Ed note: As part of Meg’s series on fandom, we heard from many who appreciated her exploration of what it means to be a fan beyond being mad on the Internet. This, thankfully, also opened the door to non-white and non-male fans to talk about their experiences. We at 328 strongly believe that more diversity and openness is something to be celebrated, and we are happy to share the perspectives and opinions of several fans who were kind enough to share their stories.

Meg’s note: I want to thank T for suggesting this topic and for taking the lead to write the majority of the piece. I also want to thank everyone else who contributed their stories, too. One big lesson we all need to learn as fans is to know when to take a seat and let others speak.

Does being a non-white hockey fan affect the way you engage with the sport or your fellow fans?

As a Puerto-Rican female hockey fan, I sometimes feel like a tourist visiting a foreign land where I’m welcomed by kind locals who only acknowledge me for my tourism dollars and nothing else. Female hockey fans deal with a lot of negativity, whether it’s gender bias or their very fandom being questioned or legitimized by male fans. It has never been easy. Add being a minority on top of that, and I might as well be labeled the village idiot.

I was not raised a hockey fan, nor did I know the sport existed outside of The Mighty Ducks movie franchise. The sport simply wasn’t promoted to minority audiences in the 90s. While my white schoolmates wore their Rangers and Devils jerseys, I wore a Yankees jacket and a Knicks shirt. To be blunt, I saw more players that looked like me and my family on many baseball and basketball teams. It’s as if I was inherently taught early on that this group of people watch this sport and this group watches the other.

I was 22 years old when I got into hockey, in 2010. By then, I had decades of experiencing racial prejudice and knew what that felt and looked like. At my first game, Devils vs Blackhawks in New Jersey, I was the only fan of color in my entire section and probably the whole arena. I felt like I was trespassing into a world I had no business in, waiting to be kicked out by an awful, prejudiced remark. Fortunately, that never happened, but the anxiety continued. I never felt fully at ease at games, where I could let my hair down and scream for my team, in fear that I would be viewed as the loud, Hispanic woman.

Much has changed since my first game. It’s 2018, I’m older, and more comfortable in my hockey skin. My experiences since my first game have opened my eyes to the lack of diversity in the NHL. I didn’t fully see it or understand when I was younger, but throughout the seasons, as social media became more popular, the disparity of gender and ethnic diversity became more apparent. 

Diversity brings people with different backgrounds and experiences into the organization. It is a key part for the growth of the team and, more importantly, the fanbase. Seeing players of same ethnic or racial background on the bench strengthens the bond between the fans and the team. Most importantly, the sport will grow with more diversity. 

When I read and hear a fan say, “It’s great to see a player like me on the ice,” it makes me happy because it’s confirmation that change is happening in the league. I’d like to see the league build off the momentum and increase the activity of the Hockey is For Everyone initiative — expanding it beyond the one month and occasional social media posts throughout the season. I do believe that the league and some teams do the bare minimum work to promote sticks and t-shirts with rainbow tape. That simply isn’t going to cut it.

We know that the league, teams, and rosters are made up of a large group of white men. There are plenty of players of color who come from different areas and socio-economic statuses, but they are mostly all Canadian, with a few American players. Why is there a discrepancy? I believe this is the elephant in the room for the NHL. It is a topic that is acknowledged but not fully explored because of the league’s fears over its potential positive and negative repercussions on their profit margins.

The NHL isn’t hurting for profits and does very well for itself, so why are they not using these profits to expand to inner-city markets of America and plant seeds to help the sport grow there? These seeds would blossom into potential prospects and provide another great sport that kids in low socio-economic areas have a safe outlet to go to. There are sports that already do this, like the NFL and the NBA. For decades, those leagues have built a system that starts in elementary school, straight to college, and eventually the professional level.

I thought that was the reason why the NHL can’t expand in those areas, because they can’t really beat the system that is already in place. Football and basketball are culturally entrenched in these areas — from the clothing, the music, sneakers, to the journey from street ball to NCAA championships. It is an undeniable foundation for many communities. It would be very hard for a very white sport to come into this environment and hope to find success. Especially with how expensive hockey can be for a family. Equipment isn’t cheap, and decent rinks are hard to come by in these areas. However, it’s not like the league doesn’t have the money or teams located in these same cities. The league is missing one resource that the other leagues have: corporate sponsorship.

