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NHL exec Kim Davis on racism in hockey and growing the game

‘Is there more to do? Absolutely. But there’s no question about commitment.’

A post on social media spurred Byron and Denise Williams to bring their two sons to the American Legacy Black History Tour mobile museum that was recently parked just outside the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. While navigating their way through the exhibit celebrating the long history of blacks in hockey, dating to the launch of the Coloured Hockey League in 1895, they struck up a conversation with an African-American woman near one of the display cases.

It just so happened that the woman, Kim Davis, was the person responsible for them being there.

Davis was hired 16 months ago as the NHL’s executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. Her role includes developing diversity initiatives to attract fans who might not normally be interested in the sport.

While the Chicago native is a longtime sports fan (she played tennis in high school), she had never been to a live NHL game before taking the job with the league.

“I’ve become a big hockey fan,” said Davis, who spent most of her career in finance, including more than 20 years at JPMorgan Chase. “Seeing the professional game played in the big arena gives you a different appreciation for the sport.”

In just over a year, Davis, a graduate of Spelman College, has already made an impact, including working with American Legacy magazine, which covers African-American history and culture, to create the mobile museum as part of the NHL’s new Hockey is for Everyone campaign. Attaching a campaign to Black History Month was a first for the NHL, which is trying to attract more black athletes to a league where the number of black players is in the 20s (out of approximately 700 players).

Davis also played a role in an event at the Canadian Embassy last week that celebrated the career of Willie O’Ree, who broke the color barrier in the NHL in 1958 with the Boston Bruins.

“She’s only been here for just a few months and she’s done a fantastic job,” said O’Ree, who for years has worked as an ambassador to help the NHL with diversity. “She’s turning things around. I’m pleased that I have the opportunity to work with her. She’s doing a great job.”

Fans seem to think so, including the Williams family, who requested a picture with Davis before they left the mobile museum.

“We’ve been thinking about getting our kids into sports where we don’t see a lot of African-American representation,” said Byron Williams, who has never been to a hockey game. “We’re new hockey fans, and it’s nice to come here and learn about the history.”

After taking a photo with the Williams family and greeting other fans at the museum, Davis sat down with The Undefeated to talk about why she left the world of finance for hockey.

Was this traveling exhibit your idea?

It’s an idea of a lot of people, but I guess I conceived of the vision of having our hockey memorabilia as part of the traveling museum. I’ve known of American Legacy and its mission. And I knew of the power of a brand using this as a way to illustrate and demonstrate what has already been done in a particular community. It was really part of a broader vision to the NHL celebrating Black History Month.

Your career had mostly been in finance. What made you take on the role as a consultant with the NHL?

My career has really been defined by change management and leadership work. Even when I was on the business side, I would say that was a passion of mine in the business. Being one of the first black women on Wall Street, I’ve had a passion for defying the odds and bringing new audiences, whether it be finance in the case of my historical work or, in this case, hockey.

In the case of hockey, there was already a rich history of blacks in the sport, which is what the museum exhibit displays. I think just amplifying that and talking about it and celebrating it is going to be educational for not only the new audiences to our sport but for those existing fans.

After working as a consultant, you accepted a position to work with the NHL full time. Was that because you have a love of sports?

I grew up in Chicago and played varsity tennis in high school. I come from a sports family. Hockey wasn’t one of our sports, but my grandmother played basketball and was a star player in Georgia back in the 1920s. So sports is in my blood and my DNA. Sports is just an incredible way for you to build life skills.

Hockey is considered to be a white, male sport. How was it for you as an African-American woman to enter that environment?

I was hired by the commissioner [Gary Bettman], so that says a lot about his willingness and the sport’s willingness to embrace differences and change. I have been nothing but welcomed. All of the ideas that I’ve brought in terms of how to make our sport more welcoming have been widely received. I haven’t had any pushback.

How have you, as an African-American woman, been embraced?

That is something that I have had a great comfort with throughout my career growing up in financial services, in investment banking, where this would be pretty much the same kind of paradigm. So far I have not experienced anything but people welcoming me and wanting to utilize my knowledge and expertise.

What was your goal coming into this role?

My goal really is the continuation of the work that the league was interested in when I was a consultant, understanding how our social and community assets can be better leveraged. All of this is rooted in the realities of our demographic changes in North America. The fact of the matter is that we know that black and brown communities are already in many parts of North America representing the majority minority.

We have to make sure that our sport is well-positioned culturally, economically and infrastructurewise to remove those barriers to our sport so that we can create that stronger pipeline of talent for the future.

Whether it be playing professionally, whether it be in the front office, whether it be officiating or coaching. In all aspects of our sport, it’s important we open it up to these demographics that are going to represent our future.

This sport has had a reputation of occasional hostility toward black players. Recently a black player in a league in Quebec was taunted, along with his family, by racist fans. How do you change views and perceptions when that’s still happening?

I think the idea that racism exists in our sport is one that we understand we have to do more to ensure that we create an environment where this is not tolerated. I think that there is, no question, across our sport, zero tolerance for that. But we have to make sure that we put all of the mechanisms in place to have that consistently represented across and up and down the hockey spine.

We have to make sure that governing bodies like Hockey Canada and USA Hockey send those messages loud and clear up and down their ranks. We’ve been working with USA Hockey and Hockey Canada to develop new positions around diversity and inclusion. Is there more to do? Absolutely. But there’s no question about commitment.

You’re an HBCU [historically black college and university] grad. What is the message to young black women to see you in this role?

Role models count. I know how good it feels to some people because I receive messages constantly on social media from men and women who are proud of me being in this role, who are thinking differently about hockey because I’m in this role. Dispelling myths about the sport because I’m in this role. I think it’s very positive for the sport.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.