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Chanel Keenan Q&A: On her Open Letter to the NHL, Blazing Trails for the Disabled and More

Keenan's fight for accessibility and visibility in hockey led her from school to a job with the Seattle Kraken in just two years. She shared her story with The Hockey News.
ChanelBlog

So much has changed for Chanel Keenan of late. Two years ago, she was a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst dreaming of a world in which someone with a disability had the same opportunity as anyone else to land a high-profile job in pro sports. Her open letter to the NHL, ‘I’m a Free Agent, Not Your Token Hire,’ caught the attention of the Seattle Kraken. Two months later, in October 2020, they hired her as an intersectionality consultant.

By summer 2021, less than a year after writing her letter, she was announcing one of the team’s expansion-draft selections on national television, inspiring countless members of the disabled community to believe they can become decision makers in pro sports, too.

What led Keenan to this point? How has her first year and a half on the job gone? What challenges still remain to make hockey a more inclusive space for the disabled community?

Keenan caught up with The Hockey News to tell her story.

THE HOCKEY NEWS: So I’ve heard you describe yourself as a true “rink rat” growing up. Is that what inspired your attachment to the sport?

CHANEL KEENAN:
Yeah. I was really, stereotypically, traditionally “girly” growing up, and I went in that direction because I was around so many boys growing up. They just were doing too much, and I was just, “I don’t like dirty things." Under certain circumstances, I stayed way from things that seemed a little bit high-risk or dangerous. I wasn’t into sports at all. 

But the first exposure I had to really enjoying it myself was in middle school after my brothers had more of a formalized relationship with hockey. They probably weren’t really playing anymore by the time I got into it. There is a bit of an age gap between us. I was adopted, and they’re between six and 15 years older than me. There’s a big gap. So I was able to do my own thing and not really fall along in their timeline just because there’s such a big difference between us in age and general interests at heart anyways. I would have to go to all their scrimmages and their practices and all the tournaments and things like that, which I wasn’t a huge fan of, because it mostly was these one-or two-hour drives with the nasty smelling equipment – in our trunk or on the roof, but you can still smell it no matter where it is. And now it’s more of a nostalgic smell, but I didn’t really enjoy it myself until I discovered it on my own time.

I always say I work best when I am in a group setting, when there’s teamwork involved. Hockey was one of the key sports that I had exposure to where everybody has to show up and be there for each other. The first sport I sort of paid attention to was American football. I’d be watching on weekends and I would be so enraged by the number of the timeouts and commercials and all these things just for a game that could probably be played in 40 minutes without all that stuff going on. So, I enjoyed hockey from afar, and then it was one of those things that was on TV, and I started watching a little bit more and getting a little bit more invested every time. Then I started formulating my homework schedule around it. I’d come home, I’d get all my work done around 7:00 and then go to bed after the game.

THN: What sucked you in to diehard Boston Bruins fanhood? Was it the 2011 Stanley Cup team?

KEENAN: I got them at a really good time to start having some interest in them. I didn’t really care that much and I didn’t understand or have the same feelings as I do now watching a playoff game. The stakes weren’t the same in my eyes. So it was a little bit fun. I got the 2011 run, and the 2013 one, too, which I was completely all-in on. My school took a trip to Washington D.C towards the end of it all, and I remember a game that went to double overtime. I listened to it on my phone in the hotel because we weren’t allowed to watch TV during our trip. And it was so frustrating, and I was freaking out, and it was late, and my roommates were like, “What is wrong with you? You are silent-screaming at your phone.” I caught (the Bruins) at a really good time to fall in love with the game.

THN: Did you know from a young age that you wanted a career in sports someday?

KEENAN: I had a really hard time figuring out what I wanted to do, because I had this inherent fear that it would be really hard to get a job in general. Growing up, I would do a lot of education-based summer jobs, because it’s not like I could be a lifeguard like all my other friends or do overnight camp counselling. So I would do four-to-five-hour day camp things in a smaller camp setting. But I never had traditional “grocery store clerk” type jobs, so I was always worried what that was going to look like for me in general.

