For too long, Matt Dumba felt he was on his own dealing with racial taunts directed at him as a youngster growing up in Saskatchewan.
It was no different for Dumba as an adult, one of just a handful of minority players in the National Hockey League. Even in a circle of his fellow players, the Minnesota defenseman was alone in dropping to one knee on a global stage to silently protest systemic racism.
Some two years since that iconic moment as the league resumed the pandemic-delayed playoffs in Edmonton, Alberta, Dumba has gained some perspective to know he has, in fact, not been alone.
“I’m the first one to say our generation, everything with the phones, social media, it’s not an easy world to live in,” Dumba told The Associated Press during a recent interview before shifting his gaze to the past.
“But back then, segregation and just how people of color were treated, it really gives you a different perspective on things, and just how much they did for us to even be in a position where we can make our impact felt in the present,” he added. “It’s all of us as a collective, everyone pulling on this rope to better the game.”
Dumba is referring to not only his peers, including members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance he helped establish in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020. The 28-year-old player with a Filipino mother and white father is also referring to those who endured many of the same taunts and confronted intolerance since hockey’s earliest days.
He came to this realization while taking part in the filming of the 90-minute documentary titled “Black Ice,” which is set to be released Friday.
The movie ties the past to the present by first highlighting the inroads made and struggles encountered by members of the Nova Scotia-based Coloured Hockey League. Established in the late 1800s and lasting until the 1930s, the league is credited for introducing the slap shot and allowing goalies to leave their feet to make saves but was nearly forgotten until being featured in a book of the same name that was published in 2004.
As for the present, the film documents first-hand experiences in revealing just how marred by hate hockey remains in affecting current players, from the NHL to 16-year-old goalie Mark Connors, the son of mixed-raced parents who faced racial slurs while competing in a tournament in Prince Edward Island in February.
FILE - Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba (24) advances the puck during a game against the Vegas Golden Knights Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021, in Las Vegas. Two years since Matt Dumba took a knee to focus attention on society and the NHL's issues with racial intolerance, the Minnesota Wild defenseman no longer feels alone. (AP Photo/Eric Jamison, File)
For Dumba, the reality he and others have faced hit home when watching the late Herb Carnegie break down in tears during a television interview in response to Toronto Maple Leafs founder Conn Smythe reportedly saying he’d pay anyone $10,000 if they could turn Carnegie white in order to sign him.
“It’s not right,” Dumba said of Smythe, whose name is on the trophy awarded to each season’s playoff MVP. “People are seeing that. And people are also recognizing now that, really, in a different way, it’s still happening, which is the saddest part of all.”
The NHL is a sport wrangling with issues of diversity and inclusion, with Dumba among those saying the league has been slow to adapt and grow. After being turned down by the NHL for financing two years ago, he said, the HDA launched its own program this spring to bring hockey to under-served communities in Toronto, similar to what Skillz Hockey founder Kirk Brooks has done locally for the past 25 years.
”(The NHL) has been taking about diversity since ’93, but they don’t seem to know what to do with this,” Brooks says in the film.
Added Dumba: “It just goes back to everything that’s been done for a long, long time in the same fashion. You know, the old boys’ club and them dictating who is and who isn’t welcome. Yeah, I’m sick of it.”
Hockey as a whole has been slow to diversify, though there have been recent signs of progress.
Five years ago, Kim Davis, a Black woman, was hired by the NHL to serve as a senior VP, and she has since helped established the league’s executive inclusion council to focus on improving diversity.
The NHL is in the process of doing an internal race and gender report that is expected to be released soon. Richard Lapchick, director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is then expected to turn it into a report card as he’s done with other leagues.
Canadian national team forward Sarah Nurse doesn’t need a report card to identify how hockey needs to diversify.
“If we want to see a shift in hockey culture, if we want to see hockey grow, the NHL really needs to take diversity, anti-racism and inclusion very, very seriously,” said Nurse, who is Black and whose cousin, Darnell, is an NHL defenseman. “They need to be the leader.”
Too often, she’s watched friends turn their children to play soccer or basketball, rather than hockey.
Expense is a reason, Nurse said, but so is the lack of role models for children of color.
Nurse has emerged as one of those role models. This summer, the Olympic gold medalist posed alongside Anaheim Ducks forward Trevor Zegras in becoming the first woman to grace the cover of EA Sports NHL video game.
Dumba grew up idolizing Paul Kariya and Jarome Iginla, who are both of mixed-race descent. He recalled having dinner a few weeks ago with HDA colleague Nazem Kadri, a standout NHL forward and the son of Lebanese immigrants. A young boy of color walked by and stopped his parents to have pictures taken with the two.
“You can kind of get a little bit of a glimpse into the impact we’re actually making. That’s what makes it worth it,” Dumba added. “I do believe that’s why we’re all doing this. It’s for that next generation, so they feel that they do have a voice and feel like they’re not alone.”
