Just as we were about to do our Black fan search in the Gophers’ football stadium concourse, we ran into Anthony Wilson of St. Paul. He was the first Black fan we saw in two days of being at the stadium, where the first regularly scheduled outdoor pro hockey game in Minnesota was staged last weekend.
“I think I’ve seen one or two [Blacks],” recalled Wilson when asked about running into any other fans of color last Sunday. He spoke to the MSR during the first intermission of the Wild-Chicago contest.
“I’m a Chicago Blackhawks fan,” he admitted. He said he usually goes to watch his hometown team play “about three or four” times annually when they play Minnesota.
Asked if he would’ve been there if two other NHL teams were in action, the 28-year-old Wilson said yes, “because it is [a] once-in-a-lifetime experience.” But asked if the league markets the game to Blacks like himself, he responded “I would say no.”
It was announced that 50,426 attended Sunday’s outdoor hockey game. If our unofficial Black fan tally based on Wilson’s guess and that of some Black stadium workers we asked, maybe a handful of Blacks at best were among that number.
“Maybe one or two [Blacks] came through this gate,” reported “New Orleans,” a Black male worker who asked that we use his hometown name than his given one. “If it was basketball or football, it would be different,” he said.
Obviously it didn’t matter that Minnesota defenseman Matt Dumba, the only Black player on either squad, was in action — he is now a historical footnote by having scored the game’s first goal, a rebound shot just over three minutes into the contest. “The puck was lucky to bounce on my stick,” he said afterwards. “I was so excited all day.”
The MSR talked to the second-year Wild player after last Saturday’s team practice, and again after Sunday’s game, on his thoughts of hockey’s attracting Blacks to the sport. “It would be great for people of all different backgrounds to come out and support us,” stated Dumba. “I know race is an issue in the sport. It would be awesome to see” more Blacks and people of color at NHL games, he said.
“The NHL’s demographics…is by far the whitest of the four major U.S. pro sports leagues,” noted NPR’s David Greene last year in a broadcast story on hockey’s diversity.
Yes, NHL, you have a diversity problem. When Black arena workers clearly outnumber Black fans, even a game that features one of around 30 Black NHL players, you have a marketing problem.
When an artist’s rendition shows only White fans at the outdoor game, you have an expectation of an un-diverse crowd.
When there’s only one Black reporter in the Gopher press box who received “Why are you here?” stares from both media and staffers alike all weekend, you have an inclusion problem as well.
The question is whether or not the league cares. We asked Steve Bremer, an event official, for comment: “I have forwarded your email to the NHL,” he responded. As of press time, the MSR has received no responses from the league.
“I think it starts from youth,” said Wilson on Blacks attending hockey games. “It’s something you have to grow up on to learn. If they don’t get educated on the game, they’ll never be interested.”
Perhaps the NHL marketing folk believe that their catchy “Hockey Is for Everyone” slogan is a diversity GPS that will drive more Blacks to its game.
“There aren’t that many Black players [in the NHL], that’s a fact,” said Dumba. “I’m sure more and more ethnicities will get into the game of hockey over time.”
Read more of our experience at last weekend’s NHL Stadium Series game in “Trials of an Only One in the sport of hockey” below.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.