Racial Bias in Drafting and Development: The NHL’s Black Quarterback Problem

Introduction

It is far from shocking that the National Hockey League has no peer among major American sports leagues in terms of racial homogeneity. Most estimates place the proportion of White players in the league in the range of 92-95%, far from comparable leagues like the National Football League, National Basketball Association and even Major League Baseball.

In the past year, the league celebrated an obscure but rather dubious milestone. If you combined all the faceoffs* taken by every Black player** in the NHL between 2008 and 2019, you would end up with 14,375 total faceoffs, or about 20 fewer than Golden Knights center Paul Stastny in that time frame (according to Hockey-reference.com). It was only in this past season that the total of the Black players overtook Stastny.

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* Note: Given that a player’s position is not always set in stone, and may be listed differently across different data sources, we use faceoffs taken as a proxy for playing time at the center position. 

**Note: The concept of race and self-identity is both fluid and unique to each individual player and thus any designations assigned here should be taken as estimates. For the purposes of this exercise, we will attempt to break players into only one of the following racial categories: White, Black, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, and First Nations. Bi-racial players of Caucasian descent are classified as players of color, while judgment calls were made for Bi-racial players of non-Caucasian descent to avoid double counting. While some players may be mislabeled or missing in each category, we feel the underlying conclusions stand regardless.

Yet, even these numbers obscure the NHL’s lack of ethnic and racial diversity at center, the sport’s most important position. Despite centers only taking up roughly a third of the NHL’s total roster spots, centers have 3 of the 5 highest cap hits in the league, and 8 of the top 15.

As shown in the graph below, when it comes to awards, the outsized representation of centers is even more pronounced, especially given that even the league’s best centers will almost always play less than the league’s top defensemen and goalies.

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A historical estimate of Black players who have played in the NHL suggests that only about 6-8% of Black players have played primarily at center, a rate similar to that of our estimate of players at the prospect level as well. Thus, to look at the aforementioned disparity in faceoffs another way, unless there are traits specific to the center position that are beyond the grasp of Black players, one must surmise that at some point in the typical development pipeline, Black players are routed from the pivot to less impactful roles on the wing or blueline.

Which begs us to ask, if we assume this re-routing of Black players is true, is there bias in the development and drafting process of players of color, and where else does it exist in the sport of hockey?

In speaking with over 20+ current and former professional players, executives, scouts, writers and analysts to explain the aforementioned phenomena, they were unanimous that hockey suffers what they deemed as the Black Quarterback affliction, but they couldn’t put their finger on the exact reasons why it was happening. As such, to understand the root of this problem, we’ll examine in this piece the full journey of a potential NHL player and show how racial bias and stereotypes manifest themselves at every stage in the player development pipeline.

Explaining the Black Quarterback Problem In Depth

The Black Quarterback problem is a term to explain the fact that while professional football is a sport primarily played by African-Americans, the most revered position of quarterback was historically all but off limits to them. According to an ESPN article from 2017, “while nearly 70 percent of players in the NFL are Black, they currently make up 25 percent of the league’s 32 starting quarterbacks, a slight uptick from recent years.”

Research into the topic revealed the following possible causes:

Skill Set/Football IQ Bias: Initially, it was suggested that Black players simply lacked the aptitude and leadership skills required to play quarterback given the complex plays and defensive schemes a quarterback was expected to memorize and dissect on the playing field.

Even as highly drafted Black quarterbacks became more prevalent in the NFL, they were often labeled as “running quarterbacks”. This label carried the implication that Black quarterbacks were over-reliant on their athleticism in order to compensate for the lack of true passing ability (note this for later) and were thus less effective overall. 

“A lot of us aren’t viewed as passers — we’re viewed as athletes,” says {Michael} Vick. “I think it’s unfair and unfortunate.”

