Clinton Yates on being a black hockey fan

Mar 05, 2012

Join Washington Post Express local news editor Clinton Yates for a discussion on his experience as a black hockey fan in D.C.

Hey guys, I just want to thank everyone for reading the story to begin with. I've got a fair amount of positive feedback as well as some angry ones, so we'll get to all that today.

Clinton, thanks for your article. When I first saw the topic of black hockey fans, my first thought was 'of course there are black hockey fans. They are Canadian.' (We can debate whether that was racist of me.) But do you think that more diversity among hockey fans and players is more common and more accepted north of the border? I passed your article on to my sister who plays hockey a few times a week and is a season ticket holder to the Penguins.

You're welcome. I would say that as hockey is a bigger sport in Canada in general, by simple numbers, yes, you will have more fans of color than in the U.S. An obvious example happened just this year at the all-star game. Drake, a biracial recording artist performed during the game. He also got a signed stick from the Pens' Malkin, because apparently he's a big fan. Haven't seen anything like that from an artist of color at a hockey game here, at least from what I know.

Why is it that you blame the Caps and white folks for the lack of interest of black fans and black players? You recognize that whites enjoy NBA basketball even though in many cities the entire team may be black and in most games a majority of the game features 9 out of 10 players being black. The fact that blacks can't enjoy a sport because players don't share their skin color is a reflection (and a bad one) on the black community. It's a shame and it would be wonderful if it would change. That should have been the point of your article.

Well, the fact is that in no way am I placing blame on anyone. I stated what I thought would be a good thing to think about going forward. And no, I don't think that black American hockey fans not being hugely into hockey is a bad reflection on the black community. It's a fact of life, one that could change without anyone being 'to blame' as I see it.

When Tiger splashed on the scene some 15 years ago, I remember hearing how he was breaking down barriers for American minority golfers and athletes in general playing (for lack of a better term) "traditionally white sports." While the popularity of golf has grown because of Tiger, where is the diversity on the golf course? Am I wrong, did this not even remotely happen on a big time national level? Is this an economic issue, a social one, or both? If the next Great One were to be black, what kind of impact would that have on the popularity of hockey with older fans and potentially new hockey fans? - Moyer

I think that for the D.C. area specifically, this is a social one. And I can't really speak for what happens in hockey arenas nationwide. But the demographic makeup of the nation's capital and its environs would lead you to believe that there'd be a few more people of color in the stands. 

If the next Great One were a black player, I think it would have a major impact on the game's popularity with older fans. In fact, when Tiger first made his big push, from personal experience, I found that it was older black folks that took more pride in his heritage than anything.

Hello there...This was a great piece on Sunday. Really enjoyed it!! Thanks so much for focusing on an issue that is dear to my heart. Over the years, I have longed to attend DC hockey games, but I was "afraid" to do so. So many racial slurs have been hurled at the lone African American on the team that I shuttered to think what would happen to me as an African American woman sitting in the stands. I thought of trying to find a friend to attend with me, but just as you say, where can you find someone who is interested? I hope this article lets fans and the team know that we're out there..... I love the game and would love to be a part of the excitement too... You were great for doing this. I hope white fans realize that others love the sport too.. Go team!!

This is the overall point I was getting to. And thanks again for writing. Many people emailed me with this exact same sentiment. It's not about blaming white people or saying anyone's doing anything wrong.

It's about starting the conversation that it might be in the team's best interest to listen to what longtime fans have to say about things. There's nothing wrong with listening to your fan bases concerns about the gameday experience. No matter the reason.

Why does it matter if you are black, yellow, green, purple, or white and being a sports fan? This seems absurd.

The next time you see a green or purple person at a sporting event, please call 911. 

Great article Clinton. I'm a black woman who attended her first Caps game last year and loved it. Do you know if Ted Leonis and the organization have a vested interest in diversifying the fan base in the same way the 'Skins seems to have?

If I have no idea, but it would be interesting to find out. To be clear, this isn't something that I ever have been or ever will be angry about. I was simply pointing out something that I've thought about for years, and finally decided to put to paper. 

I don't think anyone's been maliciously omitting black people from marketing plans or anything of the sort. Overlooked? Possibly, but there's no harm in bringing it up.

I enjoyed your piece, but have to ask what you suggest the Caps do to reach out to minorities, specifically African Americans? You noted their ongoing efforts at Ft. Dupont. In addition they provide tickets to various groups in DC that work with disadvantaged children to bring them to games and get them interested. They've taken some steps to liven up the game day experience (and believe me, it's changed considerably over the years). What else can/should they be doing? I ask this seriously because I think all NHL teams need to tackle this question for hockey to grow beyond a niche sport.

