Looking back at the NHL’s first diversity task force


Bryant McBride watched the messages multiply. Blake Wheeler of the Winnipeg Jets on social media, calling for people to “stand with the black community and fundamentally change how the leadership in this country has dealt with racism.” Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks and Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers tweeting “Black Lives Matter.” Well over a hundred current NHL players, and eventually 32 NHL teams, acknowledging injustice, racism and the fundamental need for societal change.

“The tipping point is real. This is just one manifestation of the post-George Floyd era,” McBride said.

Floyd was killed on Memorial Day when Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for more than seven minutes. The tragedy served as the catalyst for worldwide protests that have continued for months, a movement that has toppled monuments to racism and encouraged overlooked voices to speak up. As society has reacted, sports have reacted. That includes the NHL, which Zack Smith of the Blackhawks called “a predominantly white league” in his statement after Floyd’s death.

The Hockey Diversity Alliance was created, founded by six Black current and former players, as well as Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba, who is of Filipino descent. The NHL announced the formation of four committees to study the intersection of race and hockey. The restarted NHL season has featured pregame videos that ended with a graphic reading “End Racism,” messages around the rink that state “We Skate For Black Lives,” and a memorable speech by Dumba as he was surrounded by 40 peers who tapped their sticks on the ice in appreciation. The Blackhawks announced that, for the first time, they were prohibiting fans from wearing Native American headdresses to team events.

McBride fought for over 25 years to reach this tipping point in the NHL. Before the Hockey Diversity Alliance began its Zoom meetings, before the “Hockey Is For Everyone” campaign rolled out its Black History Month mobile museums, even before Willie O’Ree — who broke the NHL color barrier in 1958 — became an ambassador for the sport, there was the NHL diversity task force, founded by McBride in 1994.

“I’m fired up, reenergized to go forward and make a difference. A lot of people of color are tired right now, because this stuff has been going on forever. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect lately, because a lot of this stuff is systemic, and I’ve been working my butt off for a long time,” McBride told ESPN. “Hockey’s incredibly diverse. We have players from all over the world. In the purest sense of the word ‘diversity,’ we’re diverse, in the same way that teams are made of different nations and we figure it out.

“Now that we’ve acknowledged that it’s a hard path, and we’re not going to make the path as hard for the next group of kids, that’s fantastic. That’s tremendous progress. But the work has just begun.”

To see where it’s going, it’s important to remember how that work started.

McBride was born in Chicago in 1965, but grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, a small town just across the border from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He was the only Black player on his youth hockey teams, and he sometimes believed he might be the only Black player in hockey at all — until he discovered that Willie O’Ree had become hockey’s Jackie Robinson some years earlier.

En route to the NHL, McBride was the first Black class president at West Point and then at Trinity College, where he was an All-American defenseman for the school’s hockey team.

After earning a master’s degree at Harvard in 1990, McBride wanted to break into sports. He saw an opportunity when Gary Bettman was hired as NHL commissioner in 1993. McBride assumed that an executive arriving from the NBA would be more progressive in hiring minority candidates than the “old boys” network hockey was infamous for having at that time. He assumed correctly.

“I remember Gary said, ‘Look around our office. What are we, 90 percent white or 95 percent white? We need more women. We need more visible minorities,'” recalled Brian Burke, who was hired in 1993 as the league’s executive vice president and director of hockey operations. “We’d go into a board meeting and Gary would lay down the law. He’d say we weren’t diverse enough. That we need to get our clubs to increase their diversity.

“He just laid down the law and said this is happening. That we’re going to change our hiring practices and cast a wider net. Not because it was popular. Gary was ahead of that curve. It’s a core virtue for him. We didn’t have a ‘Rooney Rule,’ but Gary said that every position that comes up, let’s make sure we have some minority candidates.”

McBride got himself in front of Bettman and was hired as vice president of new business development.

