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Kim Davis is the kind of leader the NHL needs in 2018: a hockey outsider

In these days of social unrest, the NHL needed a drastic shift in its approach to inclusivity. The best person to usher in the change: an accomplished executive untouched by old-guard hockey culture.

Kim Davis’s grandmother was different from everyone on campus, and that didn’t stop her from becoming the first African American woman to earn a PhD at Harvard. Kim Davis’ mother was different, and that didn’t stop her from becoming a working professional in a time when so many doors were closed to black women in America. Today, Kim Davis knows she’s different, and she’s not afraid. She welcomes it. That’s exactly why she’s here.

She’s a striking presence walking the halls of the NHL’s Toronto office on a visit from its New York headquarters. There’s no way around it: she looks like no one else holding the position of executive vice-president at the company, which has primarily been run by (a) men and (b) white men in its 101-year history. The league signalled a long-overdue shift in thinking when it named Davis, a black woman, as executive vice-president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs last November. If it seemed like an overly strategic hiring – it was. That was the point. Davis, a Chicago native with decades of experience as an executive in U.S high finance, joined the league with no background in hockey. In a time when the NHL is trying to adapt and become more welcoming to those who feel they don’t belong or haven’t been allowed to belong in the sport, the perfect person to initiate change was someone from the outside, someone free of a hockey culture that has become stale by 2018 social standards.

Especially compared to the other major North American pro sports, hockey sometimes get accused of being tone deaf or at least resistant to change, whether it’s by players hurling homophobic slurs, a team announcing a White House Visit on the same day NFL and MLB players are kneeling in support of equality or fans issuing death threats after J.T. Brown raises his first during the national anthem. There was also the Devante Smith-Pelly incident later this season, in which fans taunted him with “basketball, basketball.” The league is working commendably hard to improve its commitment to inclusivity, with initiatives like the Declaration of Principles and Hockey is For Everyone, but change doesn’t come easy for this fan base. (Wild guess: this very article will likely earn a handful of “stick to sports” or “unsubscribe” letters from a distinct and dominant chunk of the hockey-watching demographic.)

Davis represents the NHL’s attempt to shepherd the game through social change – internally and externally. That’s been her area of expertise throughout her professional life. At JP Morgan Chase she endured nine different mergers, and her job was to help her employees prepare for change.

“Most people aren’t comfortable with change, and often when they say that, what they really mean is that they are comfortable with change but they aren’t comfortable with change happening to them,” she said. “It’s all about what happens to us, so how as a leader do you help people get through that?

“So I bring that and hopefully am bringing that to the league as we think about our sport and the future of our sport ­ – and how we have to not only take care of our avid fans but be mindful to build stronger relationships with our casual fans. But just as importantly, how do we attract, engage, develop and retain the non-fan and the person who’s never experienced or touched our sport?”

That’s been a crucial focus of Davis’ career to date: understanding and learning how to give a voice to those who have been shut out in the past. She’s a champion for equality. During her time at JP Morgan Chase, she pioneered a mentorship program specifically for women and women of color in senior roles. After crunching data, she came to the realization that while all women had a tough time making it on Wall Street in the early 1990s, there was a double-reinforced barrier for women of color.

“We often talked about the ceiling for white women being the glass ceiling,” she said. “But what the data showed us, both within financial services and JP Morgan, was that for women of color that ceiling actually started much lower, and so for white women it was sort of the VP level, and for women of color it was actually at the associate level.

“What that meant was as you moved up it went from not just being a glass ceiling for women of color – it was a cement ceiling, and then we said a titanium ceiling. And that really became a rallying call. It was an education for other women to understand that as women in corporate America we are not monolithic and that there are very different experiences that women of color are having and have had.”

Davis was profiled in 2012 alongside Michelle Obama in Essence magazine as one of the 28 most influential black women in America and has also worked extensively with one of the all-time great equality crusaders in sport, tennis legend Billie Jean King, to establish a non-profit leadership initiative promoting equality. The NHL wanted help improving its corporate social responsibility – which includes philanthropic work but is also tied to establishing integrity and morality within a company’s culture – and hired Davis as a consultant. After seeing how well she communicated with the league, interviewing upwards of 50 people, from the teams to the stakeholders, the league asked Davis to help full time. She loved the idea of seeing her project through to the end and accepted a job offer.

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“Kim has had an extremely positive impact – both internally within our organization, but also with our clubs,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly via email. “She adds a new perspective to everyday issues that is fresh, forward-thinking and valuable. She listens well and is easy to talk to. In just the three-plus months that she has been with us, she has already acquired a firm grasp of the business, the people in the game and the opportunities that are available to us to further grow and expand the game’s reach. Kim’s a winner.”

But what, specifically, is Davis doing, and how does it pertain to the NHL and its fans? Well, think again about who she represents. She professes to have no prior ties to hockey and is (enthusiastically) learning about the sport on the fly. As she explains, it’s more difficult than ever for major pro sports to retain fans today, with so many other distractions and so many ways to consume a sport that don’t involve being physically present. The NHL, then, has to stop pandering only to its existing, aging fan base – which still consists predominantly of privileged white males – and start appealing to a greater audience. It’s the morally decent thing to do, and it’s just good business to boot. It’s Davis’ job, then, to be on the hunt for ways to reach this audience.

“What I’ve learned is, and I felt this way through those 50 interviews I did when I was a consultant, is that the sport is very tribal,” she said. “And I use that term in a very respectful way, because I think the beauty of a tribe is that when you’re in it, you’re a part of it, and you’re embraced and you’re really, really loved, but often when you’re standing on the outside looking in you don’t know how to enter.

“You’re like, ‘Am I welcome? I’m not really sure that I am welcome,’ and so how do we create those many entry points that allow people to feel welcome in the sport – without making people who are hockey traditionalists feel that they are losing something?”

That’s quite a tightrope to walk. Do you cater to the fan who had no problem with Kid Rock performing at the NHL All-Star Game? Or do you try to create a more welcoming environment for the demographic turned off by that decision?

The NHL seems to understand the latter group represents our future .The Declaration of Principles, among its many tenets, states: “All hockey programs should provide a safe, positive and inclusive environment for players and families regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status. Simply put, hockey is for everyone.”

So how does Davis go about helping the NHL connect with every type of fan more effectively? Well, for one, she thinks outside the…arena, using the state of Nevada as an example. If Nevada has only a handful of rinks compared to every other state (albeit the Golden Knights should inspire that number to grow soon), who says the NHL can’t promote other versions of hockey – such as ball hockey? That opens the sport to a new tier of socioeconomic status who might previously have felt shut out. Davis is also re-evaluating the league’s business partners and searching for potential new ones who can reach and include this new generation of fans.

Might all these initiatives invoke groans from the established, “shut up and drop the puck” contingent of NHL fans? Sure. But Davis doesn’t fear them. She understands they are not the future. They’ll be the outsiders someday if they don’t learn the importance of opening the sport up to all people.

“We may not be able to control that fan and that microcosm of society that is over-indexed in our sport,” she said. “Over time it will change as we introduce new fans, and guess what? Even that classic model of our fans, that white male, generationally, their kids, they’re not buying into that even if their parents are. We see that with (the Parkland school shootings). Those are affluent white kids leading the charge. This generation is teaching us something different about sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, race and socioeconomics.”

Find another hockey exec who will touch a topic like that without tapdancing. And that’s why Kim Davis is here. She’s the outsider turned insider, the voice of those formerly neglected. And she’s just getting started.