I would suggest very plainly, putting more Capitals in places that young or old Black faces can see them. It's easy to say, 'well they advertise in mass media, it's not their fault people don't know who they are.' But I see D.C. United ads all over the city in specific neighborhoods. I've heard a Capitals ad on an 'urban' station in D.C., and so on.

As I said, I'm not a marketing genius, but if you can make such an obvious attempt to try to court women to games, why not try other people too?

By "we" I assume you mean you and Mike Wilbon? All kidding aside I can't understand how people of any race can like hockey - or as I call it Dull on Ice. I'd almost rather watch golf. Well, not quite, but almost.

Haha, fair enough. And Mike is from Chicago, where black Blackhawks fans are certainly prevalent. If you don't like hockey, you don't like it. I, nor the Capitals, will probably never be able to change that if you don't want it.

Discussions like this makes me a bit angry that race and being a sports fan is something that grabs media attention. This is the same crap that Limbaugh pulled to get his 5 minutes of center of media attention for free advertising or whatever. Hey, I grew up in the back country West Virginia and I'm a fan of jai lai. What?? A white back country hick who's a jai lai fan? Do they exists?

Not to be too blunt about this, but race will always be part of every discussion involving the people of this country as long as I'm alive. That doesn't mean it has to be angry or combattive, but we can discuss differences without name-calling or baiting, as I see it.

Are there so few black hockey fans because there are so few black hockey players? Or are there so few black hockey players because there are so few black hockey fans?

I don't really know how to answer this other than regardless of the reason, the numbers are low. 

If you had more players, you'd probably see more fans. I don't think kids are going to start playing hockey because they know black people are cheering for them. They're going to play because they like it. 

Clinton, Great article! Got a question though. In your article you stated the following: "At a Wizards game, you feel like you're at a party and everyone is welcome. Capitals games are more like partisan rallies" can you elaborate on what you mean? Whats so different? Thanks - Mike

What I meant here is that if you didn't otherwise understand hockey or really know the intricacies of what is an American sporting event, seeing a Caps game could be a very odd experience. Just like any game for any team anywhere.

My overall point there was that because of the level of talent on the team, expectations and type of fan, the entire environment is far more aggressive and pointed, something that might scare some people off as an experience. Some, like me, love it. But that's because I'm a Caps fan. 

Hi Clinton, What do you think about the idea of suggesting to Mr. Leonsis that he form a focus group of his diverse fan base to help him market the team. I becane a Caps fan in 1987 (I was 27 way back then) and have seen the crowd diversity increase somewhat but now it has started to trend back down. I loved your article and have received more than my share of glances, surprised stares and down right jaw drops when I attend games, talk about them at work, etc. Also, are you a season ticket holder (sorry if I missed that in the article)? And my son also posted your article link to facebook yesterday.

This is a flat out tremendous idea, IMO. The fact is that marketing towards a specific fan base isn't by default a racist overture. If it's a genuine good will move, it makes sense. Beyond that, it's smart business.

I love the idea of setting up a diversity team for marketing. This isn't affirmative action and after all we're only talking about professional sports, but this doesn't seem to be that difficult. There's absolutely no reason people should be gawked at because of the color of their skin when rooting for the home team. 

Hi Clinton, your article mentioned the expense of getting involved in hockey as a child. Do you have any suggestions as to how we can get more black children interested in this fascinating sport?

To be quite honest, my biggest love of hockey came not just through watching the game on television, but from playing video games. Hockey games, besides football games, were always MAJORLY popular amongst my group of friends and kids in my neighborhood.

I'm not saying that you should stick your kid in front of a PS3 or Xbox to get them to like hockey, but if playing the game isn't a feasible option and they're already getting enough exercise or playing other sports, give it a shot. Worked for me.

But in the end, more hockey leagues among youth is the best way to get kids to play. Also, the smartest.

This might sound like semantics, but I think you totally missed the point on the earler question. It is not assigning "blame" on anyone, but when your own words in your column are "It's even more difficult to embrace hockey when so few of the athletes are black," I think he or she was trying to convey, if a white person spoke about how difficult it was to be an NBA fan because there werent enough whites, he'd be called a racist. As for the folks who work at the Verizon food stands, I notice that 1) they work both NBA games as well as NHL, and 2) the supervisors seem to all be people of color. Kids see that and I think thats a good thing.

Well, to be fair. I don't think that making a statement like that is racist. I for one, wouldn't consider that to be racist. Not to mention, people have been saying that for years. The lack of white American basketball stars has been directly blamed for various issues with the NBA. Talking about race in a way that isn't positive doesn't equate to racism. At least not to me.

I liked your article, and personally, I don't see any blame in it. It's an opinion piece, a first-person account of your experiences and thoughts on the topic. It's thought-provoking and applies to fans of other racial backgrounds as well, I'm sure.

