Matt Dumba took a deep breath before speaking. In an empty arena during the 2020 Stanley Cup playoff match-up between the Edmonton Oilers and Chicago Blackhawks, on a nationally televised game, he stepped forward to deliver a message about eradicating racism in the game of hockey. He could only hear his words reverberating back to him, and as he did, he took comfort in the support around him from his Hockey Diversity Alliance members.
But more importantly, he says, was the support of his Minnesota Wild teammates, namely defensive partner, Jonas Brodin.
“I did that, but even cooler that I had some teammates there with me, especially Brodin,” Dumba recalled. “He walked over with me, was there the whole time, keeping me level, keeping me calm. You can’t do these things without people like that in your corner.”
Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese
USA Hockey coaching certification instructor, long-time coach and current Positive Coaching Alliance trainer Andrew Shriver talks about this often. Drawing upon the story of Major League Baseball’s Pee Wee Reese and the relationship and support he forged with Jackie Robinson (the first black player in the major leagues), Shriver emphasizes that these tall tasks must be faced together.
“Jackie Robinson had often said that he couldn’t have played and gone up against the worst of odds all alone,” Shriver said. “He needed his allies, and he needed that support, and what a difference that made for him.
“Pee Wee Reese was in a position as an insider, as someone who already had a Major League career, as a white player in the Brooklyn Dodgers, who was able to walk over to Jackie Robinson and put his arm around him in a way to say, ‘if you support me, you support him.’
“That’s such a powerful thing.”
The Biggest Influencers
But it takes more than just supportive teammates to foster a safe and inclusive environment, Shriver says. The adults must lead the way.
Fewer people have a bigger influence on a young player’s life than their coaches and parents. Like sponges, they soak up every interaction — good and bad — on and off the ice.
“For coaches it’s asking, ‘what kind of influence can I have in the locker room?’ For parents, it’s, ‘what kind of influence can I have in the bleachers, or the whole climate at the rink?’” said Shriver, who emphasizes these courtesies extend beyond race but into religion, gender, ethnicity, disability, etc. “As parents and coaches, our favorite moments are to see a kid with a huge smile on their face and just loving the game. If we take that and think outside of our own situation and look around to ask if others are feeling that way, we take a big step in change.
“Soon we are taking those same messages and thoughts beyond the rink and into daily life. That’s when we start making a difference. That’s when we can start making it better.”
Acknowledging the Problem
Shriver said what can add difficulty to change is the feeling that many associations have: “Well, we don’t have that problem here.”
“If you look at the demographics and profile of hockey players in Minnesota, it’s right there,” he said of the sport, which is predominantly white, upper-class families, even in a state where the community model significantly lowers barriers to play. “You might not see it in front of your face, in your living room and in your locker room, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
“When people tell me there’s not racism in the game, that this doesn’t happen, yes I want to lose my mind,” said Dumba. “But I’m taking the route that’s just like, if you don’t believe it from me, listen to the 12-year-old in Lakeville or the 10-year-old in Roseville — kids I have had conversations with every year that I’ve been in this league. There’s pain and confusion, and we have to see and try to understand that to change it.”
Join the Movement
Shriver said the best thing a family/team/association can do is work to make it better for players each year. Make the association better than it was last year or the last five years, or the last 10. He recommends that families have those conversations about having an inclusive mindset at the dinner table. Use teaching moments as they present themselves so whenever these situations arise, your young player can make those connections and step up.
“Rather than shrugging our shoulders and unfairly ignoring the problems that might exist, be an agent of change rather than just sitting back and seeing where things fall,” said Shriver. “If nothing changes, then nothing changes, and then we’ll be here years from now wondering why hockey doesn’t really look like it’s for everybody. Instead, let’s bring kids from everywhere to sign up for this great sport.”
Adds Dumba: “These conversations aren’t easy to have on either side of things. You feel self-conscious or embarrassed, but you just have to speak your mind freely and give yourselves a sense of grace when you’re working through these things, because they are tough topics, especially when it comes down to people’s feelings.
“You have to put yourself in another’s shoes and see it through someone else’s eyes.”
Editor's Note: For more information on how you and your community can be allies and create a more inclusive hockey environment, check out our Minnesota Hockey-PCA Grant program which offers grants for PCA's Sports Can Battle Racism workshop.