By Chris Umpierre
ESTERO, Fla. – Brett Peterson stands out for the Florida Everblades for two reasons. First, he’s one of the team’s top defensemen, and second, he’s black — a rarity in hockey.
Peterson, whose team will play the Texas Wildcatters in Game 6 of the South Division Finals on Friday night at Germain Arena, is the only black on his club and one of just 12 in the 25-team ECHL.
Blacks make up just 2 percent of the league’s 575 players. Almost all of the ECHL’s athletes are white with 50 percent born in Canada, 49 percent born in the United States and the remainder born in Europe.
This season’s number of ECHL black athletes is considered progress for what has traditionally been a white sport. The NHL, for instance, had just 18 blacks play in the league from 1958-1991. Thanks to the NHL Diversity Program, the league has seen an increase in minorities. Seventeen blacks played in the NHL in 2004-05.
Other ethnicities such as Hispanics are only just beginning to reach the NHL. New Jersey Devils center Scott Gomez became the first Hispanic player to play in the NHL in 1999. There are only a handful of Hispanics in the league today.
“It’s been painfully slow,” ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna said about diversity in hockey. “We’d like to see it grow much faster.”
Hockey’s high costs and the lack of rinks in the inner city are often pointed to as reasons for the scarcity in black athletes, but it might also be a function of demographic makeup. Canada, where most hockey professionals are born, is about 2 percent black.
“The other unfortunate thing is that in the areas of our country where hockey is popular — Minnesota, Wisconsin and New England — the percentage of minorities in those cities is small,” McKenna said.
Peterson, who picked up the sport at age 3 in Northborough, Mass., and played at Boston College from 2000-04, said playing the white-dominated sport was challenging.
He almost always was the only black on teams throughout his childhood. Most of his black friends didn’t understand why he played hockey and not football or basketball.
“It’s very interesting because obviously you stand out right away (in hockey),” Peterson said. “It always forced me to try to be a little bit better because you don’t want to be the one who’s sticking out and is not good.
“But it’s been fun. I’m almost an innovator of the game, opening up doors for younger African-Americans who really want to play this great game.”
In the offseason, Peterson works with inner-city kids in Boston, trying to get them involved in hockey.
“I’d like to see more (blacks) in the game but I’m also realistic and understand how tough it is to convert people,” he said. “I wouldn’t say the low number is surprising. It’s 12 (ECHL) players now. Six years ago it was seven. We’re going in the right direction. Slowly.”
The ECHL had just eight blacks during the 2005-06 season, so there has been progress. But there’s room for more. Seventeen of the ECHL’s 25 teams don’t have a black athlete.
Wildcatters forward Leon Hayward, who played against Peterson in college when he was member of Northeastern University, is the lone black on his team. He also looks at himself as a role model.
“But I’m not looking at myself as a black hockey player,” Hayward said. “I think it’s important for me to pass it on and help people. But I’m not out there with a chip on my shoulder. I don’t go in here every night and say I have a race on my back. I just want to play the game.”
The NHL has created some new programs and initiatives to help increase the number of minorities in hockey.
The NHL Diversity Program , which was founded in 1995, has made the biggest impact. The program provides support and unique programming to nonprofit youth hockey organizations across North America. There are about 39 inner-city, volunteer organizations that receive support from the NHL.
“Hockey is a sport played by the middle to upper middle class,” Hayward said. “(The scarcity of blacks) is simply based on equipment costs. How many rinks are in the inner city? Not many. So these initiatives by the NHL are going to help.”
In November 2005, goalie Gerald Coleman became the first NHL Diversity Program player to suit up for an NHL regular-season game when he played for Tampa Bay against the New York Rangers.
The NHL also runs “Hockey is for Everyone” month in February. Clubs in the NHL, American Hockey League, ECHL, Central Hockey League and United Hockey League donate game tickets to local youth hockey programs during February.
“I think you’ll see more numbers because (hockey) is a welcoming community and now that the NHL has made it a priority you’re really going to see more things happen,” Peterson said. “It’s just exciting to be a part of something like this.”