Developmental Bias: The football IQ bias in turn led coaches and scouts to assume Black players had an inherent athleticism that translated better to positions such as running back or cornerback. For example, quarterback Lamar Jackson was asked to try out at wide receiver despite winning the Heisman Trophy (the award for College Football’s best player) at quarterback, leading to embarrassment for analysts who suggested the switch when he went on to win last year’s NFL MVP award as a quarterback.

Locker Room Bias: Finally, even though NFL teams rarely let go of successful quarterbacks due to the importance of the position, teams moved on from or avoided signing even successful Black Quarterbacks in their primes at a disturbingly high rate. A common thread in many of these cases is the claim that these quarterbacks lack the leadership skills and commitment to the game to be successful. The most famous recent example is Colin Kaepernick, but even former MVP Cam Newton and analytics darling Tyrod Taylor found themselves repeatedly passed over for less successful White quarterbacks.  

As the aforementioned biases have been debunked in recent years, Black QBs across the stylistic spectrum such as Patrick Mahomes, Russel Wilson and Deshaun Watson have led their teams to unprecedented success, especially relative to the highly touted, “traditional” White quarterbacks picked ahead of them. It is thus natural to assume that teams and franchises who had these biases may have actively undermined their team’s ability to win, and by extension, hurt their bottom line as well.

It seems likely that something similar to the Black Quarterback problem is occurring for NHL centers. Based on some quick back of the envelope calculations given the myriad of countries that NHL players come from, the NHL should have had ~ 100 more players of color and about 50 more centers of color for the 2020 season. Even with the Black Quarterback problem as a framework, it is still worth studying hockey to identify the causes of disproportionate under-representation of players of color overall, and especially in the NHL at the center position.

To do this, we will adjust the biases in the Black Quarterback framework to account for how hockey’s lack of diversity starts at the top of the funnel. As such, in order to explain the various obstacles a young player of color would face on their route to the NHL, this analysis will break the Black Quarterback framework into five key parts:

  • Barrier to Entry Bias
  • Hockey Culture Bias
  • Skill Set Bias
  • Developmental Bias
  • Locker Room Bias

Adjusted “Black Quarterback” Framework to breakdown biases in Hockey

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Using the Black Quarterback Framework Pt. 1

  1. Exploring barriers to entry for POC in hockey

Let’s begin by exploring some common misconceptions: 

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Yes, in the context of racial diversity, it is true that a significant proportion of NHL players come from European countries that are almost exclusively White, which skews the proportion of White players upward relative to other leagues. However, ~70% of NHL players come from Canada and the United States, two relatively diverse countries that are trending significantly upward in their proportions of people of color.

If we take the portion of the population represented by each racial/ethnic group across the two countries (White, Asian, Middle Eastern, Black, First Nations, Latino), and compare them to the NHL’s current population, we would arrive at the following numbers:

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By this estimate, the NHL should have had more than 120 additional players of color in the league last year. This discrepancy is particularly felt among the First Nations, Southeast Asian, and Chinese populations of Canada and the Latino population in the US.

It is also indisputable that hockey is an overwhelmingly expensive sport to play and thus lends itself to a more affluent youth player population, which once again lends the sport to skew disproportionately White. To account for this, we attempted to estimate the difference in average income between people across ethnic groups in the two countries. While imperfect (particularly in accounting for each ethnic group at the highest income levels) it does allow us to ballpark the estimate of socioeconomic impact of the cost of the sport.

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Adjusting with this back of the envelope calculation puts the NHL at a deficit of about 93 players of color in a given year. Again, in this calculation, players of Asian (particularly Southeast Asian) descent remain the most impacted, and while efforts have been made to reach these populations, more will need to be done in future years.

2. POC affected by bigotry and rigid hockey culture

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While the NHL is overwhelmingly White, it is also undoubtedly true that other sports leagues like the NBA and NFL are disproportionately played by Black players. If there is critique of a bias in the NHL and hockey, then it is expected that the NBA and NFL should be critiqued as well. To that point, there is some evidence that both sports, which at some time in the past were exclusively White, have exhibited some level of bias against drafting White players. However, the NBA/NFL and the NHL are not apples to apples comparisons for two reasons.

