Ironically, Bettman trumpeted the programs in a city without one.
“It takes somewhat of a risk for us to be able to do a presentation (here),” said Ken Martin Jr., director of the NHL’s diversity program. “But we’re very proud of our game and where the game is going.”
The lack of a diversity program in Dallas, one of the fastest-growing markets in the league and site of Wednesday night’s all-star game, underscores the creeping pace of the NHL in diversifying rosters.
Bettman said this week that he’s not satisfied with the number of minorities in the NHL – currently 31, or about five per cent of all players. Among them is San Jose forward Jonathan Cheechoo of Moose Factory, Ont., the league’s top goal scorer last season and voted in by fans to start for the Western Conference in the all-star game.
Minority gains in the league have been slow. Bettman said there’s no specific minority percentage the league is trying to reach, and that for now the NHL simply is trying to make its expensive sport more accessible.
“It’s at best a start,” Bettman said. “But when you look at the history, it is a step forward.”
Cheechoo, a member of the Moose Cree First Nation, joined Stars defenceman Trevor Daley at the luncheon Tuesday. Also there was Willie O’Ree, who broke the NHL’s colour barrier in 1958 with Boston and is now the league’s unofficial ambassador on the topic of diversity.
If Daley and Cheechoo are the current face of minorities in the NHL, O’Ree is the past who’s also trying to shape the future: The 71-year-old heads the youth development arm of NHL Diversity, the league’s 12-year-old effort aimed at increasing its minority ranks. The program has exposed more than 40,000 kids to the sport, according to the league.
O’Ree, too, said the league’s current minority makeup is a starting point. But former Edmonton goalie Grant Fuhr, who was among the league’s most visible minorities, thinks the NHL is beyond that.
“I think we’re probably past a starting point,” said Fuhr, now the goaltending coach for the Phoenix Coyotes. “I think if you look at hockey in general, it’s grown by leaps and bounds. What we have to do is get into the non-traditional markets. I still think we can do better at that.”
Count Dallas among those non-traditional places. Martin said the league hopes later this year to get Dallas involved in its diversity program, which he said provides lower-income athletes exposure to the sport and US$100,000 in grants and scholarships.