NEW YORK – The goose bumps were raised on Dani Rylan’s arm.
The founder and commissioner of the National Women’s Hockey League was one of 17 executives assembled at a Manhattan steak house on Wednesday, in a show of solidarity for hockey’s “Declaration of Principles.” At the moment, she was listening to a young girl named Dorothy from a youth hockey team in Englewood, New Jersey, speaking about what inspired her to discover hockey.
The catalyst? Manon Rheaume.
“She was in the 1992 Olympics, a Canadian gold medalist. She just inspired me a whole lot. And then one day I just randomly came home and told my mom I wanted to play ice hockey,” Dorothy said.
Rylan smiled. “I started playing hockey in Tampa, Florida, because of Manon Rheaume. I started skating in 1992.I thought I was going to be the first defensewoman playing for the Tampa Bay Lightning,” she recalled. “Manon is one person. I’m a few generations older than Dorothy. Manon got me into the game. And now Dorothy’s inspired by the same woman.”
Two women, separated by hundreds of miles, inspired by the same woman playing hockey. On a day meant to support ways for hockey to be more inclusive and better representative, it couldn’t have been more appropriate.
“To pick hockey takes a bit of courage. To go to the rink, to know that it’s a family sport, to bring your daughter or your son, or start playing as an adult, to know that it really is for everyone, makes it a lot easier to make that decision,” said Rylan.
As is the case with most efforts lead by the NHL, there are cynical undercurrents to the “Declaration of Principles,” which are an attempt to focus a disparate group of organizations on one mission while reaffirming some obvious benefits of sports participation.
Hockey’s “Declaration of Principles,” ICYMI pic.twitter.com/AGm4OGHg7p
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) September 6, 2017
Among those undercurrents:
* Making hockey “for everyone” by increasing participation is also about increasing the fan base and the player pool, especially in the United States.
* The project was spearheaded by Pat Lafontaine, who told Chris Johnston of Sportsnet that the principles pointed to the need for an extra year of development for young players. And thus, the entire project suddenly felt like an infomercial for raising the NHL Draft age from 18 to 19, which has been an aim of Lafontaine’s for years.
This completely colors statements like this from Mathieu Schneider of the NHLPA:
“I think that this transcends hockey,” he said. “I think this is about sports and the future for our kids. Being a parent, having gone though the hockey system but also having kids play other sports, the things that we’re trying to deal with as parents today are common threads throughout. The idea that we’re putting kids in the sport for college scholarships or to become professional athletes, was never the intention when we were kids. The intention was about the health, what sports was able to give to you.”
* That moment during the press conference it appeared the “Declaration of Principles” were inspired by the Catholic Church, capped by that surreal moment with Pope Francis endorsed hockey in a letter to the NHL. (OK, maybe surreal is underselling the truly jarring turn from an agnostic presentation to a reading from the Vatican.)
* And, of course, the notion that the NHL, in particular, hadn’t exactly practiced what it was now preaching about “a safe, positive and inclusive environment for players and families regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation and socio-economic status.”
This “Declaration of Principles” was going to be met with cynicism and suspicion, and rightfully so. Even the most reasonable reading of them is that they simply restate the obvious or set a low bar to clear. (In the words of the great Chris Rock: “You’re supposed to take care of yo kids!”)
But for NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, the simplicity of the declaration is expected. This is just the start of what he hopes is an ever-building project.
“This isn’t an announcement of an end. This is the announcement of a start,” he said. “Our challenge is how to we live the principles going forward. How do we instill them in what we’re doing and how to other leagues do the same? What we asked for from the organizations was, ‘what are you doing to reflect these materials?’ It was a way to share best practices.”
Herein lies perhaps the most important thing about the “Declaration of Principles”: The fact that 17 different hockey organizations are aligned with them. The fact that the NHL doesn’t have all the answers, so maybe someone like USA Hockey can share some – Daly, a board member for the latter, said even he was unaware about some of its grassroots efforts.
It’s a two-pronged issue: Overcoming the barriers between young athletes and hockey, and then ensuring that they’ll want to continue with the sport once they’re into it.
The first prong has proved nearly impossible to solve for the last 20 years for the NHL – the social, economic, cultural and structural obstacles that keep athletes away from hockey. If it’s not the cost of gear, it’s available ice. It’s not feeling the game is alien to one’s culture, it’s not having any friends playing it either.
So this “Declaration of Principles” is an attempt to sell potential players, especially young ones, that “hockey is for everyone” through videos like this:
The second prong is creating an environment to keep athletes in the game – a wide-ranging task that includes everything from player safety to that nebulous concept of “inclusion” the NHL bandied about this week.
“One of the things we have to do going forward is to make sure parents feel safe putting their kids in the game, from an environment standpoint but also from a player safety standpoint. News in recent years suggests that hockey could be dangerous for kids. I don’t know if the stats back that up, but we have to deal with the perception of that,” said Daly.
“What’s our role in this? Leadership is one. NHL players and the NHL are the north star of the sport. But in our ‘Learn To Play’ program, that really gave us an opportunity to reach out to kids on the grass roots level to instill these principles.”
All of this leads to one conclusion, after we cut through the ulterior motives of the “Declaration of Principles”: That hockey, as a community, needs to attract a larger, more diverse collection of fans and players across North America and internationally; but more than that, it needs to create and maintain an environment that welcomes rather than discourages that diversity.
There needs to be more Dorothys. Which means there needs to be more Manon Rheaumes.
Rylan believes that the hockey community, slowly, is getting there.
“Harrison Browne is a great example of these principles coming to life,” said Rylan, of the NWHL player and one of the first openly transgender athletes in professional sports. “I don’t think that five years ago Harrison would have felt comfortable being himself.
“Things take time,” she said. “In this day and age, people want immediate results. But you have to have the patience to see this through, starting with what we talked about today.”
At this point, it’s just talk. It’s just words on a placard. It’s just a pretty website. It’s just another reason for those already cynical about the NHL’s aims to be cynical about the NHL’s aims. And there’s really only one way to make this something more palpable, which is to practice what’s been preached – and not just because The Pope endorsed it.
“What happens next? That’s what is going to be the big thing,” said Schneider.