How Kim Davis is pushing the NHL into diverse territory


NEW YORK — For the past six years, affluent African-American families from around the United States have converged on Martha’s Vineyard for a festival called the O.B. Boogie. Friends reconnect, and children play on the beach in front of corporate logos as sponsors ranging from BMW to Essence to Comcast eagerly cater to this audience.

Last summer’s O.B. Boogie, held on a rainy afternoon and attended by roughly 900 people, had only one professional sports league as a sponsor, and it was an unlikely one, given the demographics: the National Hockey League.

The NHL partnered with Franklin Sports to present street hockey demonstrations and give away gear. Willie O’Ree, the player who broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958, took pictures and signed autographs. African-American parents watched their children pick up hockey sticks for the first time and play under a large tent as rain fell during the afternoon.

“I think there’s this perception that because our sport is a very white sport, it’s not welcoming. And I’m not sure that’s necessarily correct,” said Kim Davis, NHL executive vice president for social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs.

“The level of engagement that created was astounding. We got some kids that are now inspired, signing up for learn-to-play programs. Those people are going back to their communities across the country and talking about hockey in a very different way.”

This has been the primary mission for Davis since she joined the NHL in December 2017: changing the conversation about hockey and diversity and changing the conversation about hockey within diverse communities.

As marketing challenges go, it’s a considerable one: Davis said there are fewer than 30 black players in the NHL, of the 954 skaters and goaltenders who have appeared in the league so far in the 2019-20 season. The diversity in the coaching community and team hockey operations departments lags far behind even that small percentage of representation.

But Davis is meeting this challenge in ways the NHL hadn’t considered before, such as bringing street hockey to an African-American beach party or presenting the NHL’s plan to make the sport more inclusive to 3,000 attendees at the National Association of Black Journalists conference last summer in Florida.

“Just the fact we were there … it was like, ‘We didn’t even know you were interested in our community, let alone coming and talking about the things that you are doing.’ It built a new kind of excitement and changed the conversation,” Davis said.

Her work in the past two years has won the admiration of many NHL players of color.

“She’s awesome. What she’s trying to implement in the NHL as far as trying to bring more diversity to the league and create awareness, especially to black hockey players and black youth, it’s great,” said Evander Kane of the San Jose Sharks.

“She has her views of where the game is going. And she’s not someone that’s going to be pushed around. That’s what I like about her. She’s a very strong woman, and it gives players like myself comfort knowing that she’s in the position that she’s in.”

Especially when she’s willing to take on critics of the NHL’s diversity — critics such as Evander Kane.

Davis arrived in the NHL after a two-decade career at JPMorgan Chase in which she served as managing director of GLOBAL CSR and president of the JPMorgan Chase Foundation. The small, Connecticut-based bank where she started was acquired by Chase in 1991, and she was one of only two employees who survived the absorption. In 1995, she became the first African-American promoted to a senior vice president position at Chase.

“Kim’s professional experience uniquely qualifies her to ensure that our league is continuing to improve lives and strengthen and build vibrant communities through hockey as well as provide a safe, positive and inclusive environment for anyone associated with our league,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said when Davis was hired.

It was a very different time when she started on her career path. “When you’re in that position in any industry, you have to have a certain level of courage and fearlessness to be successful,” she said. “There are always going to be stereotypes, always things that people say and do. I could spend hours with you telling you about the experiences I had in the course of my career.”

Davis applies the lessons she learned from that journey to her work in the NHL.

“What I’d like to see our players do is to not ignore the harsh realities of racism — because they’re real — but to rise above them, to think about the leadership that they can demonstrate for the next generation,” she said. “That’s not always easy, but it’s necessary.”

That’s why Davis understood where Evander Kane was coming from when he criticized the NHL in ESPN The Magazine’s 2019 Body Issue. He said the league didn’t have the right approach to growing the game with diverse audiences. Kane also said the league’s prominent black players are “wary about stepping outside and doing something that might disrupt the norm” when it comes to standing in solidarity on social issues.

“I think there are perceptions and realities from every angle of that prism. I don’t think there’s anything the league has done, or demonstrated, that would suggest that there wouldn’t be an opportunity for players of color to show social bravery,” Davis said. “But the experiences of racism would be something that would make you feel that way.”

Davis wanted to have a dialogue with Kane on these matters. She met him for the first time at a humanitarian awards town hall, at which Kane spoke candidly about the league while on a panel. “Some of what he was saying was spot-on, and some of what he was saying wasn’t fact-based,” she said.

