The National Hockey League (NHL) evolved from a mono-ethnic and primarily Canadian professional athletic league to span North America. The distribution of ethnic groups has been gradually changing since the inception of the NHL.
The league consists of a variety of players from varying nationalities and diverse backgrounds. Once known as a league riddled with racism and exclusiveness, the NHL has made positive steps toward a more diverse and inclusive institution.
According to statistics, gathered by www.quanthockey.com, the NHL began its expansion of player nationalities in the 1970s, where players hailed from the United States, Sweden and Finland. The share of Canadians in the league dropped to 75% by the 1980s and is now slightly less than 50%.
The NHL is composed of 93% of players who designate themselves as white with the remaining 7% of varying ethnicities. The league currently has 32 players of African-American descent. Some notable NHL stars of African-American descent are Dustin Byfuglien, Evander Kane and Joel Ward.
After its inception in 1917, there were no African-American players in the NHL throughout the 1970s (marked by a rise in black power movements) and into the early 1980s.
This number moved to 26 by the end of the 20th century and sits at 32 in 2016. This is a seemingly minor yet significant change in the racial demographic of the NHL in its hundred-year history.
Herb Carnegie was the first Canadian ice hockey player of African descent in the game while Val James was the first American-born player to skate in the NHL. James signed his contract with the Buffalo Sabres in 1982. His stint with the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs were short lived and he eventually retired in 1987 due to injury. He experienced racism as the first player throughout his skating career.
James never spoke of racism on the ice until 30 years after his career ended. In his account, he reported he could not watch hockey games for 10 years after leaving the ice without being haunted by the memories of his treatment as a man of color in the NHL. His hostile experiences were and continue to be representative of how institutional racism permeates the culture and socialization of men (and women) sports.
An biography of his life in the sport was published under the title "Black Ice: The Val James Story" written by John Gallagher.
Sociology offers a logical framework derived from studying the perceptions and interactions between the self (as a member of interlocking groups) and a social institution, such as school, media and sports. One's sociological imagination offers some insight into how the world operates on a scale far greater than one’s individual thought can conceive.
Thus, one's troubled personal experience with discrimination in sports can be linked to, but is often disconnected from, structural frameworks that led to racism. Understanding the institutional structure of the ethnic composition of the NHL is an important and challenging perspective on the culture of sports.
C Wright Mills outlines how such compositions are better understood from a sociological lens that examines issues of elite power and inequalities.
Hockey is an expensive sport with economic barriers to entry for members of disadvantaged or marginalized groups compared to other sports.
Its popularity varies by region and has a greater influence in certain cities while playing a large role in the cultures of many cities. While still lacking diversity, the NHL has made positive steps towards increasing inclusivity and regulating blatant racism.