Words are not enough, the NHL needs to invest in Indigenous youth

Racism in the hockey community is nothing new

Cree hockey player Ethan Bear’s encounter with racism should have been better addressed by the NHL. PHOTO: Derek Leung / Getty Images

By: Harvin Bhathal, Peak Associate

Edmonton Oilers defencemen Ethan Bear, an Ochapowace Nation hockey player in the NHL, was recently subjected to racism by Oilers fans. This news is not surprising given the NHL is a league with racism embedded in its history. Still, it doesn’t make it any better. The NHL must learn from its mistakes in the past and make more of an effort to address the situation. 

This news came to light on May 26, 2021. Bear’s girlfriend made a public statement on her Instagram story about what Bear had been experiencing in the comment sections and DMs of his social media.

Among the thoughts she conveyed, she wrote, “To hide behind a screen is cowardly. But to use stereotypes against him as an Indigenous person is dehumanizing and awful!!”

The racist remarks came after the Oilers’ first-round loss to the Winnipeg Jets. Writing about the loss, editor of Native Hockey News Philip Paul-Martin added, “Just as the way Bear turned over the puck, so too did [Connor] McDavid. But nobody questions his ancestry. Or where he comes from. The core [of] his being. He just made a bad play.”

While Oilers fans and others in the hockey community were quick to show their support for Bear on social media, the responses by the Oilers and the NHL were not as meaningful. As hundred million- and billion-dollar businesses respectively, words are not enough — they must be accompanied with meaningful and monetary action. 

The league and its teams ran into a similar problem at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement after the tragic murder of George Floyd. The NHL launched a grassroots program for young skaters of colour that would be run with the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA).

However, according to multiple HDA sources, the alliance was told of the partnership the day before the NHL released a public statement and was denied permission to review the statement’s wording. The HDA’s request for program details, such as how much funding the league was planning to contribute, was also rejected.

In November of 2020, the HDA announced that going forward, they would operate independently from the NHL, citing that “it is clear that the NHL is not prepared to make any measurable commitments to end systemic racism in hockey.” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has a chance here not to make the same mistake.

Hockey is an increasingly elitist sport to get involved with; between the costs of equipment and the different camps and academies to attend to get into the NHL pipeline, it is expensive. What this means for racialized children, who often come from lower-income backgrounds, is that they cannot afford to play. 

Out of over 700 players in the NHL and AHL today, less than 5% are people of colour. The numbers are even worse for coaches of colour in the NHL’s 102-year existence.

If the NHL and the Oilers believe that Bear and “all people from Indigenous backgrounds deserve to feel empowered and respected on and off the ice,” then they must invest in Indigenous youth and youth of colour.

In the past, the league has funded organizations and instituted programs to assist racialized youth. Through the Edmonton Oilers Community Fund, the team has annually supported Right to Play’s Indigenous programs. 

But the NHL’s failed partnership with the HDA does not instill hope that the league’s initiatives will have a meaningful impact. The NHL must be forthcoming with details regarding their plans and increase their investment in racialized youth.

Considering the lack of diversity in the league among its players, coaches, and staff, there is no such thing as too much of an investment. Since 2005, the NHL’s revenue has increased every year (apart from the pandemic seasons). It is clear that money is not the reason for their failure to act. 

Both the league and the team should also make serious investments into Bear’s hockey school for Indigenous youth, Ochapowace Nation Sports Academy.

Indigenous youth and youth of colour deserve an equitable chance to play Canada’s national sport. The NHL, Oilers, and other Canadian teams should go above and beyond to support them and be the pillars in the community they claim to be.

Note: As Ethan Bear’s girlfriend is a non-public figure, we have left her name out of the story out of respect for her privacy.