The league is inherently cheap about most things, with teams being the biggest offender of this. Not spending on players, renovating an arena, providing better fan experiences, and much more. It’s no wonder that team isn’t going to front the bill to renovate a rink or equipment for a bunch of kids in the inner-city areas where they (the team and league) know they have so few fans. This all sounds familiar though. It’s the same MO by the league and team: lazy, minimal effort.  A majority of player revenue in the NBA does not come from their league salary, it comes from their sneaker deals.

Think about this: if Adidas partnered up with the top NHL players to design sneakers either based on the player or their teams, wouldn’t that be awesome? Walking past a Foot Locker, you’d see the latest NBA sneakers but then the NHL ones that coordinate with the jerseys and team logos. Derek Jeter had his own Air Jordan sneaker line through Nike, so why can’t Auston Matthews or Sidney Crosby have one through Adidas?

It’s this disconnect that is so frustrating for me and fans. We know the league has the power, the money, and the reach to do more, but season-by-season, it doesn’t change. I’m sure the ignorance of hockey culture is a key catalyst that feeds this attitude – the whole “sit down, shut up, and support your team” toxic attitude that is slowly decaying the league from the inside. There are more minority hockey fans than I think the league even realizes. As fans, we have the power, either through our voices or wallets to bring change. Social media is a great tool to spread awareness on these issues, whether it’s organizing meet up groups at games outside of the monthly awareness events or starting a writing campaign to the league. The change starts with us.

-T, @itsbenngreat

For most of my life, I didn’t really consider my Chinese ancestry as being a factor in my hockey fandom.  I wouldn’t say I noticed any difference in my fan experience since I basically considered my ethnicity to be unrelated to my being a hockey fan.  I knew by observation that there were relatively few Chinese and Asian hockey fans.  Outside of my immediate family and visiting relatives who we’d take to Canes games, we didn’t know any other Chinese hockey fans.  This fact never really bothered me, and I didn’t think much of it.  Also, the fact that there weren’t many Chinese or Asian NHL players had no real effect on my decision to learn to skate and eventually play hockey myself.  Hockey was just something I enjoyed, and although seeing more fans or players who looked like me would’ve been nice, not seeing that had no real impact on my enjoyment of the sport.    

All that changed on June 25, 2016, when the KHL announced that they were putting an expansion team in China for the upcoming 2016-17 season.  I knew I had to take a trip to Beijing to attend a Kunlun Red Star game to see firsthand what a major league hockey game in China was like.  The fact that a couple of former Canes (Brett Bellemore and Alexei Ponikarovsky) were on the inaugural Kunlun roster made my decision that much easier.

Kunlun Red Star game courtesy of @IronCaniac

My biggest takeaway from my trip was that hockey could work in China…but it had a long way to go.  To my pleasant surprise, a lot of people who attended the games were families who had hockey-playing kids, so they were familiar with the rules of the game.  Still, the question remained as to how many people could be converted into hockey fans who weren’t before.  I suddenly found myself wanting for there to be more Chinese hockey fans.  I also wanted to see someone do for the NHL and hockey what Yao Ming did for the NBA and basketball in China.  Unlike me, who didn’t really need to see Chinese players to like hockey, I got the sense that seeing Chinese hockey players on the ice would really help sell the sport to fans in China. 

Kunlun Red Star currently features a handful of players of Chinese descent, but all were born and trained in North America.  The best case scenario would be for a Chinese-born player to become a star in either the NHL or KHL, but any player of Chinese descent and training who achieves a high profile in major league hockey would help also. So now I hope to see more players like recent Canes acquisition Cliff Pu have success.

In a radical departure from my previous attitude, I now find my heritage inextricably linked to my hockey fandom.  I realize that the odds are long, but I’m optimistic that I’ll see a Chinese born and trained player in the NHL someday which should help both Chinese abroad and in the most populous nation in the world embrace, what is in my opinion, the best sport in the world!    

@IronCaniac

The Carolina Hurricanes have always been part of my life. I remember making the trek with my dad from Raleigh to Greensboro to watch my first Hurricanes game. I was hooked immediately, and I became an avid Caniac and hockey fan. But unlike most hockey fans, I am black.