  1. The key developmental leagues of the NBA/NFL are at the college level, which have a much more equal split of diversity relative to their respective pro leagues. Based on what existing data is available*, the composition of the teams in junior hockey and college suggests that those leagues are mostly white at all levels of the sport, while the NBA’s and NFL’s skewed demographics are most prominent at the professional level. In other words, when you look at the professional sports landscape and its prospect pool, football and basketball at their highest levels have both disproportionate AND diverse player populations, while hockey at its highest levels is almost exclusively White and homogenous. 

NCAA Men’s Basketball

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NCAA Men’s Football*

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*Note: It must be highlighted that the NCAA data on men’s college hockey states that while <1% of the players in college hockey are black, ~30% of college hockey players are listed as non-white. In talking with scouts and analysts who cover NCAA hockey, such as Ryan Lambert of Yahoo’s Puck Daddy blog, there was significant doubt around the accuracy of those numbers based on their anecdotal observations.

2. The most important roles in a given NBA or NFL franchise such as front office management or coaching positions are still held overwhelmingly by White males. As such, it would be hard to equate the lack of players, executives and coaches of color in the NHL to the lack of White players in the NBA and NFL if they are afforded such disproportional power in terms of running the franchises themselves. 

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A likely and relevant cause for the lack of players of color in the NHL overall is the cultural sporting preferences amongst different ethnicities, geographical regions and social economic groups. Without hard and fast data, it is difficult to estimate the extent of this impact.

Nevertheless, in recent years, as we have seen an increased proliferation of Canadian players at the highest levels of basketball and soccer not long after the introduction of the first professional teams in the country, it can be suggested that any culture can be acclimatized to a sport with the proper development and outreach. Given that we have yet to see a similar impact in the NHL, it is reasonable to suggest those efforts still have a ways to go. 

Furthermore, with recent controversies about behaviors towards people of color at all levels of hockey, it can be assumed that some youth hockey players of color are self-selecting out of the sport. If this is happening as a result of a toxic set of incidents involving non-White cisgender males, then talented players may decide to abandon the sport altogether.

These explanations themselves do not fully explain the gap between the diverse populations of Canada and US and the makeup of the NHL. Nevertheless, it does provide a way to partially explain why players of Asian, Latinx and First Nations descent in particular, are so underrepresented in the sport. 

Yet even as the NHL has seen an influx of talented non-White players over the last 20 years, the center position remains uncharted waters for many players of color at the highest levels of the sport. Despite some recent controversies regarding his draft stock*, Quinton Byfield is set to be the first Black center drafted in the top 5 in NHL history and just one of a select few Black players to be drafted at the position at all. A recent Q&A chat by The Athletic’s prospect guru Corey Pronman highlighted a potential explanation as why the transition from juniors to the pros has been so difficult for centers of color.

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*(Byfield has been projected to go #2 overall most of the year, but has fallen to #3 in some rankings of noted NHL insiders such as Bob McKenzie. In analyzing differences between Central Scouting’s mid-term and final rankings and using draft pick values by Eric Tulsky, we found that White players on average slightly improved their ranking, while Black players saw their ranking fall from the mid-term to final rankings. However, the small sample size makes it difficult to draw any definitive conclusion.) 

Based on our analysis of the last decade of NHL drafts, only 10% of Black draftees were centers, compared to over 28% of non-Black players. In addition, Black players were nearly twice as likely to be drafted to play the wing as a non-Black player.

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There is a stark difference in how much teams value centers over wingers. Recently, an Eastern Conference executive stated he would take league average 2nd line center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins over 2018 MVP winger Taylor Hall. It would once again reinforce the notion that Black players and other players of color have historically been funneled into roles considered less impactful on the ice.

To attempt to analyze how and why this might be happening, we took both a quantitative and qualitative approach in part 2.

