In hockey, diversity talk is still just that — talk

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This column continues the Only One series in which this reporter shares his experiences as the only African American on the scene. 

It’s year two for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC). Eight teams — all steeped in hockey tradition, some since as far back as 1929 — began play as one league, spanning as far west as Denver and as far east as Miami (Ohio).

Denver, Miami University, Colorado College, Minnesota Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota are founding members, with St. Cloud State and Western Michigan joining later. The conference was founded in 2011 and began play last season.

The Only One was present at the conference’s first media day last year and again this year in September. We sat down with NCHC Commissioner Josh Fenton to talk about diversity and inclusion in a sport that lacks it, especially at the collegiate level.

Josh Fenton Photo by Charles Hallman
Josh Fenton
Photo by Charles Hallman

“I think our sport has to find ways to be better and embrace [diversity],” Fenton pointed out. “Historically, we haven’t provided a lot of racial diversity within the sport in general.”

After last Saturday’s Minnesota-St. Cloud State contest, where the over-under number of Black folk — not counting the Only One — among the 10,025 spectators at Mariucci Arena was definitely under, we asked the same question to Gopher Coach Don Lucia, who replied, “You see a few African Americans. I wish there were more playing college hockey. We had Kyle [Okposo] in our program.”

Okposo, a St. Paul native who played two seasons for Minnesota in the mid-2000s before turning pro, is now with the NHL’s New York Islanders. He’s one of around 30 Black NHL players currently playing.

It’s expensive to play hockey — equipment and ice time are two examples. “Finding ways to make our sport not so expensive” is one encouraging way to attract more Blacks to hockey, added Lucia. “I wish we could find a way not to make [hockey] an expensive sport to play. I wish we could [get] more of that segment of the population playing [hockey].

“That’s a broader issue that USA Hockey has talked about,” said Lucia, “in finding ways to make our sport less expensive.”

The NCHC commissioner, however, when further pressed, couldn’t offer any suggestions on how his league in particular and hockey in general can become more inclusive other than that old fallback line: “[It] has to be a priority in our sport.”

College hockey, whether men’s or women’s, is great to watch, and it’s shameful that more Blacks aren’t visible either in the stands or on the ice, or even behind the scenes. Yet Fenton acknowledges, “Diverse viewpoints from people of diverse backgrounds…are what’s going to make us stronger as a sport [and] as a conference.”

 

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.