Being a black hockey fan has been a unique experience. For starters, there aren’t many of us. Whenever I find myself in PNC Arena, I scan the crowd for fans that look like me. Personally, I haven’t met any black hockey fans that share my passion for the game. This doesn’t discourage me; it inspires me to talk openly about why I love hockey and my passion for the Hurricanes. This approach has made Hurricanes fans out of my
parents and a few others in my personal life.

I also have a fondness for black players that spent time with the Hurricanes. Anson Carter, Anthony Stewart, and especially Kevin Weekes have special places in my heart. I looked up to Kevin Weekes, and he will always be one of my favorite Hurricanes players. I didn’t play hockey as a child, so I settled for making “saves” like Kevin Weekes by keeping the ball in front of me when I played catcher for my baseball team. I enjoyed cheering for these players because of our shared ethnicity and because there simply aren’t many black players in the NHL. I root for P.K. Subban (the recent preseason game against the Predators notwithstanding) because watching him become a successful NHL player while being extensively involved in various charity initiatives is inspiring to me. I believe that if there were more P.K. Subbans in the NHL, there would be more black hockey fans because being able to watch players who look like them would appeal to black fans.

In conclusion, being black doesn’t hinder or define my experience following hockey. If anything, I appreciate having a unique place among hockey fans. However, it would be great to see more black and minority fans embrace the game. And if they decide to root for the Canes as I have, that would be even better.

-Spencer Carr, @TheArchibald32

One thing that immediately comes to mind about my experience as a black hockey fan is that on social media some white fans tend to think all nonwhite fans are over-exaggerating when we bring up the issue of racism in hockey. For example, Alex Tuch’s “Bill D. Wall” Border Patrol Halloween costume. I first saw pictures of his costume on @dcolonizehockey’s twitter, and I was infuriated when I saw white fans replying to the tweet defending Tuch. They had the audacity to try to tell nonwhite (specifically Latinx!) people how to feel about a costume that literally made a joke out of violent xenophobia. Overall, I feel that the complaints of nonwhite fans are not taken seriously by white fans.

-Alexi, @AlexiGee

There is this encompassing belief that sport can overcome differences and unite us all in the pursuit of something greater–a.k.a., in the NHL, the Big Bad Silver Boy Stanley. It’s an optimistic and unavoidable message in hockey and it’s a wonderful dream that undeniably affected me. Try not feeling something when you see Tim Horton’s pull out their grab bag of heartwarming hockey moments. My love of the game may have only begun a year ago, yet its newness didn’t lessen its strength.

However, as a fan that stands out in a myriad of ways, it’s been a belief I’ve grappled with. I didn’t grow up watching hockey and my hometown is in SoCal. Additionally, I am a bisexual, Korean genderfluid woman. This all seems like irrelevant biographical information when all one wants to do is sit back and watch a hockey game, but for me, these differences cropped up again and again. The way hockey treats difference quite literally popped up for me during the Washington Capitals vs Chicago Blackhawks game in February 2018, when 4 Blackhawks “fans” chanted “basketball” at Devante Smith-Pelly.

Because of moments like that, my journey as a non-white hockey fan has been a rollercoaster ride of both great joy and great disappointment. The incident with Smith-Pelly didn’t even happen to me but it was one in a line of painful, innumerable experiences that stretch from me to other non-white fans, media members, and players alike.

I doubt that I can succinctly summarize these moments, so instead of highlighting them, I want to emphasize that non-white people do belong in this sport and that there is space for us. If you think you’re alone in your issues with hockey, you aren’t and there are people who will hear you out and support you. I won’t sugarcoat it and claim that hockey will get better soon, but I find hope in my small community of brilliant hockey friends and from media like “Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi Edition” and “Changing on the Fly.”

-Tiffany, @byulzgalov

Honestly, the only thing I noticed with being a hockey fan when you’re not white is how other people who aren’t white respond to it. Nobody I know who is white has ever made anything of it. But other black people will raise an eyebrow if you say you’re into hockey. I’ve heard other black people say they found it odd, since hockey is a “white people” sport, and [they] find it surprising I’m not into basketball instead. It’s really strange.

@OfBloodandRank

Hockey means a lot to me, as I’m sure it does to many reading these pieces.  It brought me out of a huge depressive funk, and I’ve gained so many friends from this sport.  Hockey can have its dark side though.  I’m half-Latina.  I played in a game this weekend and realized that my dark skin made me stick out.