Using the Black Quarterback Framework Pt. 2

First, to explore the paucity of Black centers in particular, we talked with several current and former college and pro players of color to ask how they picked their positions and whether or not they saw any players of color at the pivot as they came up through the prospect ranks. 

“I just didn’t see a lot of players of color period,” said Saroya Tinker, a Black woman who played defense at Yale University and was recently selected #4 in the NWHL draft. “I just liked playing defense growing up although sometimes I played forward as well, but I was pretty fast and knew where to be, and defense made a lot of sense to me.”

Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre is a former NHL defenseman, and currently a studio analyst for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Grand-Pierre was born in Montreal to parents from Haiti, which isn’t exactly known as a hockey hotbed. However, Grand-Pierre was drawn to sport as a kid and was supported by parents who helped to minimize the economic barrier to entry that hockey represents.

When asked about how he chose defense, Grand-Pierre shared the following anecdotes. “There was another Black player I grew up with who played center and had the skill coming up, but not quite the size. I was a bigger, more athletic guy, which lends itself to defense, but I played some center too. However, the coach’s son was also a center, so [when] it came to picking a lineup, he put his son out there, and I ended up on defense and just stuck with it from there.”

However, no one suggested outright that there was some nefarious agenda to dissuade Black players from playing center as Rod Braceful, an assistant director of Player Personnel for USNTDP and former college forward and defenseman, pointed out. “Many current wingers used to be centers at the junior levels but there are only so many of those spots to go around…I  just did a zoom with 19 Black College Hockey Players at the NCAA Div 1 level. Great thing I saw is how many skilled players there are no matter the position, so that’s a plus and I hope to see more make a push to play in the NHL. Mike Grier was on the call and he recalls when he played college at BU there was only 1 other [Black player] in all of college hockey.”

Kwame Mason, a filmmaker and hockey historian who made the revered “Soul on Ice” documentary highlighting the legacy of Black hockey players and who hosts a podcast with another highly touted Black center, Akil Thomas shared his thoughts as well: “If you check out my podcast, we ask Quinton [Byfield] directly about [Black players playing center].

For me, the center is a two way position and we have to remember that [Black players] were mainly enforcers for a lot of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. However, once [Black players] started being offensive forces, we were mainly wingers due to toughness and forechecking in my opinion. But you will find a lot more Black players in the center position now that the game is more speed and skill. It’s my opinion but that’s how I’ve seen it.”

Indeed, Black players were historically more likely to be used in checking and enforcer roles and have been more likely to remain in those roles even as the game has trended towards skill over brawn. (Data from hockey-reference.com)

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Without concrete data on race and player positions at NCAA/junior/midget/bantam levels, identifying a definitive cause would require identifying and asking every player of color how they picked their position, which is a basic impossibility.

However, it is possible that over time, the few Black players that advanced up the prospect pipeline were stereotyped into roles that emphasized toughness and athleticism over skill and hockey IQ. 

Courtney Szto, a professor at Queen’s University who has done extensive research about racism in hockey, found a similar pigeonholing effect for indigenous youth who grew up playing the sport. 

“The only research I know of with respect to stacking in hockey revolves around Indigenous players being stacked into fighting roles. I’m sure if someone crunched the numbers it would likely be similar for Black players as well.”

Indeed, in our analysis of scouting reports, we found several examples of the biases and typecasting that Szto highlighted in her work. For example, here’s a recent scouting report of a Black prospect from a well-known draft guide:

He’s really built with a ripped physique so it would be much easier to imagine him as an NFL prospect. Most of the time, you’ll find him on the doorstep where he makes lives of opposing netminders miserable. If a defenseman doesn’t fear him and tries to play physically against him, this guy won’t move, but will likely get into a wrestling match instead. Shows signs of good vision, but also has inconsistencies in his playmaking ability.”

As Stzo suggested, the scouting report honed in on the Black player’s physical attributes and toughness while de-emphasizing their overall hockey skill. 