And then, when I got involved with sports in my high school, I did it from more of a social-media perspective. The first sort of sporting thing in high school was, I worked for my school’s football team – the whole organization, I guess, but I settled in especially on football teams. They were pretty bad, but I did film for them and did some editing and photos and things like that for them. Then I got poached by the women’s basketball team. And that was even better for me, because I got to go to all the games and be inside and not be freezing in the New England winters.

I would live-tweet the games, and that got a lot of interesting attention, because at most high schools in the U.S., the women programs don’t get the same exposure as the boys’ programs. It was disheartening to see that so clear in front of me, having gone from the football program to the women’s basketball program, just the difference. People are just here seeing our boys' team lose, but they can’t see our women’s basketball team who were doing really well at the time. So it was really interesting to see that firsthand. When I thought of going into sports, I was going more for a media-communications background, and that’s what I went to school for.

THN: Today, you’re a vocal advocate for improving accessibility at sporting venues. Were your feelings inspired at a young age based on obstacles you encountered having been born with osteogenesis imperfecta?

KEENAN: What it is for me right now is, when you envision a fan of hockey, the last thing you think of is if they might have a disability. Or there’s times were they might be a girl but, “Are they a girl who’s following it because they think the player is cute, or is it because they actually enjoy watching competition?” When we move away from these harmful stereotypes, we’ll get to place where, when you are prompted with a question like, “What do you envision when you think of a hockey fan?” – you think they could be anybody and that your first jump isn’t, “Oh they are definitely some white guy in Canada or some white guy in the U.S in Minnesota or something.” You want to be able to feel like it could really be anyone and that you’re not surprised.

I’ve been telling this story more recently now, because I think it’s really telling to my story. When we did the expansion draft, I really wasn’t planning on going. I really wanted to, but I had no real excuse to go. But genuinely, a month before, I was like, “All right, lets do it. I know I’ll be able to get in if we go. Let me check with my boss if there’s a plausible situation. And they pretty much said,Of course, you have to come, this is history we are making. Then I got an email a week before that asked me to participate, and that was one of the weirdest, most exciting things that’s ever happened to me.

I got there a little bit early, because you have to do a rehearsal. It was just me doing a little rehearsal time. And ESPN and Kraken producers were there, and one of them says:

“Do you want to know who you are presenting with?”

I was like, “Sure of course,”

“You are going to be presenting with Dominic Moore. Do you know who that is?”

And I said, “Of course I know who Dominic Moore is.”

First of all, he was a Bruins for like two seconds. This was on the heals of his wife passing, so I kind of got invested in him as a person. It felt a little weird in a cosmic kind of way that I got to meet him and he doesn’t know that I pay attention to anything that he does. But to me it was a little bit strange that it happened to be him.

And so, I looked at the ESPN producer: “Of course I know who Dominic Moore is." 

And the Kraken producer was like, “Oh yeah, she’s a big hockey fan, and she definitely knows who Dominic Moore is.”

It was just all funny because, here I have this guy who just assumed I am there to be there, has no idea who I am – which is totally valid. that’s totally fine, but I want it to be a place where it’s not surprising that I or anybody that looks like me or resembles me would know something like that. It’s just our nature to be ignorant to these types of things, but then I found it even funnier that it was someone who knows me and was able say, “Of course you know.” There have not been a lot of direct quantitative moments. They’ve all happened fairly recently, which freaks me out in a little bit.

THN: What was going through your mind the day you decided to write, “I’m a Free Agent, Not Your Token Hire?”

KEENAN: I wrote that during a really tough time, I think as a society, especially here in the States, when all these really informative and important social-justice movements were happening. I was in a place where I was like, “I need to do something to feel like I am making a difference.” Because it was a tough situation when we were in the middle of a pandemic. And just as a disabled person In general, we are not safe to (protest) from some general perspectives, just with crowds and whatnot. I was also in this place where I’ve seen things happen around me, I’ve seen the wackos in action and how long it took (hockey) to take a pause. And who knows what ever really happened on their side of that during the NHL pause. I am hoping there is education for those few people, but I don’t know if we will ever find out what happened there.

