How Long Can The NHL Ignore Minority Fans?

By Greg Wyshynski
Updated: May 26, 2007

Ray Emery

Ray Emery

VIRGINIA — On Monday night, Ottawa Senators goalie Ray Emery will become the first black player to be his team’s primary goaltender in the Stanley Cup Finals since Grant Fuhr of the Edmonton Oilers back in 1988. (Kevin Weekes played a big role on Carolina’s 2001-02 finalist, but Arturs Irbe shouldered most of the load.)

Last time I checked, the NHL was a league in desperate need of some additional eyes in front of U.S. television sets. So why isn’t Emery’s unlikely transformation into a championship goalie getting a media push and heavy promotion by the league, potentially giving African-American sports fans a reason to check out hockey for the first time? I mean, I’ve seen more stories about “Team Black” winning an intra-squad Senators scrimmage than about Ottawa’s black goaltender.

If you want to say it’s because Ray Emery isn’t good enough to be a selling point, fair enough; now explain why an elite player like Jarome Iginla — born to a white mother and a Nigerian father — hasn’t been marketed to black audiences in the U.S., even when his Calgary Flames were playing for the Stanley Cup in 2004?

Sure, Iginla and Emery both play for Canadian franchises; but where are the articles like this one from Jet Magazine in 2003 that promoted Iggy and a dozen other black NHL players on teams across North America?

There’s a simple theory in sports fandom: That having the chance to watch African-American athletes compete is an exceptional entry point to a particular sport for African-American fans.

It worked so well for professional golf during the last decade that NASCAR began searching for “the Tiger Woods of racing.” It’s been cited as a primary reason why black fans have stopped following Major League Baseball , as the number of African-American big leaguers has declined.

But the NHL has yet to use its growing number of minority players to aggressively market hockey to previously uncharted fan bases like the hip-hop generation. (And no, having Lil Jon pose with the Stanley Cup doesn’t count.)

That course might be changing, according to Ken Martin, senior director of community relations and diversity programs for the NHL. I spoke with Ken last week about Emery, minorities in hockey and the NHL’s future marketing plans when it comes to minority sports fans.

Martin heads up NHL Diversity, which has just under 40 inner-city volunteer programs that offer economically disadvantaged boys and girls the chance to learn and play hockey.

Founded in 1995, it had its first program graduate to make the NHL in 2005, a goalie named Gerald Coleman. Under Martin, who is African-American, the program has broadened its scope and its programs, and he told me that the league’s other marketing arms are ready to join the effort:

Why doesn’t the NHL market its minority players directly to minority fans?

I think you’re going to see some of that take place this year. This is our 50th anniversary of Willie O’Ree breaking the color barrier. Our game is going through a transition period right now. You can turn the clock back and look at Grant Fuhr when he played, and I don’t think anyone even knew he was a minority player until the end of his career because he was hidden behind a helmet. Right now, we’re focusing on the history of our game and we’re going to do a timeline of accomplishments for next season. We’ll start doing some [marketing] over the summer.

How important to the efforts of NHL Diversity is having a black player start in goal for a Stanley Cup finalist?

Any time you can spotlight somebody as a role model, someone who looks like an African-American kid who’s striving to be a hockey player, it just makes my job so much easier. Especially when you have guys like Ray Emery, who’s such a great individual off the ice. He’s like most goalies: He’s quirky. But he’s given back and been a spokesperson. Same with Jarome. I don’t think anybody from a media-darling standpoint is more accommodating as Jarome is.

Speaking of Iginla, I’ve always felt that he hasn’t been marketed as an African-American star in the league, even when he was playing for the Stanley Cup? Why do you feel that hasn’t happened?

Part of that is based on the history of our game. Since Wayne Gretzky , we haven’t had a player who wanted to step forward and carry the torch in marketing the game. You’re getting some of that now with Sidney Crosby. But so much of our game is based on the team concept, that players are resistant to step into the spotlight and say, “Here’s my personal accomplishment, let’s market these opportunities.” But we’re getting there. With revenue-sharing and the CBA, there’s a vested interest from players to help us market the game.

Has there been apprehension on the part of minority players to have that marketing focus placed on them?

I don’t think that’s ever been the issue. It’s more the issue of stepping out of the team boundaries. Even as great as Mario [Lemieux ] was, he’d be the first to say it was based on his teammates.

Like Iginla, Scott Gomez is a dynamic offensive player and a charismatic personality. Has the NHL missed the boat on marketing him directly to Hispanic fans?

I think it boils back to a comfort level. Scott’s been great, getting to a point where he’s comfortable marketing himself to the Hispanic population. Obviously, when you want to market to the Hispanic population, you have to do all the components, which includes marketing in Spanish. Scott doesn’t speak Spanish, and that’s somewhat of a hindrance.

Do you think Ray Emery can be an entry point for minority sports fans for watching the Stanley Cup Finals?

I obviously do. For us, it’s going to be a benefit for two reasons. First, [having Emery as] a minority player and highlighting his growth and accomplishments. But we’re also going to benefit because he’s on a Canadian team and will get the push from the Canadian media markets.

Finally, what’s the outlook for increased diversity in the NHL?

There are potentially 51 minority players that are playing in the East Coast Hockey League, the Central Hockey League and the OHL that have an opportunity to make an impact in the NHL. There’s a wave behind this wave of existing minority players – a juggernaut that’s going to be a very interesting story as we look at opportunities to market them and use them as examples of NHL diversity.