With the National Hockey League playoffs in full swing I decided to share this chapter from my book on how I think that the NHL and African-American sports fans view each other and whether this will ever change.
When I was about four or five years old, I watched every sport under the sun. Football was my favorite, followed by baseball. My third favorite was not basketball, but hockey. This made me an abberation among young black boys, but I never gave it a thought. To me, hockey was cooler than basketball and I watched the National Hockey League game of the week on Sundays whenever I could on CBS which wasn’t often, because my family wanted to watch the NBA on ABC. If I recall, there was even a hockey highlight show that used to come on every Saturday.
I didn’t know many of the players, but was a Boston Bruins fan. My favorite player of course was Bobby Orr. I used to go out and grab any kind of bent stick that I could find along with a can or ball and play my cousin in one on one. Once, I even stumbled and jammed the stick into my stomach which was my first experience with getting the wind knocked out of me.
Then, when I was about seven or eight, the NHL disappeared from network television. CBS decided to replace it with the NBA and ABC did not pick it up. Since we didn’t have a local team at the time, my interest turned to the sport that I could watch which was basketball. Though the first sporting event that I ever went to was a Washington Capitals game, my interest in hockey waned. Despite the fact that I knew the Stanley Cup winners, I did not become truly interested again until Wayne Gretzky joined the Edmonton Oilers. With no place to watch him, because we couldn’t get cable I really didn’t go out of my way to keep up with the game.
Another reason why I didn’t watch hockey was that there weren’t any African-Americans playing it. Football, baseball and basketball had many African-American faces. Hockey did not. With no one to relate to on the ice, the thought of becoming an NHL player never crossed my mind though it did many of my white friends.
The only time that I can remember hockey making inroads with African-Americans was during the early 1990’s when the proliferation of TV was bringing new fans to all sports. It was nothing to turn on the television or open a magazine and see a famous African-American actor or musician sporting a hockey sweater. Even if it was just because they liked the colors or logo it helped the sport to have people of color wearing their merchandise. This would have been the perfect time for hockey to go into African-American communities to develop young talent. Then the NHL went on strike, lost their TV contract nationally and with ESPN and what chance there was to gain the African-American youth was gone just as it had when I was a kid.
The shame of it is that when it comes to hockey many African-Americans are of the same mindset as me. We don’t watch, because there aren’t too many people who look like us on the ice or in the stands. So we turn to sports which we find African-American faces in the winter, mainly basketball. Some of us, like me, watch the Stanley Cup playoffs, but most don’t.
Those who don’t may be missing out, because hockey is a great game. Though I don’t get to see as many games as I used to it’s my favorite sport to attend. There is nothing like the sound of skates gliding across the ice. Seeing a player get hammered into the boards is pretty intense. The roar of the crowd as the intensity increases especially in the playoffs. Watching a great hockey player use fancy stick work to score or seeing a goaltender making a save of a hard slap shot. Even without the fighting, it’s a great game to watch. There is even something nice in watching the Zamboni clean the ice between periods.
So why aren’t there more African-American hockey fans? Will there ever be more African-American hockey fans? And does the NHL really care if African-Americans show up or not?
We have already partly answered the first question. African-Americans don’t follow hockey, because there aren’t many of us to root for. Though there are more African-Americans in hockey than ever the only star that I can recall was Edmonton goalie Grant Fuhr. Most African-American hockey players have been good players, but not all-stars.
People come out to watch their own. They also come out to watch stars that look like them. When Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball, African-Americans began to leave the Negro Leagues to watch the Major Leagues. When Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon, blacks began to watch tennis. When Tiger Woods began winning major tournaments in golf, blacks began to watch. If hockey were to come up with a few black stars, African-Americans would begin to watch.
It’s the same theory used in boxing with the whole notion of the “Great White Hope” heavyweight champion. Every time a white heavyweight boxer becomes good interest in the sport from whites increases. The most watched pay per view boxing match of all time is the Gerry Cooney-Larry Holmes heavyweight title fight of 1983. Holmes defeated Cooney and boxing did not see another white challenger except the fictional Rocky Balboa until Tommy “The Duke” Morrison came along. I didn’t think much of Morrison or the hype as I was no longer a boxing fan.
That was until I was outside a store on the day of a Morrison fight and there were some white men going into the liquor store next door. One asked the other if he was going to watch the Tommy Morrison fight that night and he said yes. Then they gave each other a high five and started shadow boxing. Other white men joined in the conversation and you could see the excitement the fight was generating among them. I had no clue Morrison was fighting that night, but after seeing this decided to watch. “The Duke” got knocked out and all I could think of was “What was all of the hype for?”
The truth was the hype stemmed from the “Great White Hope” that Tommy Morrison represented nothing else. White people had finally found their man and thought sure he would be the one to rest the crown. Though Morrison did go on to win a part of the crown, he never became undisputed champion and the search for the “Great White Hope” continued.
Though African-Americans aren’t looking for a “Great Black Hope” in hockey just as they did not in golf or tennis it would help bring more of us to the NHL if they had a few black stars. Especially if those stars were born in the United States of America. Even better if they came from cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit or Philadelphia. Home grown African-American talent from cities with major television markets would boost interest among blacks.
But how can a sport like hockey create African-American talent when there are very few of us playing or watching the game? Like everything else, hockey has to go to the people and not expect the people to come to them. Is this easier said than done? I don’t know, but it’s worked in other sports so why not hockey? If nothing else it’s worth a try.
African-American communities have always gotten support from sports like football, basketball, baseball, boxing and even soccer. There is not an African-American community in the USA where you can go and not find kids playing these sports mainly football and basketball. Baseball lost a good bit of their African-American fans when they stopped going into the inner city and the southern states to scout talent and conduct clinics. They are trying to make up for that with the Renewing Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program.
Hockey needs to do something similar. There are hockey teams in every major city in the United States. And most of them have ice or inline skating rinks. Even if there isn’t a rink available as is the case in many African-American communities, a gym floor that can be used with a plastic puck and plastic sticks could work just as well. That’s what we used in elementary school. Then send players into the communities to introduce themselves and the game through classroom visits and clinics.
The main thing is to find a way to get kids to play. Once they play, then they become interested. Once they become interested, then it’s time to work on finding ice time and equipment. Once you find ice time and equipment, then it’s time to work on forming leagues. When leagues are formed, then you start to nurture talent.
This would not create star players or new fans overnight, but would be a start. Once young African-Americans begin playing, they and their parents would be more inclined to watch and attend games. This would benefit everyone from the pros down to the kids. It would give the pros another place to mine talent and the kids another sport to participate in.
What is stopping this from happening? Well here is a guess. Hockey really doesn’t care, because it’s a sport played globally so they figure they don’t need to create a bigger talent pool. And African-Americans don’t really care, because we are too busy limiting our sports options by steering our kids to basketball. If hockey doesn’t want us than why should we care? Also, African-Americans have so many more options in sports and life than they did years ago when football, basketball and baseball came calling which is a good thing. The truth is that hockey could bring in African-Americans but they are not not going to go out of their way to find them. And African-Americans are not going to go begging them to do it.
It’s that simple.