I felt we were still in this place where we love rotating between the same five guys when it comes to the GM searches and coaches and all these things, and it’s really frustrating to see that, especially when I know so much up-and-coming talent, and it really felt like decisions were being made talking about guys that have been retired longer than I have been alive. I think there is a way that we can work together. We are not in a place where we can stop the revolving door, but at some point you have to evolve and change the way we think. We have to start putting in different people with different ideas.

I just assumed my journey to hockey was going be very traditional like almost everybody I know in the sport. You start out with being an usher. You work your way up to ticket sales and then you work your way up a little bit more. Maybe you do some organizational things, and it’s really slow, but it’s the way you gain the respect of the people around you, because they know you’ve worked a really long time. So I had assumed that was how it was going to go for me, and I felt like it was something that would be much harder for me to do.

What I actually did do was write these notes, to call to action. I thought people weren’t going to take me seriously and think, “She’s not even out of college yet and she’s talking about these things? No she needs experience. We need someone with exposure.” But maybe we need to step away from that. Maybe we need someone who knows what they are doing. Of course they deserve to be set up in a proper way, but maybe they don’t have to be someone that’s been around for so many years, who doesn’t know how to move forward and change. I wrote that hoping this would open the line of communication even just between people within the league, not even necessarily with myself, because I didn’t think that was necessarily going to happen.

THN: What’s a day in the life of an intersectionality consultant for the Kraken?

KEENAN: We began our whole first season in October, but that wasn’t nearly as personally busy for me as last month was. I work for them remotely, and that was really just perfect when I was in school, because I would have classes before noon, and by the time it was noon in my (eastern) time zone, they were just getting into the office. It's a lot of scheduling meetings with people and brainstorming different event nights that we have coming up.

And then in the beginning, before our arena was open, I’m on a committee for facilities operations, and we talked about the onboarding process and how we can diversify the training that we do to be inclusive. Because maybe we don’t have 100 disabled employees or whatever, but we should get to the point where we can accommodate that, work through that and make sure we are prepared for something like that, should we be in that position. We had a lot of conversations about how the arena is going look and certain things we can put in place for a disabled fan or a disabled employee, more linear and sort of more equitable to what we consider the average employee to be.

Right now it’s a lot of meetings and just making sure our Diversity, Equity Inclusion framework is going well and that we are communicating as a team properly. We have lots of really fun projects that I don’t get to talk about until they’re done with. And it’s just really being mindful that it’s not hard to talk about or bring disability to the table. It’s normalizing certain situations and things we can talk about without it freaking us out or being too afraid to say something because you don’t want to mess it up. A lot of times, not saying anything has been more harmful than giving it a try, getting it wrong and learning from mistakes.

THN: Where do you see yourself several years in the future? Do you want to progress to the management side of hockey?

KEENAN: I don’t know. The other day I had this realization that I never know what I want to do, like every time you make some sort of concrete plan, the universe laughs at you. So I try to not set myself up like that, because sometimes I’m the hardest on myself, and I don’t want to set crazy expectations on myself and I get really upset if not all of it comes true.

But right now, my biggest frustration is the lack of visibility and the normalization of disabled bodies in sports on the front-facing, media-facing level. I keep doing these interviews, and people are tired of seeing my face, but when I did the expansion draft I got so many messages from people in the disabled community, young adults, parents of kids with disabilities. It was a really huge moment, because no one really knew it was going to happen. I was on screen for 30 seconds, and it was the most successful 30 seconds of my life. It was really nerve-racking, not traumatizing, but it was stressful. It was live TV. It was my first time doing something like that. I hadn’t eaten all day. I was a mess. But getting all those messages, I couldn’t even think about it in the moment. I don’t know if was ready to unpack what all that was or if I knew how to react to it.