Thank you much.

Did you have to pick out a photo where no minorities can be seen in the background, or was it just as simple as taking a photo? Have you ever seen the SNL bit "Find the Black People at the Knicks Game" where they pan the crowd of a knicks game to spot any black people? At first it's funny, then it's pretty creepy. And this isn't even a so-called "white" sport.

I didn't take the photo, as I was the subject, but there is a funny story behind it. When we shot it (between periods 1 and 2) at the Isles game one guy, an older black gentleman in a full Wizards blue jumpsuit came up to me and just stared at me for a good 3 minutes. We finally shook hands without saying anything, and then he bumped into someone on his way off because he was still turned around looking. Was it because he'd never seen anything like it? Doubftul. Fun shoot, though.

Hi Clinton, Great article! Do you think being introduced to the sport as a child made it easier for you to become a life long fan without being aware of the racial divide?

I would say yes to this. But I wouldn't say I wasn't aware of the racial divide, I just didn't care. As an adult, you take more notice of these things and the potential missed opportunities.

Why aren't there more whites on the NAACP?

Good question. No idea.

I have been a caps seasonticket holder for years, have had seats in all 3 levels, so have attended literally- hundreds if not thousands-of games and i have yet to hear ONE racial slur EVER shouted at Gray, Brashear, or Mike grier. In fact they are/were fan favorites- I LOVED Mike grier, back in the bad old days (01-05) he was the hardest worker out there. Sorry, I call BS on the writer, and it is a shame you accept her word as fact. I recall years ago an Op-Ed piece written by a black woman who made racism claims at the Verizon Center (actually called MCI then) because they dared to ask for her ticket more than once. Heck Ive had my ticket checked 5-10 times a game, usually by someone new. I think that printing her letter and then agreeing, you lost a bit of crediibilty. Only my opinion of course.

So, are you saying that because of your specific anecdotal evidence that it is simply impossible that racism has ever occurred at a Capitals game? You do realize that two Caps players themselves have been suspended from the league on different occasions for their own racial slurs against opponents, right?

This may be off topic.. but I feel compelled to ask you (as a Liverpool fan) how awesome was Robert Van Persie's goal yesterday? Thanks!

Splendid. That guy is in top form and easily the best striker playing club ball in England right now. What a strike.

People keep suggesting that Mr. Leonsis do this or that to diversify the fan base. What he needs to do is win a Stanley Cup. Fans with hometown pride will jump on the bandwagon of an outstanding team. I'm black and I never followed hockey in my entire life until the Red Wings went on a tear in 1997 and won the cup. I've been keeping up with them ever since.

I'm just going to reprint this without comment. Well said.

I know this is a difficult question, but how can we increase the number of young African Americans participating in Ice Hockey? From personal experience, the African Americans that are playing PeeWee up through the Pro's tend to be some of the most furvent, smart hockey players out there. How can do we create a multiplier effect? Does there need to be a "black" Wayne Gretzky?

Maybe there does, but I got an email from someone the other day who pointed out that on the NHL Network, the number of announcers and analysts who are people of color has jumped dramatically. This is another thing that I think helps the situation as well. Sometimes it's not just players that can aid the multiplier effect. 

There's also a whole other theory held by many, including myself, which is that the NHL needs to eliminate helmets for the shootouts, to help better market its players. That has nothing to do with race. Just a sidenote.

I wanted to just tell you thanks for writing this article. I live in North Carolina and when the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup, I was still in Raleigh and went to a couple games. I wish I'd been able to attend the All Star game in Raleigh. I own a Stormy the Pig mascot doll. Anyway, I think we are in need of a Jeremy Lin moment, as well as encouraging and pulling down more barriers for black kids and any other kids who would play hockey if it were available and not as expensive before we really see a lot more players.

Thank you for the email, and I enjoy your enthusiasm. I think a Jeremy Lin type moment might work, but it's larger than that at this point for the Capitals. The Capitals once had 3 black guys on the team at the same time and nobody seems to remember that.

You stated that you, "feel like an ambassador for every other black fan when you watch games in public", can you describe for those of us who have never attended a game the overall atmosphere?

Basically, as a black person in public watching a hockey game, you have to make sure you know what you're talking about if you don't want to get a long, condescending speech from someone who thinks they know hockey better just by looking at your face.

You'd be stunned how many people don't know half of what they think they do, and assume that there's no way a black person would either. It can get downright offensive sometimes.

In response to the question entitled "Suggestions" you say "well said," but his/her entire point is that the Caps shouldn't be reaching out to any specific racial group (I wholeheartedly agree). How can you say "well said" when the entire thrust of your article is that the Caps should reach out more to the black community specifically!?