“When the league hired Bryant McBride, he was the first person of color to be an executive. And he was highly capable — a Harvard grad, a smart man,” said Eustace King, one of the NHL’s only Black player agents.

Burke remembered McBride making an early impression. “He was impossible not to notice because of his energy. He’d pitch in on anything. He was obviously a bright, young and ambitious guy. I liked him. Pretty good hockey player, too. We just hit it off,” Burke said. “You could tell Bryant was going to go places. He had this energy and this leadership. He always was looking like he was sitting on a good idea.”

The NHL diversity task force was one such idea, an effort that McBride led while also working in his primary job, focused on expanding the league’s international TV rights. He encouraged Bettman to hire King, who at the time was a media buyer for advertising agency Leo Burnett Worldwide.

“We used to talk about that all the time back in the day — that we needed to have [a task force],” said King, who worked as a manager and then was promoted to director in NHL enterprise’s sponsorship group. “If you look at the words ‘diversity task force,’ we believed back then there was a need.”

When McBride started with the NHL, the league had three Black players. But the bigger issue was that the league wasn’t quite aware it had a diversity problem, because its focus on growth nationally was so narrow.

“It wasn’t something that was a priority. People were open to it. But I don’t think people back then knew it was a real problem,” King said. “If your network is only in certain areas, then you aren’t aware of what you’re not aware of. Or as they say, you don’t know what you don’t know.”

What the league didn’t know back then? The whereabouts of Willie O’Ree, it turns out.

O’Ree broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958 with the Boston Bruins and went on to play 45 games, before moving on to the EPHL and WHL, finishing his pro career in 1979 with the San Diego Hawks of the Pacific Hockey League. He entered the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018. It’s hard to imagine this now, seeing as how he has become a ubiquitous part of the NHL’s diversity initiatives, but Willie O’Ree wasn’t with the NHL when McBride took on the task force.

“One of the first questions I asked upon becoming commissioner in 1993 was about Willie O’Ree, because I wanted to reconnect our league with this special man and hockey trailblazer. Bryant was instrumental in making that happen,” Bettman told ESPN last week. “Three decades later, and with the lives of thousands of young girls and boys positively impacted, I’m so glad he did.”

The question was where to locate O’Ree. “When we started talking about the color barrier, we started talking about Willie O’Ree. And someone asked if he was still alive,” Burke recalled. “No one knew what he was doing. And Bryant was the one that tracked him down, working at the [Hotel del] Coronado in San Diego.”

After 22 years of professional hockey, O’Ree, then 62, was working as a hotel security guard in early 1998. McBride thought back to his youth, when he learned about O’Ree and experienced that feeling of not being alone as a Black hockey player. Representation mattered.

“That’s why I hired Willie,” said McBride, who went on to executive produce “Willie,” a well-received 2019 documentary about O’Ree. “He comes in and says, ‘This is who I am.’ He didn’t have Jackie Robinson’s career on the surface. But when you meet him, that doesn’t matter.”

O’Ree became an essential part of the diversity task force. It was no longer a couple of league executives asking NHL clubs for help. They were asking on behalf of a hockey legend.

“It wasn’t like pulling teeth. They were very welcoming. And one of the reasons they were welcoming was because of Willie. He doesn’t have an enemy in the game,” McBride said. “When I called the Detroit Red Wings to host the Willie O’Ree All-Star Game, and Scotty Bowman finds out about it, he’s like, ‘I want him to talk to the kids. When’s Willie getting here?’ He had friendships that were so deep and so wide in this game that when they heard he was involved, they were all like, ‘How do we help?'”

For Bettman, having McBride as a booster for O’Ree was essential. “Bryant has been a tremendous friend to Willie and dedicated champion of his story. Bryant’s documentary, ‘Willie,’ is quite simply brilliant. I have watched it over and over and am moved each and every time,” Bettman said.