So we must ask, how often does this happen? In using the research into the Black quarterback problem as a framework, we can try to look through the data to see if this theory of overemphasis on the toughness and athleticism holds water. 

  1.  Skill Set Bias: Skills of POC determined by stereotypes

To do this, we broke down hundreds of scouting reports to identify ~500+ common phrases such as “Great Vision” (indicating good passing ability), “Powerful Stride” (indicating a great skater) and “Needs to add strength” (indicating below average size and athleticism). After coding each of these phrases to a specific hockey skill set, we then measured how often a positive trait was associated with players of each ethnic group*. 

*For this portion of the analysis, we generally only filtered for players who were classified as White, Black or Asian, due to lack of sample size of draft picks of the other groups. 

To account for the fact that a player selected in the first round is more likely to be cited for their skill than a player in the 5th round, we also used Central Scouting rankings to identify players of a similar ranking to use as comparisons.

Using this framework, we broke players into their assumed ethnic group, and created the chart below. Looking at it, which column would you assume represents which ethnic group (options being White, Asian and Black*)?

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If you answered Asian, Black and White, you are correct.

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Asian players were much more likely to be cited than Black players for their hockey IQ, while Black players were significantly more likely to be cited for their athleticism (particularly size and strength). 

If we drill down by comparing players of Asian and Black descent to White peers of similar rankings at the same position on CSS lists, we find a similar bucketing of skills sets. 

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Given the clear stylistic differences identified in the scouting reports for Asian and Black players, it is interesting that both groups have similar impacts as measured by WAR relative to the White players in their peer group. One of two conclusions can be drawn: Either POC have similar on ice impact because the stylistic differences are overstated OR similar to Black quarterbacks in the NFL,the differences do exist, and POC are capable of playing a non-traditional but equally effective version of the game at their position.

As stated by former Toronto Marlies analyst and assistant coach, Jack Han, “for [POC] to dominate hockey they need to avoid playing ‘hockey’ the [traditional] way, so that they can get ahead.”

4. Development Bias: Skill Stereotypes impact playing opportunities and draft stock

As we stated in introducing the Black QB problem, the developmental bias assumed that Black football players possessed skills that translated and would be effective at positions other than QB. That would also imply the skill sets of Black players would be less effective at QB relative to White players.

Similarly, a potential explanation of the lack of Black centers (and centers of color overall) is that they under-index in the skill sets most critical to the center position, and thus were slotted in other roles on the ice where those skill sets would be more effective. A player such as Evander Kane, who went 4th overall in 2009, was originally scouted as a center (according to both elite-prospects.com and Central Scouting). Nevertheless, Kane has taken less faceoffs since 2008 than Sergei Federov, who often played defense and retired in 2009. 

In the Black QB framework, quarterbacks of color were often encouraged to switch positions in order to improve their draft stock, implying that their production as a prospect would be undervalued by NFL decision makers. 

Do we see the same effect for hockey players of color? To assess this, we made a simple random forest model based on a decade’s worth of CHL data to first, predict a player’s draft slot and then assess the difference between the model’s prediction and their actual draft slot.  

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As shown below, the model found that players of color (the blue line) had slightly bigger negative affect on their draft slot than White players, but thankfully, the difference is relatively negligible.

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Ok, pop quiz number two. Here’s the same breakdown by position. What are your guesses (out of Left Winger, Center, Defenseman and Right Winger)?

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If you said Right Wing, Left Wing, Defensemen, Center you were right again.

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If we isolate the center position, the key trait that stands out in the center scouting reports was passing, which Black players were ~50% less likely to be cited for than White players. However, other traits, such as character (i.e. “work ethic”) which centers are most likely to be cited for were also most often cited for Black players. Hockey IQ was cited most often for defensemen, while centers were cited for their athleticism slightly less often than other positions. 