So Davis stood up and introduced herself at the event — to correct the record and to connect with Kane. She sent him emails over the summer about the work the NHL was doing “as a way to hopefully inspire him to channel that energy into a partnership,” she said. “I hope that him seeing the facts with what we’re beginning to accomplish, the points we’re putting on the board, will inspire him to [action].”

In November, Kane and Davis appeared together at an event that brought pickup hockey to Westlake Middle School in Oakland, California. Kane said his friendship with Davis continues to grow.

“We’ve had a lot of candid conversations over the last couple of years. She gets it. She’s someone that does everything she can to understand both sides of issues and use them to her advantage to get stuff done,” he said.

But to accomplish what she hopes for the NHL, Davis said she needs to deputize players such as Kane as prominent voices on diversity and ones who can point out inequities.

“More and more, we’re hearing the voices of those players, and they’re seeing the league become more engaged in those multicultural issues. And I do think they’re going to be stronger voices,” she said.

“What we do have to do a better job of is educating and inspiring our players of color so that they become more integrated as ambassadors. Because when I talk to people in the market, and I ask how many black or brown players we have in the league, I get a number somewhere between one and five. So when I say there are 27 active, people are astounded.”

To that end, representation among the player pool is vital, but it isn’t something the NHL is going to change overnight.

“While representation is important, people are smart, and they understand that it’s a generational issue and a [player] pipeline issue and that it takes more than a decade to get that going,” Davis said. “But there are other ways to create expression and aspiration within communities.”

Take, for example, the Black Girl Hockey Club.

The NHL’s signature campaign on diversity is called “Hockey Is For Everyone.” It’s an initiative that has brought NHL players to LGBTQ parades and has everything from Black History Month to Spanish Heritage Month on the league’s promotional calendar. Davis said the Hispanic audience is the NHL’s fastest growing segment.

Although the campaign has put a spotlight on diversity, Davis sees it transforming into something greater. “As we began to reimagine what our outreach should look like, we decided to expand that campaign to not be, as I like to refer to it, as the flavor of the month but to integrate that campaign into how we approach our marketing and outreach. Make it much more holistic,” she said.

In other words, don’t just follow the calendar. If there’s a place to grow the game among diverse audiences, go to that place, and support it.

For example, in summer 2018, Renee Hess reached out to Davis with an idea. She and other female hockey fans of color were kicking around the notion of a meetup in Washington, D.C., under the banner “Black Girl Hockey Club.” Davis responded by asking what the NHL could do to help grow the club and what an ideal meetup would look like.

“Instead of sitting in her office and watching from afar, she met us on the streets, walked with us on our tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American [History and] Culture, hung out with our group pregame and talked with the kids and their moms about hockey,” Hess said. “That is her personality. Kim Davis not only shows up but she shows out. She’s come to a number of our events to meet attendees and support our mission.”

This seemed like common sense to Davis.

“Women are 40% of our fan base. That’s a big deal. I don’t think it’s just about women playing the sport. It’s about the front office. It’s about officiating. That we know this is important to women: that representation, at every level,” Davis said. “Women of color are the fastest growing demographic in this country and the most highly educated. That’s a segment we can give even more focus to.”

The Black Girl Hockey Club has now visited many NHL arenas, from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh to New Jersey, and it was recently featured on NBC’s “Hockey Week Across America” coverage.

“I think we learned a lot from organizations like the Black Girl Hockey Club,” Davis said. “When we started partnering with them a year ago, the founder said that these girls were all avid fans that felt like they couldn’t go and show the expression of their culture in a stadium. I think there were probably some preconceived notions on both sides of that equation there. They didn’t know that they could. But when they were invited to a Caps game, they were so welcome. Now they’re on, like, a nine-city tour.”

Hess appreciated the early support.

“I truly believe that Kim Davis is facilitating a culture change at the NHL from the inside out,” she said. “Her hiring reiterates what I will continue to say is the most important factor when it comes to authentic cultural engagement: Hire women of color and LGBTQ and differently abled folks if those are the communities you want to reach. Representation matters. Minority hockey fans are here to stay, and we want more people like Kim Davis, who uses her place within hockey culture to make space for organizations like the Black Girl Hockey Club.”

