity and inclusion.
“Once you start to see this representation across the landscape of our sport, those occurrences of hate speech and hate action will clearly go down because it will represent the real world and those lines aren’t crossed in the real world.”
If one compares the state of hockey now, to that of the past, significant strides have been made, but there is still plenty of room for growth.
There are currently 640 active players under NHL contract. Just 51 of those players are of color and only 25 of those identify as black. That means only 3.9% of hockey players at the highest level are black. This information is according to Kim Davis, VP of social growth and legislative affairs in the NHL.
The saying is: hockey is for everyone. But Phillips says that it’s not that simple.
“It isn’t truly for everyone just yet, but we’re making big strides.”
The big strides and areas of growth need to continue to eb made in several areas such as cost, travel, time commitment, with a focus on exposure in urban areas.
Phillips and Smereck agree that society as a whole is experiencing growing pains- those growing pains don’t occur just in the locker room. They’re hopeful that through growing pains, learning, and adjusting – a new identity for hockey will be forged.
“When you look at hockey rinks, when you come into the rink, do you see what you see when you walk outside? Until we have that, we really don’t have diversity and inclusion.”