Looking at the data from the scouting reports, it is hard to draw any definitive conclusions about the baseline requirements unique to the center position that make it inaccessible to players of color, other than passing. However, in looking at the 57 players in the dataset that played at least 50 minutes in the NHL, there was no clear difference across ethnicity in passing ability (as measured by primary assists/60) even when accounting for the relatively small sample size. 

We asked Corey Sznajder, a hockey analyst who has manually tracked several hundred games over the years, on his thoughts on what he feels differentiates centers from other positions. 

“Mostly in the defensive zone because he’s usually the one chasing guys around while the wingers stay high. You can pick it out on the rush sometimes but it’s more fluid now than it used to be because you have defensemen joining the rush & the center’s not always the last forward to leave the zone anymore. It’s just guys like O’Reilly who do that now,” said Sznajder. He adds “[The difference] is not really distinguishable in the offensive zone. At least not to me.”

Using ICE ratings, which attempt to identify playing styles by breaking down each hockey skill set using box score stats, we don’t see a significant difference in either Passing skill (a variant of @loserpoints Shot Assists) or effectiveness as derived from WAR/60 (from evolving-hockey.com) of players in the sample groups. 

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Asian and First Nations players do overwhelmingly well in the WAR per 60 metric, which indicates a reason to potentially draft and develop more of those players.  It also could indicate a “mediocrity” bias, in which players from those groups are overlooked unless they’re truly exceptional. 

When looking at all NHL players over the past 10 years, we found that White players do have higher scoring and passing rates than Black and Asian players overall, particularly at the forward spots.

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Even though the differences between the groups are slight, it could be surmised that there is no bias against Black centermen per se, since Black players lag behind their White peers in both assists and point production. This argument is undermined, however, by the fact that Asian players are significantly more likely to play center relative to their total time on ice, despite lagging even more overall in production behind both Black and White players. 

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This is not to say that fewer Asian players should play center, and we in fact argue the opposite. These measures of both skill set and production only serve to point out that the differences in outcomes and on-ice effectiveness of each group do not come close to adequately explaining the significant dearth of centers of color overall.

  1. Locker Room Bias: Professional POC assumed to be locker room problems

Finally, using the Black QB framework, we found numerous Black QBs struggling to find jobs despite on field success due to perceived locker room issues. For hockey players of color, this perceived inability to connect in the locker room can be even more pronounced given that they may often be the only non-White person in the room. 

Even more so, if hockey coaches are only used to dealing with players of a similar background and culture and are too rigid in their approach, they may lack the nuance to properly teach and develop players of color. 

For prospects, this can be the source of disagreements with teammates, coaches and management, and lead to feelings of isolation. In the worst-case scenarios, this could lead to outright bias, racist attacks and loss of passion for the game which could affect both their production and their future draft prospects.

In recent years, as different incidents in junior hockey have come to light, attitude problems attributed to prospects of color are now being reexamined as failures of hockey culture to create a supportive infrastructure.  

To share a recent example:

From ESPN’s 2007 mock draft:

14. Akim Aliu (Sudbury Wolves, OHL)

Aliu has an incredible assortment of skills and abilities but it is his attitude and personality that give teams the greatest pause. He has dominated games at times, but his off-ice problems (he fought with former Windsor teammate Steve Downie during a practice) and his lack of consistency have thrown up some red flags.

From ESPN the Mag’s Feature on Akim Aliu that same year:

“Teams that believe they can reach and teach Aliu see him as a first-rounder. But a few scouts who’ve seen him act out on the ice — taking stupid penalties, fighting at the worst possible times, railing at refs — think he’ll never change and wouldn’t take him with the last pick of the draft.”

Aliu and Downie dropped their gloves. But what the video doesn’t show is that prior to the fight, Downie skated up to Aliu during practice and cross-checked the rookie across the face…. Aliu was made out to be the villain, and the cloud over his head followed him to Sudbury. There were rumors about his having trouble with his billet families, having trouble with teammates, having trouble with his coach. 

Which was strange: Akim’s billets from Windsor frequently made the 300-mile trip to see his games. And London Knights star Sam Gagner — a former midget league teammate and a top-10 lock in the 2007 draft — says that Aliu kept in touch with his former teammates all the time.”

