Carnegie Initiative continues to push hockey toward goal of full inclusion

Recent summit at Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto offered the hope of change many of us need to stay invested, encouraged and enthused about hockey.

Recent summit highlights positive changes in sports' culture

A woman holds a ring.
Bernice Carnegie, the daughter of Hockey Hall of Famer Herb Carnegie, is one of the founders of the Carnegie Initiative that promotes inclusion in hockey. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The Carnegie Initiative (CI), which seeks to make hockey more inclusive and diverse, was cofounded by Bryant McBride and Bernice Carnegie, daughter of Black hockey legend Herb Carnegie. It partners with academic institutions and grassroots organizations to offer programming and information on how anti-racism can be embedded into hockey.

This past weekend in Toronto, the second annual CI Summit featured a community skate at the Herb Carnegie Centennial Centre, blind hockey games and disability skills competitions. In attendance were eight trailblazer award winners with absolutely phenomenal accomplishments in the game. And there was a conference discussing topics largely centring on marginalized communities. Hockey historian and Nova Scotian legend Bob Dawson received the Lifetime Achievement Award. Dawson was the first Black player to play at St. Mary's University in Halifax. As a proud Nova Scotian, I very much knew who he was. 

I moderated a session about women in hockey, featuring a panel that included new Hockey Canada board member and Little Native Hockey League president Marian Jacko, Dr. Courtney Szto, an assistant professor at Queen's University and Canada's most brilliant hockey mind, Kendall Boyd-Taylor, a senior vice-president with the NHL's Seattle Kraken, and Zarmina and Hooria Nekzai, co-founders of Hockey Girls of Kabul. Although we come from different parts of the hockey ecosystem, our panel forged together our visions and commitment to making hockey available, accessible and appreciative of anyone who loves it. Yes, I took a selfie.

Six women sit on a stage.
Shireen Ahmed and her panellists. (Shireen Ahmed/CBC Sports)

There was a reception at the Hockey Hall of Fame on Friday night, a place I'd visited many times growing up. As a child I toured the historic Bank of Montreal building and took in the magnificent ceiling and monumental tributes to the best players of the game. I eagerly scanned for anything related to the Canadiens because I have a genetic predisposition to favour them thanks to my mom's unrelenting fandom.

 But I was never too young to recognize that although I loved this sport, there was no one in the building who looked like me. My classmates were not bothered because their own skin was mirrored in every inch of the museum. There was nary a woman honoured until 2010, when Cammi Granato and Angela James were inducted.

By that time, I had four kids and with their father decided they would not play hockey. Even in a bustling metropolis like Toronto, there were not enough teams with racialized players and even fewer who were coaches. Our kids played basketball and soccer where the diversity needle was further along. My hope was that they experience a community in whatever they played and contribute positively to team culture.

Although I was never a hockey mom and I stopped playing years ago, I never fully let go of the game. Arguably, the last few years have been an excruciatingly difficult time to be a hockey-loving, racialized woman in Canada. Layers of abuse, scandalous Hockey Canada board cover-ups, systems of racism and misogyny among other offences have been so deeply rooted in the culture rendering it unbearable. I found refuge in women's hockey and have followed with vigour and enthusiasm for years.

A helmeted hockey player on the bench.
Members of the Blind Hockey League (BHL) play in the inaugural game at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto on Jan 20. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

All the while politics hit hockey hard. Coaches said they would bench players who wanted to kneel in solidarity with NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Racial justice and inclusion seemed antithetical to men's hockey. 

I tried to break up with the Habs several times, but then they went on a run to the Stanley Cup final in 2021. My heart tightened with sadness and anger as the NHL I love practically ignored the death of George Floyd, and then moved forward awkwardly and inconsistently in the wake of other stories of violence against Blacks. Would Black and Brown players ever be respected and cared for?

Fast forward to this past weekend. My husband and I walked into the HHOF and I broke into a grin and made a beeline for the replica dressing room of the Canadiens. My husband patiently took dozens of photos of me.

As we entered the Great Hall, the same white faces on glass plaques beamed out at everyone. But unlike last time I was in it, the room was full of people wanting to make a change and they were of every hue imaginable. I was stunned and then elated to realize that in that space, I was not the only hijab-wearing woman, as I often am.

I noted all the people who were there not only to keep doing the work in their own sectors and spaces but who support each other — as a community does. It's no surprise it is racialized folks and their strong allies doing this work. But a place to share, to study, to do the research and to offer perspective from those who have often been sidelined is incredible.

A woman stands beside a hockey jersey.
Ahmed in the mockup of the Montreal Canadiens dressing room in the Hockey Hall of Fame. (Shireen Ahmed/CBC Sports)

At the summit, The Spirit Project was announced. It is an initiative to support Indigenous Hockey and is partnered with Toronto Metropolitan University under the supervision of Dr. Cheri Bradish and Dr. Richard Norman, who will study sustainable and inclusive models and "sets of futures" specifically for Indigenous hockey communities. 

Sydney Daniels is an Indigenous hockey player from Saskatchewan. She was on Zoom during The Spirit Project announcement and explained how she has witnessed Indigenous communities be "overlooked and underserved" by hockey despite so many kids having the potential; the opportunities were just not offered. Daniels captained the women's hockey team while attending Harvard University. Daniels was part of just one conversation that got loud this past weekend. 

It is the possibility of these types of initiatives, and the power of their success that makes me believe in the hockey that I love. I was speaking to a colleague and told him that standing beside a Jean Beliveau jersey made my heart explode. "These sports trade in hope," he told me. That struck me because of how true it is.

What connects many people to the great game is that sense of hope. Keeping that hope restored is crucial and part of what many of us need to stay invested, encouraged and enthused about hockey. Hope and justice should co-exist in hockey and I'm grateful I am there to witness and help that process if I can.

And yes, maybe also take a few photos with Béliveau's jersey. 

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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Shireen Ahmed

Senior Contributor

Shireen Ahmed is a multi-platform sports journalist, a TEDx speaker, mentor, and an award-winning sports activist who focuses on the intersections of racism and misogyny in sports. She is an industry expert on Muslim women in sports, and her academic research and contributions have been widely published. She is co-creator and co-host of the “Burn It All Down” feminist sports podcast team. In addition to being a seasoned investigative reporter, her commentary is featured by media outlets in Canada, the USA, Europe and Australia. She holds an MA in Media Production from Toronto Metropolitan University where she now teaches Sports Journalism and Sports Media. You can find Shireen tweeting or drinking coffee, or tweeting about drinking coffee. She lives with her four children and her cat.

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