I’ve seen some awful Hispanic Heritage Nights that reduce my ancestry down to a stereotypical caricature.  We’re not all toothless, we don’t all play in a mariachi band, and not all of us wear sombreros.  

While I might have some bias, the past couple of seasons San Jose has been a great model of what a Hispanic heritage night should look like.  Latinx-inspired team art, a Spanish-language broadcast, and honoring players that have Latinx roots. 

@backhandshots

I’ve never felt out of place [in hockey fandom], and my dad and I grew to love the game when the Canes moved down [to Raleigh]. It was a way for us to bond over sports in a way we never could otherwise because we both learned the game at the same time, versus him with cricket for me with American sports.

Here’s me and him at the All-Star Game in 2011.

Photo courtesy of Jai Kumar

We were also at Game 7 in 2006 in Section 333.

-Jai Kumar, @TheRealJaiKumar

Do you think that the Hockey is for Everyone Initiative is effective?

What is the Hockey is for Everyone initiative? (Using HiFE for short)
From NHL.com:  “Hockey is for Everyone™ uses the game of hockey – and the League’s global influence – to drive positive social change and foster more inclusive communities.

“We support any teammate, coach or fan who brings heart, energy and passion to the rink. We believe all hockey programs – from professionals to youth organizations – should provide a safe, positive and inclusive environment for players and families regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, disability, sexual orientation and socio-economic status.”

This program has been effective with player and team engagement. With players being ambassadors for the program and teams hosting featured games during the specified month celebrating the program. On paper and social media that looks great, but when the month is over, what’s next? Why is only one month the feature instead of a steady stream of games during the season to highlight all groups? These are questions I ask myself each year, repeatedly because nothing has really changed or improved. It feels like the bare minimum is being done to fulfill a check box need.

To understand why I believe that the HiFE isn’t doing enough for the greater goal of increasing diversity and inclusion in the sport is because the initiative is centered around one goal that has minor offshoots towards other efforts. For example, the program initially started on the campaign to remove homophobia from the locker room and fan base. Gradually the campaign expanded towards racial, gender, and ethnic diversity projects by adding ambassadors of different genders and ethnicities. On a local scale, the program has better success with teams organizing their own charitable events. However, I could not recall if these community events were in name of the HiFE program or organized by the team’s charity.

So why is the bare minimum only being done? Most teams only posted the same PR tweet for the event and had their stars putting rainbow tape on their sticks. Did these same players believe and share in the same ideology as the program or were they just doing what is expected of them for the team image? Rarely did I see any team sponsor or partner with a local LGBTQ organization or feature other ethnicities and genders in their campaigns.

-T, @itsbenngreat

I believe that if the NHL wants to attract more minorities to the game, they should use their “Hockey Is For Everyone” campaign to expose the game to young minorities. Some ideas for engagement include being involved in community events, inviting young people to watch games in person, and providing hockey gear for free or at a reduced price for young hockey players. The Carolina Hurricanes have done a great job of doing all these things, and I applaud them. But I believe that the responsibility of growing the game rests with the league, not with individual teams. I would like to see the league itself take more of an initiative in promoting the game to minorities.

-Spencer Carr, @TheArchibald32

Currently, I find initiatives like “Hockey is for Everyone” to be kind of limp and not entirely successful in implementing material change. That being said, I’m going to continue to be a hockey fan that pushes and strives for better in our fandom. This should be an enjoyable community for everyone, not just for a select number of white people. If leagues truly want to grow the game, I’d like to see them approach difference as something hockey can embrace, not overcome.

-Tiffany, @byulzgalov

I didn’t know there was a Hockey is for Everyone initiative, but I like the sound of that. I don’t think hockey is prevalent in a lot of minority communities, so I think the exposure would be good.

-@OfBloodandRank

Being a person of color in hockey will always have its struggles.  I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve seen what Hockey is for Everyone is capable of achieving.  I know that there’s some way to go before it’s in an ideal position to succeed.  I think if everyone does their part by being welcoming of new fans, regardless of race, creed, gender identity, and sexual orientation, we can all create a safe space where fans can be themselves and enjoy hockey.  I’ve seen kids’ faces light up as they learn how to skate for the first time, or they try floor hockey and score a goal.  I think that joy is something we should aspire to give to every fan, new and old.

-@backhandshots