DAVID GREENE, HOST:
For hockey fans, this is a great time of year. The NHL playoffs are getting underway this week with 16 teams chasing the Stanley Cup. We decided to take a look at the changing face of hockey. To do that, we visited the practice facility for the NHL's Washington Capitals.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I actually - pretty good goalies. I like the goalies.
GREENE: Here, a group of several dozen young, mostly African-American players were running shooting drills with the Capitals's Alex Ovechkin. He's one of hockey's biggest stars. The Russian-born Ovechkin, he is typical of the NHL's demographic. It is by far the whitest of the four major U.S. pro sports leagues. Minority players in the National Hockey League only number in the dozens, which is an improvement on just a handful 30 years ago. For the NHL to grow its audience, it really needs to diversify, so the league is actively promoting the game, funding hockey programs for inner-city kids, like these players from Washington, D.C., including 17-year-old Catherine Baker (ph).
CATHERINE BAKER: I like just every aspect of it, everything from, you know, how when you're on offense you're an offense together. And then, you know, like, the game is so quick-paced. You never understand or know what's coming next.
GREENE: If more diversity is to come next, Baker thinks hockey just needs a higher profile.
CATHERINE: If more people, you know, would know about it instead of just being used to the typical sports, like, say, basketball, I'm sure everyone would love it.
GREENE: And 13-year-old Noah Pettiford (ph) agrees. He doesn't see race as a barrier.
NOAH PETTIFORD: I feel like everybody should play whatever sport they feel like playing.
GREENE: Now, that's not exactly how it worked back in the '70s and '80s. That is when Val James was breaking into the game. In 1982, the Long Island native became the first African-American to play in the NHL. Like most ground breakers, James overcame a lot. When we reached him in Niagara Falls, Canada, we asked Val James to read a section from his new autobiography, "Black Ice." It was about an incident that took place out in the parking lot on the team bus; also on the bus was his coach, Scotty Bowman. They were on the bus after what should have been such a joyous night for Val James - his first NHL game in Boston.
VAL JAMES: (Reading) It had taken years to reach this point, but I knew I had to savor the moment. As I sat on the bus replaying the game in my mind, a loud crash snapped me back to reality. I looked up to see the front windshield had been splintered by a beer bottle. A crowd of Bruins fans gathered in front of the bus. They started shouting send the [expletive]. I stood up and started towards the front of the bus, but Scotty told me to sit back down. I returned to my seat, trying to hide the tears that had started to flow from my eyes. My teammates looked away, pretending they hadn't noticed me crying. We drove away, and I immediately regretted not getting off that bus. My fists throbbed with adrenaline. Those drunks had taken away the joy and pride I had felt at achieving a lifelong dream.
GREENE: And amazingly, James's NHL experience, the experience that night, was an improvement over what he endured in the minor leagues.
Val, you would go into arenas, and there would be several thousand people who were chanting the N-word or other racial slurs.
GREENE: Talk to me about the pain of hearing that.
JAMES: The pain factor is that that's the type of thing that you could hear it a million times and every time you hear it, it feels the same. You still get that same sting. You still get that same embarrassed feeling. And maybe a little borderline that you're kind of ashamed, but then you realize what - you have nothing to be ashamed of, you know? I wasn't so worried about players because they got the message, and they finally realized that I'm here to play hockey and nothing else. The most frustrating part of it all was the fans. You can't do anything to the fans, and everyone on the road that we encountered pretty much went overboard and crossed the line, like, a million times. So that would motivate me to play a little bit harder against their team; hit their guys a little harder; maybe fight a little harder if I did have a fight.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: With a face-off down to the right side of the Amerks's net, the two heavyweights go right into it. James with a big hand right; Fraser (ph) with a series of combinations that gave the contender a tie with the league's...
GREENE: That might sound like a boxing match, but it's actually announcers describing a fight involving Val James on the ice. He did fight a lot, taking out his anger on opposing players. And that helped him reach the NHL, but his career left him feeling battered inside and out.
What made all of this worth it for you?
JAMES: I ended up being the first black American to play NHL hockey, and that to me is a total achievement. You know, I did something no one else had ever done or will ever do again.
GREENE: Well, there's a line in the book that I really loved. You were joking a little bit. You said (reading) just like every other young black child born to southern sharecroppers, I dreamed of playing professional ice hockey. OK, so maybe I was the only one of us with that particular dream, but at least it made sense to me.
What is the goal, as you see it, for the NHL in terms of diversity? I mean, what is the ultimate goal?
JAMES: The ultimate goal of the National Hockey League is to make sure that everybody has their fair shake at getting a chance at playing a professional sport. And also to let everyone know that this sport is open to anyone who wants to play it.
GREENE: And Val James really believes that the NHL is getting there.
JAMES: The door is wide open. They're putting these programs together for kids to realize that you have a shot. And there's so many people out there willing to help everybody. You know, you just got to have an initiative. You have to show that you want it.
GREENE: And there is no question that a player named Joel Ward wanted it. He plays for the Washington Capitals, and he scored this goal three years ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Scores - Ward buries the puck, and the Capitals have upset the Bruins.
GREENE: Joel Ward is African-Canadian. His goal there eliminated the defending champion Boston Bruins from the playoffs. But like Val James 30 years earlier, Ward didn't get a chance to savor the moment. Social media lit up with racist taunts, calling Ward the N-word and worse.
JOEL WARD: All I was trying to do is what, you know, everyone else is trying to do, just to score. And the fact that, you know, it was the color of my skin played a role into that and how people just were upsetting about it. And, I mean, people wanted me dead (laughter) for scoring a goal, so it was definitely shocking for sure.
GREENE: And yet, despite that moment, Joel Ward does believe that the game is changing.
WARD: When I go back home to Toronto and see all the rinks and the kids filled up with all different races and ethnicities, it's unbelievable. It's come a long way for sure.
GREENE: And the game does now have big-time stars who are minority players, like the dominating Montreal Canadiens's defenseman P.K. Subban.
WARD: There's no secret that hockey needs more guys like P.K. and more guys that are super stars - would you say - and to come up in the league so kids can see that and idolize that and follow in those same footpaths knowing that, you know, if he can do it, why can't I?
GREENE: Which is exactly the question the NHL wants young minority athletes to start asking. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.