Because I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. Both can be done. Both can work.

I think those folks saying that race has no part of the discussion are missing a key point. Our society is just as non-post-racial as it is post-cultural or post-gendered. To the "country hick who's a jai lai fan," I would say that yes, you most likely would get more incredulous stares if socioeconomic status was as immediately visible as race is.


Clinton, Are you a season ticket holder? Rhonda

I am not. My job keeps me in the newsroom right up until the puck drops most nights, so the financial investment isn't there for me at this point. I do go as frequently as possible, though, I'd say. And have been for years.

There are some sports black people don't seem to play so much - golf, hockey, skateboarding, volleyball. Why is it? Is it because these are such awful sports?

I presume this is a joke, but sort of exactly the reason why I thought this entire topic is worth discussing. Look up a skateboarding label called 'Dirty Ghetto Kids' (not a joke) and you'll learn about an interesting crew of skaters and their following.

I thought your article was great, and I agree you didn't blame white fans (or anyone) for the low numbers of blacks who follow hockey. Yet you do cite the few players of color and the economics of youth hockey as reasons why there are so few fans of color. I would like you to address the question, given the enormous popularity of the NBA despite a dearth of white NBA superstars and the frenzied popularity of hockey among kids of all socioeconomic backgrounds in places like Boston, Pittsburgh, etc. Maybe something to do with historical geographical roots? (Look at the prevalence of Canadian, Scandinavian, Russian, Baltic dominance in the NHL.)

The fact is that the NHL has a lot of guys with names that are hard to pronounce and personal stories that guys don't understand. Beyond the NHL, the culture of hockey overall is just not the same in certain parts of this country. Be it pond hockey, playing juniors, minor league hockey games or what have you, a lot of people just don't know about it, regardless of race.

And basketball has a very different history. The invention of the entire game is credited to a white man. The recent trend of the NBA isn't the sole lens to look through when analyzing its popularity over the years.

I thought your article was great. I thought it was a smart man's musings and not assigning blame. One way to involve kids of any color in hockey is to step up community involvement in traditionally non-hockey neighborhoods. There may not be a zillion rinks around, but any tennis court, basketball court, paved surface can be used as a street hockey rink. Once the kids have fun running, passing, shooting, and scoring, they are more likely to want to try skating etc. Huge donations by the Ft. Dupont group have brought in a lot of kids, but small donations to buy sticks and pucks and goals for street hockey can help, too.


I want to call your attention to the Peanuts strip of Wednesday, November 6, 1974. You can find it in "The Complete Peanuts 1973 to 1974" from Fantagrapics Books, page 289. Peppermint Patty asks Franklin, "How many black players in the NHL, Franklin?" I have had this page bookmarked for some time now, and your article in yesterday's post must have been the reason! Gregory Kelly, Alexandria.


Clinton, I believe the root of the problem lies with the opportunity to identify/follow a player of color. As you mentioned in your article, there are very few black players in the NHL. One thing I have always noticed is that black players are rarely pointed out or mentioned, unless there is an occurrence of overt bigotry from a fan or opponent. News of intolerance won't do much to garner support from black sports fans. I believe the NHL could do a lot better in promoting racial/ethnic diversity in their sport, even if the numbers are small. The Caps have an opportunity now, as they did in the recent past with Mike Grier (one of my all time favorite Caps) and Brash. Why not showcase Ward on a huge banner hanging from the roof of the Verizon Center?

I tend to agree with this. I also wouldn't mind seeing Ward appear in more places with his face. Is that pandering? Maybe. But if it's with smart, correct intentions, I don't see the harm. You'd be stunned how many people I deal with regularly who say, 'wow, there's a black guy on the team?' It's wild.

Just wanted to make certain that Yates/the Post had seen coverage of the event on Capitol Hill last week announcing a partnership between the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and USA Hockey to provide scholarships to students at HBCUs. Great event showcasing the commitment of Ted Leonsis, Ed Snider, and other owners (as well as the tireless staff at Fort Dupont rink) to bringing the game to a wider demographic. NYT coverage here.

Sounds like a good cause to me.

I applaud your article and passion for hockey! I am biased in that I play hockey...but even then, I'm in the minority given that I'm female. Anyhow, enough about that. I have a feeling that education is one of those things that could aid in spreading the game in the black community. I encourage you and your fellow readers to pick up a copy of Black Ice. I'm kinda really grateful for the slap shot. Just sayin.

I'll definitely check it out. Sounds tremendous.

That's all I've got for this afternoon, kiddos. But thanks again for reading the story. Have a good one.

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Clinton Yates
Clinton Yates, a D.C. native, is the Local News Editor at Express and he writes Lunchline for The Washington Post. His Twitter bio describes him as a media enthusiast and proud American.
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