Says Courtney Stzo: “I write a bit about scouting in my book and how the number 1 thing that scouts look for is “hockey sense” but they also admit that it’s the most subjective of the categories. Also, character is the last thing they look for, and yet they spend an awful lot of time talking to billet families, coaches etc. to learn about someone’s “character.”

At the professional level, hockey players are often expected to sacrifice their individualism for the sake of the team, and refrain from straying too far out of the pre-conceived norms of hockey culture. Those that do can be subject to ridicule and rebuke from both the team and the media. A player of color, particularly a visible minority who does not actively attempt to transform their persona into a more hockey culture appropriate one, may face adverse consequences as a result. Players such as Anthony Duclair, Josh Ho-Sang, and P.K. Subban serve as somber reminders of players who clashed with management for transgressions that seem relatively minor from the outside looking in before being moved or demoted. However, even top performers without any noted character concerns such as Wayne Simmonds and Seth Jones were traded by their drafting team.

To quantify the frequency of this occurrence, we looked at every player’s under 25 seasons since 2008 (using data from evolving-hockey.com), and identified whether or not they ended up playing for multiple NHL teams in that time frame. Breaking these numbers out by their ethnic categories, shows a stark difference in outcomes for Black players over any other group. Nearly half of the Black players in the data set (49%) ended up moving on from their original team by age 25, a rate nearly double that of White players. 

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Once again, it is hard to reconcile the stark difference in outcomes between the groups when the difference in on ice impacts are minimal at best (the average WAR of the moved players was roughly the same across all groups).  

While it is difficult to measure the impact of the Locker Room bias for prospects of color in such a quantitative fashion, it may be reasonable to assume that similar phenomena exists in NCAA/Major Junior/Bantam/Midget as well. Given that ice time is a coach’s most valuable resource, and the center is the most coveted position, putting two and two together would suggest that the accumulated microaggressions snowballs over time into the wild discrepancies we see today. 

To summarize, when looking at these biases in aggregate, it becomes clear that the demographics of the NHL are neither an outcome of pure randomness nor an egregious campaign of racial purity conducted by an unnamed set of powers that be. 

Yet if we were to imagine a talented, young player of color from Canada interested in playing hockey full time, they likely would stand the face the following obstacles:

  • A prohibitively expensive and time-consuming effort to even get on the ice
  • An often unwelcoming, and even hostile attitude from players, coaches and fans towards minorities
  • A fatalistic pigeonholing of their abilities and future prospects based solely on the color of their skin or ethnic background
  • A glass ceiling in terms of playing opportunities geared towards to least impactful positions on the ice
  • A locker room culture that creates an immediate sense of “othering” and requires a submission of self-identity in order to receive a fair shot.

In conclusion, this is how you end up with a league that should have three times the amount of diversity amongst its players, and a magnitude more in coaching and in the front office. A player of color may deem these collective obstacles too great to overcome and decide to play a different sport. Without immediate remediation at all levels of hockey, it would be unsurprising to see a missing generation of talented future hockey players opting out of the sport altogether. 

8 thoughts on “Racial Bias in Drafting and Development: The NHL’s Black Quarterback Problem

  1. The NHL vs NBA/NFL question difference comes largely down to how public HS as a path to the pros applies to the NBA & NFL and not to the NHL.

    Soccer in the US has a similar issue as hockey traditionally. Although, with MLS academies, that is starting to change a bit.

    Lacrosse is another interesting sport to look at in this regard.

      • Byfield or Stuetzle?

        If I were making that franchise-altering call, I could probably find at least a morning coffee’s worth of time to consider what frames and biases my information is potentially arriving through. Even as just a fan of the sport, I appreciated this look into it.

