Race and ethnicity in the NHL

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The National Hockey League (NHL) evolved from a mono-ethnic and primarily Canadian professional athletic league to span North America.[1][2][3][4][5] The distribution of ethnic groups has been gradually changing since the inception of the NHL.[6] 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.[7]

According to statistics,[8] 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%.[8] In 2011, the NHL was composed of 93% of players who identified as white, with the remaining 7% identifying as varying ethnicities.[9][needs update]


A number of ice hockey leagues for players of African descent formed in Canada as early as the late-19th century. The Coloured Hockey League was an all-black ice hockey league established in 1895. Operating across the Maritime provinces of Canada, the league operated for several decades until 1930.

Although other ice hockey leagues saw integration in the early 20th century (including the Quebec Senior Hockey League), the NHL did not see its first non-white player until March 13, 1948, when Larry Kwong broke the NHL's colour barrier playing with the New York Rangers.[10] Born in Vernon, British Columbia, Kwong was a Chinese Canadian of Cantonese descent.[11] In 1953, Fred Sasakamoose was the first Cree NHL player, and the first Canadian indigenous player in the NHL, debuting with the Chicago Black Hawks. On January 18, 1958, Willie O'Ree became the first Black Canadian to play in the NHL. Playing with the Boston Bruins, he was also the first NHL player of African-descent.[12]

Val James was the first African American player to play in the NHL. James signed his contract with the Buffalo Sabres in 1982.[13] His stint with the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs were short lived and he eventually retired in 1987 due to injury.[13] He experienced racism as the first player throughout his skating career. He 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.[14] His hostile experiences were and continue to be representative of how institutional racism permeates the culture and socialization of men (and women) sports. A biography of his life in the sport was published under the title Black Ice: The Val James Story written by John Gallagher.[15] The number of black NHL players moved to 26 by the end of the 20th century and sat at 32 in 2016. This is a seemingly minor yet significant change in the racial demographic of the NHL in its hundred-year history.[9]

In addition to black and white players, other races and ethnicities represented in the NHL (in the 2017–18 season) include players of Middle Eastern-descent (including Brandon Saad, Justin Abdelkader, Mika Zibanejad, and Nazem Kadri), players of Latino-descent (including Al Montoya, Auston Matthews, Max Pacioretty, and Raffi Torres), and players of Asian-descent (including Kailer Yamamoto, and Matthew Dumba).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Farber, Michael. "Soul On Ice: Black players in the NHL". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved 9 December 2016.
  2. ^ "NBC's Portrayal of U.S. and Canadian Hockey Players on the Olympic Stage: A Textual Analysis of Gender, Race, and Nationality Issues in the Commentary". ProQuest. 1 January 2008. Retrieved 8 December 2016 – via Google Books.
  3. ^ Shephard, Roy J. (27 November 2014). "An Illustrated History of Health and Fitness, from Pre-History to our Post-Modern World". Springer. Retrieved 8 December 2016 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ Drake, Matt (28 March 2014). "Being black in the NHL". SB Nation. Retrieved 7 December 2016.
  5. ^ Group, Vibe Media (1 March 1994). "Vibe". Vibe Media Group. Retrieved 6 December 2016 – via Google Books.
  6. ^ "Masaryk University Faculty of Arts : Department of English and American Studies" (PDF). Is.muni.cz. Retrieved 2016-11-28.
  7. ^ SELL, DAVE (1 April 1990). "Blacks and Hockey Maintain a Tenuous Relationship". Retrieved 7 December 2016 – via LA Times.
  8. ^ a b "NHL Nationality Breakdown". QuantHockey.com. Retrieved 2016-10-21.
  9. ^ a b "Thrashers Top NHL With Highest Percentage Of Black Players". WSB-TV. Retrieved 2016-10-21.
  10. ^ Ward, Rachel (19 March 2018). "NHL trailblazer Larry Kwong dies at 94". CBC News. Retrieved 19 March 2018.
  11. ^ NHL, "CBC targets Chinese hockey fans with Mandarin broadcasts of NHL playoffs", Canadian Press, 2008 April 20
  12. ^ Harris, Cecil (2003). Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey. Toronto: Insomniac Press. p. 20. ISBN 1897415052. Retrieved 2018-01-15.
  13. ^ a b "IAs First Black American NHL Player, Enforcer Was Defenseless Vs. Racism." All Things Considered 26 Feb. 2015. General OneFile. Web. 10 July 2016.
  14. ^ "NHL - Pioneer Val James not bitter about his tortured playing days". Espn.com. 2015-02-14. Retrieved 2016-10-21.
  15. ^ "Val James First US Born Black Player in NHL Publishes Autobiography". The New York Times. Retrieved 2016-10-22.