My world used to be basketball.
Growing up in Chicago, I fell in love with high school basketball as a teenager. To this day, no one has made me feel as a spectator what Ronnie Fields made me feel. He and others around that time – Chicago’s Class of 1998 was special – got me addicted to the game.
That passion followed me as a sportswriter. I covered high school basketball for about the first decade of my career and even ran my own basketball e-magazine. There may only be traces of it online now, but Ill. Hoops was my baby for five years. I produced a little more than 100 issues. Derrick Rose and Jon Scheyer made a few cover appearances. Later, I covered college basketball and a little bit of the NBA for ESPN Chicago. (Remember this story, Bulls fans?)
And then, one day my world was spun. ESPN decided to pull its high school and college coverage from the local sites. The possibility of covering high school basketball disappeared. For me, it was either sink or swim covering pro sports. I didn’t have any choice of what I’d be covering either. So, even though my boss knew I wasn’t a huge hockey fan or at all knowledgeable about the sport, I was thrown onto the Blackhawks beat to fill a need. Of course, that’s turned out pretty well for me.
I may know a thing or two about hockey now, but back then there was so much I had to learn about the sport. Aside from terms, playing styles, the game’s ins and outs and strange traditions – I still don’t exactly understand how everyone growing a playoff beard makes it unique – I also had to grasp the culture.
What popped out immediately was hockey’s lack of diversity. Coming from that basketball world, it was outright strange. Chicago’s high school basketball scene is full of talented players of every ethnic background. I covered players with names like Brett Nishibayashi and Angel Santiago who could ball with anyone. Black players from Chicago obviously can be seen throughout the NBA.
High school basketball in Chicago is a lot like the city itself. It reflects Chicago’s melting pot. Hockey in Chicago — and everywhere else — does not. It’s a predominately white sport.
I knew that to an extent going in. You have to be introduced to hockey to become a fan, and I was barely introduced to it growing up on Chicago’s Northwest Side. I knew two kids who played it, and they had to go into the suburbs for the nearest rink. They were fortunate to have the means to do that. The Blackhawks weren’t popular either in my neighborhood, and there were an assortment of reasons for that.
When I began covering hockey, I got to understand all of the reasons why it isn’t diverse and the hurdles in trying to change that. I learned a lot about that while reporting a piece about diversity in Chicago hockey for ESPN back in 2014. You can find that story here. If you’re intrested in learning even more, I’d recommend Evan Moore’s recent piece and check out William Douglas’ blog Color of Hockey.
Since I wrote that story, there have been greater efforts to grow the game and introduce it to more people. The Blackhawks have partnered with CPS as part of the effort. The second sheet of ice at the Blackhawks’ new practice facility has been huge. Non-profit organizations like Inner-City Education (ICE) Program and Hockey on Your Block have been instrumental in that progress as well.
But there’s still a lot more that can be done. That ESPN Chicago story I wrote has stuck with me over the last couple years. It’s one I enjoyed reporting, and I got to meet some interesting and admirable people, some of whom I’ve kept in touch with. Also, the game’s lack of diversity still bothers me too.
Those fans who taunted the Washington Capitals’ Devante Smith-Pelly in Chicago with chants of “basketball” think like that because hockey still lacks people of color. Smith-Pelly was singled out because he looks different than everyone else on the ice. I guess it also says a lot about where we are in 2018.
Having covered hockey for a minute now and built some contacts, I’ve been thinking of ways I can contribute in my own small way to diversifying the game. What I decided on and wanted to announce today is an annual scholarship to a minority youth player who has shown a passion for the sport and would like to get better.
I will donate $500 to the scholarship recipient to help provide the resources – whether it’s equipment, league fees, travel costs – to help him or her play hockey. In addition to the financial component, a number of people who I have gotten to know in the game have offered to assist in a specific way to the scholarship. Johnny’s IceHouse owner Tom Moro is donating ice time. Delaney Hockey director Kevin Delaney is donating skating lessons. Prodigy Hockey founder Brian Keane is donating skill lessons.
If you’d also like to contribute, whether financially or in another way, you’re welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m sure we can figure out something. I also recommend donating to Hockey on Your Block and Inner-City Education. You can donate to Hockey on Your Block by visiting Goodcity Chicago. You can find more information about ICE and donate to them by clicking here.
If you’d like to nominate someone for the scholarship, please feel free to email me as well. I’m going to have others assist me in the selection.
Finally, this story is just the first in a series about hockey diversity in Chicago. The remainder of the series will run throughout the week on The Athletic Chicago.