With push on diversity, NHL makes landmark selection of black player
By Salim Valji
After an NHL season in which players challenged deep-seated issues of racism and the lack of diversity within the sport, the league made history last week when Quinton Byfield became the highest-drafted Black player.
Clad in a stylish white blazer and black bow tie at home in Newmarket, Ontario, for the remote draft, Byfield, 18, acknowledged the gravitas of the moment when he was selected second overall by the Los Angeles Kings. Previously, the highest-drafted Black players had been Evander Kane (2009, Atlanta Thrashers) and Seth Jones (2013, Nashville Predators), each taken fourth overall.
“It definitely means a lot to me and is something special,” Byfield said in a news conference on draft night last Tuesday. “My dad and mom didn’t play hockey or didn’t have too much knowledge about that, so just going to the game together, it just shows that there’s a lot of opportunity for everyone in the world.”
The Kings celebrated the move.
“Quinton is an exceptional young man and talented player with a very bright future,” Kings general manager Rob Blake, a Hall of Fame defenseman, said in a statement after the first round.
“We’re proud to be adding him to our organization and look forward to the next stages of his development and a promising career in LA.”
Byfield was drafted off the strength of an 82-point season with the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League. He was also a part of Canada’s gold medal-winning team at the World Junior Hockey Championship, contributing one assist in seven games.
At 6 feet, 4 inches and 214 pounds, Byfield could be a high-end playmaking center in the mold of Kings star Anze Kopitar, a two-time Stanley Cup winner with 950 career points in 1,073 games.
“The big center man, the effects they have on the play, all those things come into play,” Blake said in a news conference after the first round, adding that he thought Byfield could immediately play in the NHL.
“There’s a lot more that goes into it,” he continued. “The uncertainty on our games, when we’re starting and all this, what will happen in the OHL where he’s currently playing, World Juniors. All this has to come into account.”
Byfield will join a Kings organization that includes Akil Thomas, his friend and a 2020 Canadian World Junior standout. Thomas, who is of Barbadian heritage and was drafted in the second round in 2018, is currently playing professionally in Germany. Thomas’ father and uncle were also professional hockey players.
Thomas is active off the ice as well. He owns a clothing company, co-hosts the “Soul on Ice” podcast, and has been actively helping younger hockey players of color who reach out to him on social media navigate a sport that is still mostly white.
“I don’t mind getting my feet wet in a couple of different things that aren’t typical for a hockey player,” he said. “Definitely, I want to impact as many lives and initiatives as I can.”
Yet just one day after Byfield’s landmark selection, the Hockey Diversity Alliance, a group co-founded by Kane and the former NHL player Akim Aliu in June to make the sport more socioeconomically inclusive and fight racism both within hockey and society, said it would work independently of the league.
There had been months of negotiations over funding and anti-racism initiatives, and the Minnesota Wild’s Matt Dumba, one of the most visible 20-something players of color, had delivered a pregame speech this summer about the need for hockey to play a more active role in the fight against racism.
“The HDA and everything we’re doing, it’s not about us,” Dumba, a member of the alliance, said in a telephone interview before the announcement. “We’re doing it for that next generation that are going home after games, facing tears, and having those hard conversations with their parents on why they don’t feel that they belong in hockey or what they’ve heard from opposing players or how they’re being treated by their own teammates solely because of the color of their skin.”
Still, Byfield and Thomas are on track to play in a league that suddenly has several and talented players of color in their 20s.
Mathieu Joseph, 23, just won a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Ethan Bear, also 23, played 71 games for the Edmonton Oilers in the 2019-20 season, while Anthony Duclair, 25, scored 23 goals for the Ottawa Senators. In 2018, the New York Rangers drafted K’Andre Miller, a defenseman with the U.S. National Development Program, in the first round.
During an exhibition game following the league’s return to play this summer, Bear, who is Indigenous, wore a jersey with his Cree characters on the nameplate.
“It will be an honor to wear this jersey tonight,” Bear told the Edmonton Oilers website before the game. “I feel like I will be wearing it for all those Indigenous players who came before me and those Indigenous kids dreaming of playing in the NHL.”
Since the NHL began tracking data on the racial makeup of the league in the 1989-90 season, the number of players from minority groups has hovered around 5 percent.
Moezine Hasham, the executive director and co-founder of Hockey 4 Youth, a grassroots development program based in Toronto that introduces new Canadians to the sport, said he was optimistic the sport will become more diverse. Hasham is also a member of the league’s recently formed Youth Inclusion Committee that aims to make hockey more accessible to underrepresented groups.
“This generation was inspired by the previous generation,” Hasham said. “More players of color are going to get drafted to the NHL and are going to change the culture of the game.”