It made me realize that I’m not the only person who is looking at the TNT broadcast where they’re all sitting on the roundtable style panel, and you can’t even see that they are not sitting in a wheelchair, whatever, and wondering why there can’t be someone who uses a mobility device. Like, I am a fan of talking about hockey. Because we are in a place where you don’t have to have been a former hockey player to speak about the sport. We are getting into that place where visibility, for me, is so important, and it was shocking to see someone with a disability in this setting, because it wasn’t, at least in my perspective, a charity, it wasn’t a sick kid that we want to highlight, because that’s not what I am. It was an authentic of the Kraken and myself and the broadcast, and for me that was super important.

Now, as I mentioned, that TV spot was really stressful for me, so I’m not necessarily saying that I want to be in front of the camera. But I’m trying to figure out a way where I help the TV and media people look for disabled people who want to do that. Because there are a ton of them. They just don’t go to broadcast or journalism school or whatever, and they need a local news spot. I haven’t seen enough front-facing visibility. and that’s been really frustrating. Now I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to get to a point where, through consulting or some sort of full-time role. I help bring that to the forefront.

THN: You’re a member of three historically marginalized communities in hockey: women, the disabled community and the BIPOC community. Are we actually making any progress on the idea that “Hockey is for Everyone?” Particularly in light of the recent incidents victimizing Boko Imama and Jordan Subban?

KEENAN:
This is a battle I have monthly if not daily. It’s really hard because, when terrible incidents happen, it’s really hard to put yourself in a position where you can remember and celebrate where we are at the same time. And I am definitely more of a realist and more of a honest person with myself, and I try to make that really clear when I talk to people at the league…I’m at a place where I get frustrated, and my side of talking includes ways to solve these problems. It’s not just me telling them they’re wrong and that we are doing everything wrong and we are behind on a bunch of things, which we are. So I’m honest about that, but I also bring solutions to the table.

So when I have had all these conversations and I bring all these solutions to the table and we still don’t do anything, that’s when I have a hard time with myself. I think, “I could probably go to the NBA right now have one of these conversations and get a lot from their staff.” We just don’t have the infrastructures in place where we have these problems, we have problem solvers and get stuff done. We have a lot of people up there who believe this is a well-oiled machine, and if it’s not broken we don’t need to fix it, and, “We will have all these amazing Hockey is for Everyone nights, and we will have one that centers around the LGBTQ community but then we will just highlight allies.”

And that’s where I’m just like, “What are we doing?” Because I know plenty of people who are in the hockey community, who are a part of the LGBTQ community, and then we are all sitting there watching this unfold, and we think, “This is how we are doing it?” And that was last year. There’s time to do it this time around, and I can’t speak for what we are doing this year, but to see the league do that and do other similar things is really frustrating. When are we going to get to a point where we are say, “OK, we have all information we need. Now that we have all the facts and figures, let’s actually do something to start preventing racism in hockey." Or to start really showing inclusion and diversity in hockey and talk about it and not be ashamed of where we have been in the past – being the opposite of “Look how progressive we are now.”

THN: When it comes to learning the right language to use when writing about or reporting on the disabled community, there’s a paradox: talking to someone from the disabled community is the quickest way for an able-bodied person to learn the disabled perspective, but the burden of teaching shouldn’t fall on the disabled. Is it better for the abled-bodied to do their own research and homework in that case?

KEENAN: It’s a balance, and it has to do with each circumstance. If you’re writing an individualized, centralized piece on one person, it’s in your best interest as a journalist to ask your subjects how they would like to be identified, the same as how we are starting to do with peoples’ pronouns. If you accidentally misgendered me, and I took real offense to that, all you have to do is ask, right? But when you are trying to educate on the grand scheme of disability, there are plenty of documentaries, there are plenty of books, and you can Google without having to say, “Hey, disabled person that I know, what is the best way to do _____?”

Sometimes you have to take a step back and say, is this a question that would be really good to have specific insight for, or is this something I can look up and do my own research on?

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