  2. Every thing is white peoples fault. Cant be that black people just arent interested in hockey and with such a small pool of black players youre not getting the most skilled athletes. “theres too many white people” couldnt be because Hockey, a sport played on ice, is generally played in northern European countries and north America, which are mostly all white countries, even after forced diversity. But no the answer is more forced diversity, because for som reason this is all that matters anymore. I dont see anyone writing articles on the potential missed generations of talent in basketball or football, because white kids are told theyll never beat out the black athletes in those sports, at a very young age mind you. What a waste of bandwidth.

    • 1. A quick Ctrl+F identifies only one use of “fault,” and it’s in this comment.

      2. Your “can’t be” and “couldn’t be” rhetoricals are considered and addressed in the paragraphs between the headline and this comments section.

      • I forgot you all think speech is straightforward and don’t/can’t comprehend innuendo or nuance. I said fault so we need to quote that and ignore the context of the article. The NHL is represented by 17 different nationalities, but because you only see the color of people skin, you complain about it. Its not their fault that over 80% of the population in those countries are white. Not only that, the 2 countries with the highest black population have most of their black athletes playing in other sports. The pool is extremely limited to start, which is the problem with the analytics of this article. Their is a finite number of kids to start, let alone arguing that they didnt become skilled because they were pigeon holed into other roles. You still need skill in those roles to make it as a professional. That argument makes 0 sense. This article was written with complete bias. Even in the NFL side of it ” Finally, even though NFL teams rarely let go of successful quarterbacks due to the importance of the position, teams moved on from or avoided signing even successful Black Quarterbacks in their primes at a disturbingly high rate. A common thread in many of these cases is the claim that these quarterbacks lack the leadership skills and commitment to the game to be successful. The most famous recent example is Colin Kaepernick, but even former MVP Cam Newton and analytics darling Tyrod Taylor found themselves repeatedly passed over for less successful White quarterbacks.” Starting with Tyrod Taylor as it pertains to what I previously said. Taylor was an “analytics darling” because he had limited sheltered games in Baltimore. I’m a Bills fan, he came to Buffalo, I watched him first hand. He was an average to below average QB. His arm was not good, and he barely dragged the Bills to a wild card game in an extremely weak conference. If he didnt have his mobility, he would not have been a professional. Thats not pigeon holing, thats a guy doing what he needs to do to get paid. Kaepernick was terrible before his kneeling incident and got worse over the year, he pulled that stunt to save his job that he was visibly losing to Blaine Gabbert, thats pretty bad. Cam Newton is the same, his passing was terrible and he lost his job. Both Kaepernick and Newton were already established as NFL level passers, so you cant even blame development. But they both had severe injuries they were contending with. Their in lies the harsh realities that is the business of sports. Both got hurt, Both lost their jobs, both were not good enough to win that job back, both were supplanted by a younger QB with a higher ceiling. The foundation of this article is baseless, cant bother with the rest of it. Black kids in hockey are asked to play a role that will help them succeed and become a professional at an age where their skills should already be fully developed and they are already being lapped by their white peers. Skills developed on their own time, not by coaching staff. That is not racist and is very much the opposite. Coaches and leadership going out of their way to give the kid the best chance he has to play professionally. Its the same thing they did with the Rob Ray’s and Tie Domi’s of the league. Put them in a role that gave them the best chance to get a professional paycheck

  3. This was great, one thing that wasn’t totally clear is if you weighted the US and CA populations relative to the number of NHL players they produce. I imagine that would make a difference.

  4. If you would like to write about an over representation of white centers I would focus on (NFL) football. Football is a predominantly black sport but the most important position on the line if not the field, (professional gamblers will tell you that an injury to a starting center is more significant than any other position except QB), is played by white players. In baseball, (where there are more black/minority players than hockey) the “thinking” positions, catcher, pitcher, shortstop are predominantly played by white players. This is not to say that black players are not “intelligent” enough to play those positions. In my research paper for my sociology of sport class in 1990, I concluded the reasons are two fold. One is black players are not given an opportunity and two black players gravitate to positions where they see players that look like them.

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