When the NHL diversity task force officially launched in 1994, there were already some thriving hockey programs geared toward minorities, like the Detroit Hockey Association and Ice Hockey in Harlem. The task force supported those programs and others, tackling the perpetual problems of cost and available ice and equipment for minority youth players.

“It was boys and girls from all of these programs, and we basically taught them how to fish rather than giving them fish. Here’s a curriculum to follow. He’s how you get equipment or transportation,” McBride said.

“I would be in town and I’d go to city hall with them. I’d explain that we’re not creating NHL players, we’re creating life chances. To help all those volunteers in all of those cities that now have ‘Hockey Is For Everyone’ programs. They’d call me at all hours and I’d be there to help. There was no obstacle that we couldn’t overcome together, and we built a real camaraderie and a real passion that continues today in all of those cities. And now they’ve been around for 20 years.”

King said as the task force grew, so did the NHL’s understanding of its lack of diversity.

“No one knew … how we really needed it until we got into it. And then we started seeing all these programs all over the country, and we ended up having 30 programs. What we know now is that we should have started it earlier. Then we’d have two times the amount of programs,” he said. “The league should have done something earlier. But at the same time, the league wasn’t focused on grassroots back then. They were operating a league. It was a different time, different era.”

The task force had its successes. The Willie O’Ree All-Star Game events, for example, would bring together dozens of young players from across the U.S. “The program was an excellent program,” King said. “It gave underprivileged kids the chance to go on their all-star weekend and be treated differently. It got them excited about hockey. You have a lot of fans in different communities who would have never been fans.”

But the task force was limited by its resources. “When Gary took over the league, we had no budget for anything. It was a mom and pop operation. What Gary has turned it into now is frightening [by comparison],” Burke said.

King credits Bettman for some of the resources the task force received. “Gary could have said ‘no’ back then. He was still learning. He was still learning about Willie. About where Willie was and what he was trying to accomplish. They were all learning,” King said. “Gary, with Bryant’s help, had a vision of what to do. But I don’t think the teams and the owners had the budgets to do what the vision was. Bryant’s vision was big. It was grand.”

By 2000, McBride had left the NHL. Without its engine, the diversity task force — renamed NHL Diversity — would sit idle for years. O’Ree remained an important ambassador for the game. The participation numbers for Black players continued to climb in the U.S. But what was missing was that drive. That push.

“Maybe there wasn’t a focus on it at the time, like it was when Bryant was there. Maybe the passion wasn’t there, you know? The program was just surviving. At the same token, the belief in the program and what they thought about it was still strong. The league wanted to execute it. Whether or not they did everything they could has yet to be determined, but they were trying,” King said.

“I think everyone at times can forget what’s important. I think the league … you have different people in different positions there. Whether priorities change or maybe because the program was running smoothly, I think they forgot about the growth factor. How do we keep growing? How do we keep evolving?”

Now, more than 25 years after the creation of the NHL diversity task force, its founders witnessed that next evolution in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd.

King always believed that something as radical as the Hockey Diversity Alliance — a players-led initiative that’s separate from the NHL — could be created.

“I definitely thought at some point that we would have enough [Black players]. I just didn’t think it would unfold like it did,” King said. “They were at a point where they started seeing all of these things that are happening in society and they decided that they, as players, had the most influence. That they had to help the cause, but also help the next generation.

“This is real. I think this is going to be a change moment. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

From the start of the postseason, it was obvious something had changed. Hockey Diversity Alliance branding was on NHL pregame videos that incorporated the words “Black Lives Matter” and “George Floyd.” Dumba wore an HDA hoodie as he delivered his heartfelt speed before the first Western Conference postseason game in Edmonton, surrounded by members of the Blackhawks and Oilers.

“On behalf of the NHL and the Hockey Diversity Alliance, we vow and promise to stand up for justice and fight for what is right,” Dumba said. “I know firsthand, as a minority playing the great game of hockey, the unexplainable and difficult challenges that come with it. The Hockey Diversity Alliance and the NHL want kids to feel safe, comfortable and free-minded every time they enter the arena.”