The NHL, in turn, appreciates Hess. Part of Davis’ task is to connect diverse audiences with the league. That includes program such as the “Lunch and Learn” events held last year in Washington and Philadelphia. “We engaged thought leaders in the Hispanic and African-American communities in those markets, and we listened,” she said. “We asked those leaders, many from the not-for-profit community and politics and grassroots organizers, to tell us what we can do to make the sport feel more authentic.”

In November, the NHL put Davis and Hess on a conference call with all 31 teams plus Seattle to discuss authentic engagement with the black community. That included everything from hiring practices to rush programs with historically black colleges and universities to praise for events such as the Vancouver Canucks‘ Diwali Night and the AHL San Antonio Rampage’s 2019 Dia de los Muertos celebration.

“The NHL still has a long way to go in terms of consistency in enforcing their Declaration of Principles, but so does the hockey culture in general. Diversity and inclusion initiatives cannot and should not be a one-and-done marketing strategy. This work is never done. Equality and equity are lifelong struggles,” Hess said.

“Having Kim, a black woman who has fought against stereotypes her entire life, working in the C-suite of what is arguably the whitest sport of the top five makes fans like me feel seen. The fact that Kim consistently works to make space for other black women in hockey makes me want to do the same, and that is what Black Girl Hockey Club is all about.”

Davis said she understands that the fans’ experience at games is “a microcosm of our society,” for better or worse.

“We know that we have opportunities for improvement in our society, in particular given the climate today. So you’re going to find different experiences in different settings,” she said. “I think what we have to continue to do is that when [we] see behavior that’s inconsistent with our values, we have to have the bravery to take a stand.”

That includes when a coach is accused of using a racial slur against a player.

Akim Aliu took a stand in November. After allegations of mental abuse were levied against former Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock following his dismissal, Aliu accused “his protégé” of “dropping the N-bomb several times towards me in the dressing room.” He later elaborated in a TSN interview about incidents involving that “protégé,” otherwise known as then-Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters. Those accusations led to other players speaking out about Peters’ physical abuse while he coached the Carolina Hurricanes, which the team confirmed as having occurred.

Peters resigned as Calgary coach on Nov. 29, 2019, and Davis’ role in the NHL became much more vital.

On Dec. 9, 2019, Bettman announced that the NHL would create a “multidisciplinary council to suggest initiatives, monitor progress and coordinate efforts with all levels of hockey” that would also “make resources available to help any organization that might reach out for assistance” on issues of diversity and inclusion. Davis was appointed director of that council.

She said the Peters controversy “accelerated our timeline” for a “three-to-five-year strategic plan” around culture and inclusion.

“There’s often some kind of defining moment for an organization that causes that organization to both accelerate its efforts but also to become a rallying call for that organization,” she said. “So I see that as positive.”

Davis identified three categories of focus for her council.

“[First] is a generational history of individuals who have sort of gone through a certain kind of treatment feeling like, ‘Well, I endured it, so the next generation has to endure it.’ Until you break that cycle, that continues,” she said.

“Then there is the completely unacceptable issues around racial slurs, homophobic slurs and any kind of [abusive] language. The third box is creating an environment where people — players and people within our sport — feel a level of trust such that they believe they can now step forward and speak the truth. Speaking truth to power is hard.”

When Bettman announced the new council at the Board of Governors meeting in Pebble Beach, California, Davis held a small media conference with reporters. It was there that she was asked the question that all of these campaigns, councils and conversations seem to inevitably lead to:

Does hockey have a racism problem?

Davis paused to consider her answer.

“To say that the culture of hockey is racist is inappropriate and inaccurate,” she said. “I believe society has a racism problem. To categorize this as a ‘hockey problem’ minimizes our ability to use this moment in our sport to understand that we are a microcosm of society.”

Societal change doesn’t happen rapidly. There can be incremental progress, small victories and truths spoken. But ultimately, what Kim Davis hopes to witness is a generational shift in diversity and inclusion. That includes everyone from millennials to Gen-Z to whatever label would apply to a young African-American child picking up her first hockey stick at a Martha’s Vineyard picnic.

“When talking about them, you can’t dismiss the fact that ‘minority’ is a misnomer,” she said. “These generations are the most diverse that we’ve ever seen in the history of our country. And that’s the case in Canada as well, with new Canadians. It’s not just the ethnic and the racial diversity issues. It’s that these generations think of multiculturalism as a way of thinking and a way of being. They’re thinking about the integration in social media and food and fashion. So as a league, it causes us to think very differently.

“This change is going to be evolutionary, not revolutionary.”

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