The NHL is a North American Boys Club


You look down on the ice, you peek at the player jerseys and you see names from across the globe.

Mikko Koivu. Lars Eller. Mika Zibanejad. Anze Kopitar. Patrik Elias. Johnny Oduya.

In 2013-2014 alone, players from 17 different countries suited up in the world’s best league. Throughout its history, nearly 30 countries have been represented, albeit some only briefly.

There are 73 member federations within the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).

Hockey is growing in far-flung places like the United Arab Emirates, Kyrgyzstan and South Korea. With that growth, we are likely to see even more different names in the coming generation.

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  • But, if you were to take a look away from the players — at the coaches, the referees, the executives — the diversity that makes the on-ice product great suddenly disappears.

    The NHL is an old, North American, boys club.

    Europeans and women need not apply.

    In 2013-14, 26.3% of NHL players were Europeans, yet only one General Manager — Jarmo Kekalainen of the Columbus Blue Jackets — was.

    Not a single Head Coach, nor a single official.

    Of the 106 Assistant or Goaltending coaches in the league, only three were Europeans. 97.8% of all coaching positions are filled by North Americans.

    Imagine, you come from a part of the world that provides a quarter of the league’s players, yet being a coach, an official or an executive is almost completely out of the question.

    Now imagine if you came from a demographic that provides absolutely none of the players.

    In other words, imagine being a woman trying to work in the NHL.

    It’s not pretty.

    Using Team Media Guides, Sasky Stewart and Sarah Connors, Senior Editor of Bruins’ blog Stanley Cup of Chowder, compiled some statistics on the subject. According to their research, only 16.1% — or 309 out of 1919 — of teams’ non-player positions are filled by women.

    Though those numbers may sound acceptable for a historically male-dominated sport, it is worth noting that 264 of those positions are in the areas of Marketing, Communications, Human Resources, Community Relations and Administrative Assistance.

    When it comes to hockey-related positions, the picture is much bleaker. Not a single scout or coach in the league is a woman. Only 14 have employment in Hockey Operations and 5 as Trainers.

    Girls represent 57% of college enrollment in the USA, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see women occupying the communications or business related functions above.

    As for the hockey-related areas, it’s not like girls aren’t taking part in the game.

    There are over 150,000 registered female players in North America, representing around 12% of all participation. Between NCAA Division I and the CIS, there are 68 Universities competing in Women’s hockey — bringing along with them not only players but also coaches, officials and trainers.

    Let’s summarize.

    One group represents 26% of the league’s players.

    The other group represents 57% of university students, 32% of the fan base and 12% of the hockey population.

    Yet both have their noses against a firmly shut door when it comes to working within the NHL.

    And this is a problem for the league.

    It is not simply a moral issue or a politically correct “aw shucks, diversity is swell” sentiment.

    It is a financial problem. A big one.

    Yes, the NHL is posting record revenues, but by shutting out so many people, it is ultimately leaving money on the table.

    Not only does a diverse workforce offer access to a greater talent pool, it has also been linked to greater creativity and increased market share.

    A workforce with individuals from varied backgrounds has long been shown to promote greater creativity and innovation.

    Research from psychologists Katherine W. Phillips, Katie A. Liljenquist and Margaret A. Neale in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin concludes that more diverse groups are more likely to bring new ideas to the table. Another study echoes this conclusion, finding that “diverse groups tend to devise better solutions, even when they believe do not work well together

    A 2011 study from Forbes also shows that, in a survey of 321 leading companies, 85% of them agreed that or strongly agreed “that diversity is key to driving innovation in the workplace.”

    With a technological and sporting landscape in rapid evolution, NHL teams could certainly benefit from new ideas and greater innovation.

    If you need a counter-example, just think to the New Jersey Devils absolutely miserable handling of the implementation of the salary cap.

    In 2006, they had to trade away a first-round pick to the San Jose Sharks just to convince them to take Vladimir Malakhov, and his bloated contract, off their hands. That draft pick, by the way, later turned into David Perron.

    The Devils woes, unfortunately, did not end there. They were later disciplined for trying to circumvent the cap with the infamous Ilya Kovalchuk contract, which would ultimately cost them 3-million dollars, a third-round draft pick and dropped them 19 spots in the first-round of the 2014 NHL Draft.

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    A diverse workforce, with people from varied backgrounds in key positions, would have likely lead to different thought processes, different decisions and better results.

    Studies also show that diverse workforces allow businesses to more effectively market to consumers from “different ethnic backgrounds, women, and consumers who are gay or transgender.”

    Intellectually, this last point makes a lot of sense. After all, as a paper from consultancy Deloitte puts it, diverse employees offer better consumer insights because they understand cultural nuances first-hand.

    The NHL has long sought to increase its footprint in Europe. However, the league’s attempts on the Old Continent have seemed tentative at best. It also possesses a fraught relationship with the International Olympic Committee. Some of these missteps or clashes are likely due to cultural misunderstandings and could be greatly obviated by a more diverse workforce.

    More broadly, there is the simple fact that a diverse workforce allows companies to tap into diverse markets, hence increasing their market share. In that respect, the NHL could certainly use all the help it can get. After all, minorities account for only 4% of its fan base and women  32%, both figures being well under what these groups represent within the American demographic.

    The bottom line is this. People from all kinds of different backgrounds are involved in the game of hockey, yet only North American men seem to ever accede to referee, coaching or executive positions within the NHL.

    The make-up of the NHL’s non-player workforce is not only a poor representation of the demographics of the USA, but it is an awful representation of the demographics of the game itself.

    And that is hurting the NHL.