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The Value Gap: Hockey is toxic to Black fans and sexual harassment victims who can’t speak up — but there’s hope, new book says

The Value Gap is a MarketWatch Q&A series with business leaders, academics, authors, policymakers and activists on reducing racial and social inequalities.

As author Evan Moore tweeted this fall: It’s highly unlikely that a Black man from 71st and Luella in Chicago and a South Asian woman from New Jersey would team up to write a hockey book.

But they have. Moore, a longtime Chicago Sun-Times journalist who now is press officer for Chicago Public Schools, plays in a recreational league and ardently follows the National Hockey League.

Co-author Jashvina Shah, for her part, says the distraction from immersing herself in college hockey reporting helped dull the sharpest edges of her own trauma from a sexual assault. She’s a multimedia freelancer printed in several sports titles.

These two love hockey — they just want to love it more.

Moore and Shah’s new book, “Game Misconduct: Hockey’s Toxic Culture and How to Fix It,” takes a sometimes uncomfortable, even triggering, look at how the physically taxing, often violent, high-skill sport fosters what they and others consider “a toxic culture” of racism, misogyny, ableism and anti-LGBTQ sentiment in much of the hockey played at the high school, college, juniors, minor leagues and NHL levels.

“Game Misconduct” hit last month, within weeks of the most significant fallout from a sexual assault allegation to date for the NHL — although with repercussions that came more than a decade after the alleged assault took place.

Chicago Blackhawks president of hockey operations Stan Bowman resigned in late October after investigators released their findings on how the team mishandled sexual assault allegations by prospect Kyle Beach against former video coach Brad Aldrich during the 2010 Stanley Cup run. Beach has publicly named himself as the alleged victim in a lawsuit. The NHL will fine the Blackhawks $2 million, saying the team had inadequate procedures in place. Half of the fine will go to support survivors of sexual and other forms of abuse.

But arguably the biggest blow came days later — too late yet again, critics say — when popular former Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, who is now with the Florida Panthers, resigned from the league after meeting with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman about the coach’s role in the 2010 cover-up.

“I want to express my sorrow for the pain this young man, Kyle Beach, has suffered. My former team, the Blackhawks, failed Kyle and I own my share of that,” Quenneville said in a statement to Canadian station TSN. “I want to reflect on how all of this happened and take the time to educate myself on ensuring hockey spaces are safe for everyone.”

Hockey — the fifth most popular U.S. sport behind football, baseball, basketball and soccer, according to Gallup — is no small time or financial commitment. Regulation ice requires a large playing space. Youth and adult leagues might only secure practice and game time well into late-night hours, or drive hours to a rink.

On average, a family in the U.S. spent $693 annually per child in one sport in 2019. For children playing ice hockey, families had to hand over an estimated $2,583 annually, including approximately $389 for equipment, says data site Statista.

Young players on a pro or college track who play in the rising ranks of juniors leave home to billet with a host family, attending school there, and playing with a local team. As with most pro sports, only an elite few make it to the NHL or play in leagues abroad — although anywhere there is ice, so-called beer leagues allow for recreational hockey as a fitness and social pastime for those who just love to pad up and skate.

But for those who care about the sport’s longevity, it’s the social cost of the game’s historically insular, close-ranks, team-over-individual responses to adversity that matters most.

MarketWatch spoke with Moore and Shah for The Value Gap. The two penalize hockey for a history of cultural and social missteps that they argue only hurt the game. And they suggest ways to improve this sport, one that continues to be meaningful for both of them.

MarketWatch: I find the team-first-at-all-costs, dwarfing-of-individualism mindset (which seems dangerous if something bad happens to you), both more extreme in hockey than most other sports and organizations, and yet not completely out of character for many other facets of life (#MeToo and entertainment-industry abuse, Scouting, and so on).

The book reveals several reasons why hockey stands out in this way, including but not limited to complex organizational and disciplinary tiers (differing from other sports and even between the U.S. and Canada), billeting away from home, the fact even that fighting and on-ice enforcement as entertainment are fixtures of the game. What is it about hockey that stands out in this regard?

Moore: Hockey players are viewed as wholesome types — the kid next door who made good. In one of our initial conversations with our publisher, Triumph Books, one of the employees said how he works with hockey players all the time, saying they are “down to Earth.” I said, “See, that’s one of the talking points of the book: Why do we — society — automatically view these guys as such?” There’s a level of elitism there.

Shah: I’m not sure about the origins of what could have caused this culture to be created, but it probably has something to do with the fact that professionally, hockey was so small when it started. The nature of squashing individuality makes it really hard to attract new fans or players, because especially if you aren’t a cis, straight, white man, you have to separate part of yourself in order to be accepted in a group. Why would you do that if it harms you and makes you unhappy? Media — especially TV analysts — reiterates and reinforces the same concepts of team-first that hockey teams use. 

MarketWatch: There’s an anecdote in the book about Canadian NHL player P.K. Subban, a Black man, often called out when he’s been a high-energy celebratory crowd-pleaser after plays, but somehow negatively deemed “bigger than the team,” which doesn’t seem to be a label white players are handed.

So let’s just straight up talk about racism. Microaggressions no doubt wear players down, but some of your examples are shocking — I’m admitting my own biases in being shocked — for instance, blackface in the crowd during recent NHL seasons, not some throwback history lesson. What do you think it means, or how does it speak to the appeal of the sport that people of color who do play stick with a game that seems to fight them at every turn?

