On Thursday night, as part of a league-wide initiative, the Sharks will host "Hockey Is For Everyone Night" against the Vancouver Canucks. For the second straight season, the NHL designated February as "Hockey Is For Everyone" month, which sets out to ensure that:
"[H]ockey programs - from professionals to youth organizations - should provide a safe, positive and inclusive environment for players and families regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, disability, sexual orientation and socio-economic status."
The NHL deserves credit for this, and this is an extension of previous efforts. They were the first league to partner with the "You Can Play Project," an organization "dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety" for LGBTQ athletes. The league has also long made efforts to bring hockey programs into disadvantaged communities, with Willie O'Ree, the former Boston Bruin and the league's first black player, often leading the charge.
These efforts have, and should, earn praise and commendation. In many ways, the NHL is ahead of the curve in fostering inclusivity.
In plenty others, the league is far behind.
For instance, the NHL opted to fine, not suspend Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf last spring when he directed a homophobic, sexist slur at an official in the postseason. It was not the same slur that earned Andrew Shaw a one-game suspension the previous postseason, and the NHL still condemned his language as "inappropriately demeaning and disrespectful," but Getzlaf's punishment failed to meet the league's own precedent.
When the rubber meets the road, it's difficult to say that hockey is truly for everyone.
If hockey was truly for everyone, black players wouldn't be inundated with racist abuse on social media for scoring a game-winning goal in and against Boston, one of the league's ‘original six' teams and the first to integrate 60 years ago.
If hockey was truly for everyone, indigenous children would not be forced to quit, rather than wear a logo they find offensive, that happens to look an awful lot like the logo worn by another one of the league's ‘original six' franchises -- the Chicago Blackhawks.
If hockey was truly for everyone, Chicago, the Winnipeg Jets, and the league wouldn't continue to honor Bobby Hull, an all-time great player with a history of domestic violence who once reportedly said, "Hitler, for example, had some good ideas. He just went a little bit too far."
If hockey was truly for everyone, teams would not employ low-paid, scantily-clad "ice girls," and make the objectification of women a part of the in-game experience.
If hockey was truly for everyone, the NHL's commissioner would not compare fans chanting ‘Katy Perry' to Corey Perry, a chant that hinges on the notion that being a woman is inferior to being a man, to "[calling] a goaltender a sieve."
It may seem unfair to highlight seemingly disparate occurrences, especially as the league is making concerted efforts to combat their spread. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are problems that plague the world, not just the NHL or the hockey world, after all.
But as the world's best, most-popular hockey league, the NHL is a standard-bearer, and taken together, these instances speak to a sport's culture that is far from inclusive. Dedicating a month to celebrate diversity and inclusivity, but hosting nights across the league and selling rainbow-colored merchandise simply isn't enough.
The league's players are still overwhelmingly white and no players are publicly out, but many have taped their sticks with rainbow-colored pride tape in order to send a message of inclusion this month, just as many (if not all of) the Sharks surely will on Thursday night. But tape is only temporary.
Once it peels away, they're just left with the same old sticks.