There are growing pains for the HDA. The organization was criticized for a lack of female representation in its initial leadership group. Its relationship with the NHL is still in its infancy. Evander Kane of the San Jose Sharks told TSN last week that “the league has made no effort to support its own Black players.” He said the NHL had yet to meet the HDA’s funding requests. Sources confirmed to ESPN that the HDA asked the NHL for a $100 million funding commitment. Kane characterized that as “$10 million per year, or a little more than $300,000 per team.”

In some ways, the HDA is essentially a startup business. McBride is familiar with them. After leaving the NHL and a foray into player representation, he’s now an entrepreneur, having sold several companies before co-founding Burst, a leading mobile video technology company. In his experience, if there’s a window to create and push through a new product, you have to move quickly before that window closes. And he believes there is suddenly a window for addressing racism, injustice and inequity in hockey.

“I don’t think this window has really existed until now,” he said.

McBride believes this moment is different because of the diverse coalition that has helped create it. “I’ve been to a lot of protests with my kids and my family,” McBride said. “Seeing the mix of people is very different than it was in Ferguson [Missouri, in 2014], where people would say, ‘OK, Black people rioting. Whatever.'”

Like any parent, he thinks about his own childhood when considering the world in which his children are growing up.

“I grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada. When I walked out the door, my color was not one of the first 10 things on my list to think about. I wasn’t a threat to anyone in Sault Ste. Marie,” McBride said. “I could play hockey. I could play soccer. I didn’t have to think about race. And then I came down to the States, and It became one of the first three things I think about every day. I understand white privilege because I enjoyed it.”

McBride has tried to explain that experience when conversing with “high-ranking people in hockey” about race. “It was like, ‘Oh, my god, I’ve gotta help you right now before you get in trouble.’ You know, those kinds of conversations? Where you just gotta tell them?” he said. “So I say, ‘Let me explain what white privilege is. You know and love my children, right? Well, every day they walk out the door, my wife and I are worried. We have to worry about that. You don’t. That’s a privilege.'”

McBride expects to be involved in one of the NHL’s four action committees that are examining diversity initiatives at all levels of hockey, working with Kim Davis, executive vice president for social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. One project he’s passionate about: a curriculum about diversity in hockey entered around Willie O’Ree and made available to educators.

King hopes this moment provides opportunities where minorities can have “a chance to sit at the boardroom table with decision-makers” and join the executive ranks themselves.

“There are a bunch of minorities in our business that have a unique skill and talent from being around the game. You see [former players] Anson Carter and Kevin Weekes on TV. That’s great. But those guys can also be in the boardroom, impacting the game,” King said.

“The biggest thing for me is that I want the people who get this opportunity to be the ones that are qualified. It’s not because of a mandate or a ‘Rooney Rule.’ It’s because those players, male or female, have been in the game. They know it and live it and breathe it. And now are allowed to be heard. They have the right lens and vision. They just have to be allowed to speak.”

There is strength in numbers. That was always the point of the NHL diversity task force: that the sport can’t change without representation or participation of those who unfortunately feel that hockey might not be for them. But as those opportunities increase — and with the newly established support of NHL players and teams to fight injustice — McBride believes the NHL’s diversity initiatives must finally grow beyond their grassroots efforts and sloganeering, and into a phase of palpable action to attack systemic racism.

“Our job is simple. We have to put together a plan that’s actionable. What’s the punishment if someone throws the ‘N-word’ at someone? What is that? How is it uniform?” he said.

That task, McBride said, is making sure that all this newfound momentum is focused in the same progressive direction. “How are we speaking from one unified voice? I don’t care who that voice is, but one voice. If the Black hockey community is fractured, then our chances for failure increase dramatically,” he said.

“Frankly, that’s unacceptable. That is not going to happen. There’s just too much at stake.”

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