While watching a video of Jordan EBERLE talking about his participation in the You Can Play project, I noticed he said he would accept his teammates regardless of race or sexual orientation. As a second-generation immigrant from India, his mentioning race caught my attention.
But first, a little terminology. I've seen a lot of people argue over what counts as racist or what's politically correct. "Racism" itself is defined as prejudice or discrimination based on race. A related, but somewhat different, problem is stereotyping based on race. Most people, including me, mean both of these when referring to racism. I want to point out that this doesn't mean we should stop mentioning race. Your race is something that's a part of you, and pretending you don't notice that someone is black or white or purple doesn't solve anything. I talk about being "brown" all the time. So saying something like "most hockey players are white" isn't racist, it's an observation (whether or not it's informed), but "all hockey players are white" is.
It's no secret that the NHL is heavily reliant on Canadians and Americans for both revenue and players. Immigration to both of these countries has shaped the population; for example, almost half of Canadians over the age of 15 are expected to be foreign-born or have at least one foreign born parent by 2031 (note: immigrant doesn't necessarily mean a person of colour, but most of Canada's immigrants come from south Asia and China). This influx of people of colour doesn't translate well into professional hockey. Why is that?
I have never played organised ice hockey and I have very little practical experience in the sport. Even then, I'm confident that players on all levels are being picked based on talent and not race. I'm sure there are some racist people in hockey, as there are in society even today. To me, the problem seems to be that there are just fewer persons of colour who are interested in playing the sport.
Based on personal experience, hockey is not as popular among immigrants or people of colour than it is among the rest of the population. My perspective may be different than others' since I'm from Toronto. Obviously the local team sucks and people aren't usually attracted to a sport when they're exposed to a crappy team. This city doesn't really popularise non-NHL hockey leagues, so the Leafs' success is really what determines whether or not people will watch the sport.
Ice hockey is different from other sports because it requires very specific conditions and lots of equipment. For this reason, it's both popular in relatively cold countries (Canada, USA, Russia, etc.) and expensive. There's a cheaper alternative in street hockey, but you won't find people purposely blocking their street to play a game of shinny unless they already have a love for the sport.
I still get weird looks from people when they find out I'm a hockey fan. Some of it is because I'm a girl, and some of it is because I'm Indian. In fact, the reason I became a hockey fan is because my dad watched the game to fit in when he first came to the country. My parents did get me figure skating lessons, but hockey was too expensive and wasn't really a priority for us. From what I've seen, it's the same with a lot of other parents as well. Anyone who comes to a new country has a lot on their minds; when it comes to putting their child into sports, they're more likely to choose something that's easier or culturally familiar (eg. soccer, cricket, and even basketball). The point is that we need to evolve the game. With a growing coloured population, low interest in people of colour doesn't bode well for hockey.
So what can we do? Well, in order to get more coloured players into the sport, we need to foster their interest in hockey. How do we do that? I don't really know. One solution would be to lower the cost of playing hockey to help everyone, not necessarily immigrants or people of colour. Ideally, players, teams, and rich people would donate their time and money in programs that would truly help grow the game. We could popularise street hockey as a variant that doesn't require as much equipment or the same temperatures as the icy version. We've already seen what Jarome Iginla and Wille O'Ree have done for the sport: maybe all hockey needs is its own Jeremy Lin.
I look forward to the day when people don't look at me strangely for being a hockey fan. I look forward to the day when my family watches hockey without turning it into a contest to see who can spot the most people of colour in the stands. I look forward to the day when hockey evolves.