Johnny Hockey moved East, though not as far as everyone thought. The champs out West couldn’t keep the entire band together. And two teams with lengthy playoff droughts made some moves hoping to change that.
Johnny Gaudreau joining Columbus headlined a busy offseason of player movement around the NHL. Darcy Kuemper left Colorado for Washington after backstopping the Avalanche to the Stanley Cup, and former teammate Nazem Kadri signed with Calgary, Gaudreau's former team.
Toronto is often called the center of the hockey universe, but this past summer it was Calgary being part of the biggest blockbuster trade: Matthew Tkachuk to Florida for Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar. Panthers division rivals Ottawa and Detroit also made substantial moves to take another step toward contending.
Despite the salary cap only going up $1 million, plenty of players changed places since the Avalanche dethroned Tampa Bay to win it all.
Gaudreau was the best free agent available, and signs pointed toward a return home to Philadelphia. But the Flyers couldn’t clear cap space to sign the South Jersey native, who chose to sign a $68.25 million, seven-year contract with the Blue Jackets.
“I thought it was a good spot for me, personally,” Gaudreau said. “I think we can have a lot of success here. It’s somewhere that I had circled on my list for a while now. It’s not only from what I’ve heard about the city and where you live, but they’ve got good players on this team, too, and I’m really looking forward to jumping in with this group.”
The Blue Jackets are still not favored to make the playoffs, but they’re closer than before with Gaudreau.
After the top eight and bottom eight in the Eastern Conference last season were separated by 16 points — the largest margin since the current format was introduced in 1993-94 — two teams on the outside of the playoff picture took major steps to try to change that.
The Red Wings, who have not made the playoffs the past six seasons, spent $61.5 million in free agency to add center Andrew Copp, wingers David Perron and Dominik Kubalik, and defenseman Ben Chiarot. They also acquired goaltender Ville Husso from St. Louis.
Ottawa, which has missed the playoffs seven of the past nine years, did not wait until free agency to add important pieces. The Senators acquired high-scoring winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and goalie Cam Talbot from Minnesota before signing longtime Philadelphia captain Claude Giroux.
After years of patience, excitement is building in Canada's captial.
“We wanted to do it the right way,” Senators general manager Pierre Dorion said. “We didn’t want to put Band-Aid solutions when we did this: try to sign free agents, make one trade and then one year you’re in, the other year you’re out. Doing it this way, we just feel like more for long-term success."
Colorado's biggest shakeup after winning the Cup was in net, acquiring Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers and paving the way for Kuemper to depart in free agency. The Avalanche signed Georgiev to a three-year contract and will pair him with Czech veteran Pavel Francouz.
“When he was a starter, he played really well, and he wanted a bigger opportunity and he’s got that opportunity,” president of hockey operations Joe Sakic said of Georgiev. “Frankie, he’s a great backup goaltender who can come in and play 30, 40 games. I think they’re going to be a great duo.”
The Avalanche kept much of their core together and also made a potentially valuable depth free agent signing by getting forward Evan Rodrigues for $2 million.
“I love the Rodrigues signing,” top forward Nathan MacKinnon said. “We get a 45-point guy for $2 million, it's crazy: 19 goals. I saw he shot like 7% last year and scored 19, so I think it’s hot. Who knows how many goals he’ll score?”
In addition to trading for Tkachuk, who adds some size and sandpaper, the reigning Presidents' Trophy winning-Panthers signed defenseman Marc Staal and brought brother Eric to training camp for a tryout. The brothers were on vacation together, with the deals coming together on the back nine at Pebble Beach.
“It was crazy,” said brother Jordal Staal, who's captain of the Carolina Hurricanes. “They’re both just super pumped. ... Really cool thing.”
While much of the core that won the Cup twice with Tampa Bay remains, the salary cap crunch forced some departures. Dependable defenseman Ryan McDonagh got traded to the Nashville Predators, and standout playoff scorer Ondrej Palat signed with the New Jersey Devils.
GM Julien BriseBois did some bargain shopping to sign winger Vladislav Namestnikov and veteran defenseman Ian Cole. He also thinks defenseman Philippe Myers — the return for McDonagh — has the chance to exceed expectations after a rough couple of seasons.
“We saw a lot of potential in him not that long ago,” BriseBois said. “He’s got a really good toolbox. Hopefully in a new environment we’re able to get the most out of him, and if we can do that we’re going to have a really good defenseman on our hands who’s only 25 years old.”
FILE - Minnesota Wild's Matt Dumba takes a knee during the national anthem flanked by Edmonton Oilers' Darnell Nurse, right, and Chicago Blackhawks' Malcolm Subban before an NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoff game in Edmonton, Alberta, Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020. Two years since Dumba took a knee to focus attention on society and the NHL's issues with racial intolerance, the Minnesota Wild defenseman no longer feels alone. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP, File)