Moore: Racism is everywhere. It’s in every vocation known to man: education, feminism, academia, government, journalism, etc. Despite that, people show up, and they are dedicated in showing hockey isn’t just for white people. It all means that the sport’s gatekeepers aren’t ready for an uncomfortable conversation about things they’re comfortable about. 

In the book, we spoke with a man whose brother was taken out of youth hockey due to racism from opponents and parents. This man says some kids up north would’ve given hockey a try if the sport hadn’t pushed them out, forcing them to turn to basketball. Look at the number of Canadians who’ve turned up in the NBA. I can make a strong case that hockey elitism plays a part in that.

MarketWatch: And Evan, do you ever take heat for your love of this historically white sport?

Moore: At times, being a Black hockey fan is like being a Black Republican. Some Black people wonder why you love that “white sport,” and some people don’t want you around because of your Blackness. Over time, I think people are more accepting that Black folks aren’t a monolith. Via the Coloured Hockey League, many of the game’s innovations were created by Black people, like the slap shot and the butterfly style of goaltending. 

“‘Racism is everywhere. It’s in every vocation known to man: education, feminism, academia, government, journalism, etc. Despite that, people show up, and they are dedicated in showing hockey isn’t just for white people.’ ”

— Evan Moore

MarketWatch: Has the NHL in your opinion given much indication that they realize they have a bias and equality problem, even if the structure makes the path forward challenging?

Moore: The fact the the NHL created a diversity task force in the mid-1990s goes to show us hockey has a long way to go, since there are ongoing issues. When most professional sports leagues recognized George Floyd’s tragic death in some form, the NHL’s initial response left much to be desired. Remember, Floyd’s death took place in Minnesota — the “State of Hockey.” I think the NHL wants to do more than performative gestures. 

But they don’t want to upset their white fanbase, and some of those folks want nothing to do with social justice. Some white people have gravitated toward hockey over time due to the overwhelming amount of Blackness in the NBA and NFL.

Shah: Nope! The best they’ll do is make lazy PR statements. And Gary Bettman denies everything (like the link to concussions), so I have minimal hope as long as he’s in charge. 

[Editor’s note: Sports Illustrated has published an in-depth profile that details how current and former players feel Bettman and the NHL are failing to address racism in hockey. In June 2020, the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) was formed by current and former NHL players of color Trevor Daley, Evander Kane, Wayne Simmonds, Matt Dumba, Chris Stewart, Joel Ward, Nazem Kadri, and Akim Aliu.]

MarketWatch: Jashvina, what’s it like for you as a woman around this sport? Any labeling as “bad feminist” or something that cuts you down for being a female around a sport that carries the label of “misogynistic”?

Shah: I don’t know that I take heat personally, but I will say people are more likely — in my experience — to be more outwardly sexist than they will be outwardly racist, at least from a reporter’s perspective. That’s not to say there is less racism, just that people seem to hide it more. I’m lucky that college hockey is pretty small so I don’t — well, I don’t know if anyone doesn’t take my work seriously because I’m a woman. I suspect the people who don’t take my work seriously do so because I’m a brown woman, but I’ll also probably never know. 

MarketWatch: Can you speak a bit about the health and growth of women’s hockey? Is the college system at least stable? What about recreational hockey, including for non-cis people?

Shah: Technically, yes, the college system should be stable because at this point a lot of those programs are staples. That being said, we’re not that far gone from North Dakota cutting their Olympian-producing women’s program. Unfortunately, the health of women’s hockey leagues in the U.S. (and I say leagues because there are not only cis women who play in those leagues, it is a place where those who are not cis men go), progress has been really slow and there’s just one league left now, which has its own host of problems and lack of inclusivity.

I’m not sure about recreational hockey because it’s not a space I’m very tapped into. In some ways, it is being more inclusive because you have recreational organizations like Madison Gay Hockey. But from a professional standpoint, it’s still not very friendly to those who are non-binary or trans. The Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, however, may be more inclusive than the former National Women’s Hockey League, now branded as the Premier Hockey Federation. 

“‘What leaves me most hopeful is the amount of people we had multi-hour  conversations  with while reporting and interviewing for this book. It’s proof that there are people who care about making hockey better…’”

— Jashvina Shah

MarketWatch: Perhaps a little out of the scope of the book, but talk if you can about race, gender, as well as economic inequity at the youth and park league level. It is an expensive sport for quality equipment, distance to ice and ice-time scheduling. Have you seen positive developments in opening up the sport to more kids? And what about those who play for fun?

Moore: Hockey from the top down, whether you play for competition or fun in a beer league, is expensive. Hockey plays up the aspect of parents making sacrifices when their sons make the NHL. In terms of changes, I think making the sport more accessible in terms of location and capital would do wonders in terms of engagement. We need to remove the “merit badge” aspect of hockey. Making the sport unattainable is not a cause for celebration. 

MarketWatch: What leaves you most hopeful about progress in the sport you both have such affection for?

Shah: What leaves me most hopeful is the amount of people we had multi-hour conversations with while reporting and interviewing for this book. It’s proof that there are people who care about making hockey better and that there are people out there who feel the same way we do, and just don’t have anyone to talk about it with.

Moore: The fact that hockey reached me, a Black kid from the South Side of Chicago, and a South Asian woman from New Jersey, shows anything is possible. And how so many folks are rooting for us and the success of the book, is a testament to the changing face of the sport. 

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