Black and white. Indigenous. Men and women. Gay and straight. Blind and otherly abled. They gathered in Toronto over the weekend, nearly 500 in all, to foster change in hockey and more actively advocate for it.
Hugh Fraser, the recently appointed chairman of Hockey Canada, was there. So was Kim Davis, an executive vice-president with the NHL. Hockey club executives and former players. And so many others who toil, mostly without recognition, to repair the game’s culture and make it more inclusive.
About 175 people attended the first Carnegie Initiative for Inclusion and Acceptance in Hockey in Boston last year. The event was co-founded by Bernice Carnegie, whose late father Herb was inducted in December into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder.
Herb Carnegie was born in Toronto and was a star in top Ontario and Quebec leagues throughout the 1940s and ′50s. In the view of many – including Montreal Canadiens legend Jean Béliveau – he deserved to play in the NHL but was denied the opportunity because he was Black.
There was a notable absence. Only one of 60 teams in the major-junior Canadian Hockey League – the Saint John Sea Dogs – were represented.
Trevor Georgie, the president and general manager of the Sea Dogs, said the club was the first in the QMJHL to establish a Pride Night and that Brock McGillis, the first professional hockey player to come out as gay, has skated with the team and addressed its players three times.
“It’s a priority for us,” Georgie said. “We try to be really progressive. It is up to the adults in the room to facilitate these discussions.”
The summit began on Friday and that evening featured an emotional gala at the Hockey Hall of Fame where the Grand Hall was packed with racialized and marginalized individuals.
Bernice Carnegie, who fought for equality beside her father for years, was reduced to tears.
“You really never know how your life will wander down one path or another,” she said.
Willie O’Ree of Fredericton broke the NHL’s colour barrier in 1958 with the Boston Bruins.
“The NHL missed a golden opportunity,” Bryant McBride, the co-chair of the Carnegie Initiative, said of Herb Carnegie. “The door could have been open earlier to many players.”
Born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., McBride became the first Black class president at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point before he went on to Harvard. He was later hired as the NHL’s first Black executive as vice-president of development.
He considers himself a beneficiary of civil-rights activists Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and described the Carnegie Summit as a venue for difficult conversations.
“It is pretty raw and it is real,” he said. “It is great to hear some hard truths. That is the only way to get better.”
Seven trailblazer awards were handed out to recipients, who included McGillis, Moezine Hasham, Stephane Friday and Zarmina Nekzai.
Hasham, who was born in Canada to South Asian parents who fled Uganda in 1972, runs a program headquartered in Toronto for marginalized kids called Hockey 4 Youth. A band councillor for the Kashechewan First Nation, Friday established a non-profit group in 2020 called Hockey Indigenous. Nekzai emigrated from Afghanistan to the Toronto area in 1988 and, along with her family, has established a hockey school in Kabul for girls.
Bob Dawson, a long-time historian of Black hockey, received a lifetime achievement award.
McGillis, who played as a goalie in the OHL and concluded his career in Europe, did not want to directly address the incident last week that involved Ivan Provorov of the Flyers. The defenceman refused to participate in pregame Pride activities in Philadelphia and cited religious reasons, but that did not keep it from controversy.
“In the last week I have seen so many people stand up against hatred expressed toward the LGBTQ community,” McGillis said. “I think it is under attack and it breaks my heart.”
Hugh Fraser, the retired judge from the Ontario Court of Justice and newly elected Hockey Canada chair, takes over the organization at a time when its reputation has been tarnished by allegations that it failed to properly investigate a woman’s claim that she was sexually assaulted in 2018 by members of Canada’s world junior team and that it used funds from minor-hockey players’ registration fees to pay off the complainant in that case and others.
A former Olympic sprinter for Canada, Fraser took part in a panel discussion on Saturday as part of a daylong program at the TIFF Lightbox.
“When you change the culture of hockey you will change its face,” said Fraser, 65. “We are at a point where we can have these conversations and that in itself is a pretty radical departure from the past.
“The culture needs to and will be changed. It may be small bits at a time but it is far more than symbolic for me. I am optimistic that 10 years from now we will look at the progress we have seen and not believe it. We know that trust will not be built easily but we are committed that it will happen.”
Fraser’s father, Cecil, was the first Black person to graduate from the law school at Queen’s University. Cecil brought the family from Kingston, Jamaica, to Kingston, Ont., when Hugh was seven years old. Like all boys in the neighbourhood, he wanted to play hockey but he couldn’t do it because it was too expensive.
He eventually got a pair of second-hand skates, used a stick that had been given to his younger brother, and sneaked across the street onto a neighbour’s backyard rink. He soon realized he was better suited to being a fan than a player.
He remembers the night in 1958 when he sat beside his father in the living room and watched O’Ree take the ice in an NHL game for the first time.
“We have more players of colour now,” Fraser said. “But the game has been very slow to change.”
In an interview, Fraser said that he was the only Black student in his own graduating class at law school and among the few Black justices when he was appointed.
“It is the life I have lived,” he said as he drew comparisons with the relatively low number of players of colour in organized hockey. “We’d have a meeting of a conference of Black judges and you could put it in a very small room. There was just a handful of us.”
Fraser said someone reached out to him on behalf of Hockey Canada to ask if he was interested in the position.
“I was like everyone else at the time,” he said. “I heard about some of these issues and wondered how they could happen. I never thought I’d be involved. My plan was to be on the golf course for most of the winter.”
Fraser realizes the difficulty of the position.
“All I ask for is fairness,” he said. “Criticism is fine if it is represented by the facts. Everybody is going to hold our feet to the fire. We have to be accountable.”
Davis, who joined the NHL in 2017 as its executive vice-president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs, appeared on the same panel on Saturday as Fraser.
“When I joined I never thought this change was going to be revolutionary,” she said. “I thought it was going to be evolutionary. We all have to keep leaning in.”
She winces when she hears criticism that the work she does is an effort that allows racialized people to steal the game.
“We are fighting for our sport,” Davis said. “We are fighting for our community. We are fighting for freedom. Why wouldn’t we want everyone to experience that? What is it that people are resisting?”
In October, when the NHL released a statement on diversity and inclusion, Davis received death threats. A private security firm was enlisted to help protect her family, including two young grandsons.
“I don’t get rattled easily,” she said. “But when people start to target my grandkids that takes things to another level,” she said. “When you listen to how people characterize what they believe our intention is, it shows how much more discussion is needed.”
At 10, her son was called the N-word at a hockey tournament. She is from Chicago originally but now lives in Connecticut.
“It infuriated him that people were doing that,” Davis said. “It is way too early in kids’ lives to have that discussion.”
She has been on the receiving end of critics who say she has not generated change quickly enough.
“Are you ever moving fast enough when you are behind a change effort?” she asked. “We are all human. I am never going to do everything to everyone’s liking. What I can tell you is that there is a body of work by committed individuals.
“Events like this point to the fact that we are beginning to normalize these discussions.”
Among those in attendance was Brian Burke, the president of hockey operations for the Pittsburgh Penguins, former NHL coaches Ted Nolan and Joel Quenneville and Scott Howson, the president of the AHL.
Other panelists included Kendall Boyd-Tyson, the vice-president of strategy and business intelligence for the Seattle Kraken and Daniel Larson, who co-founded an organization for transgender and non-binary hockey players in the United States.
Larson said that Team Trans Ice Hockey is full of players who felt they didn’t otherwise fit in.
“When I hear that, it breaks my heart,” he said.
Larson, who is from Houston, admits that he is not a great player but is working at it.
“I want to get better and play at an advanced level as a revenge to my former coaches and teammates,” he said.