The direction of our society has gone awry as the world faces an unprecedented list of issues that all hold immense and congruent importance. But sports has always been a way to impact social responsibility and change. Sometimes it starts off small but eventually it garners the national attention necessary. Beyond Sport is an organization focused on helping that change take place. They will host a one-day conference featuring leaders in social responsibility from various areas of the community and the world of sports in hopes of creating answers to some of society’s most pressing issues.
Jessica Berman is the NHL’s Vice President of Special Projects and Corporate Social Responsibility. She will take part in the Beyond Sport conference and is someone dedicated to making the world a better place through sports and more specifically hockey. The NHL might be the least “Americanized” of the four major sports and it might also be the most criticized for perceived diversity issues. We had an opportunity to speak with her ahead of the conference to get her perspective on her sport’s place in the social landscape. Berman was forthcoming about the NHL’s both real and perceived position when it comes to social responsibility.
Shaw Sports: In a nut shell what is your role with the NHL?
Jessica Berman: In my role I work on various initiatives to identify and enhance the social responsibility of the NHL from an internal and external standpoint. I oversee our equality pillar of social responsibility. So I work to strategize our engagement of the various individuals that we want to feel welcomed and how to use hockey as way of outreach to those various groups.
You were general counsel for the NHL before this, why did you take on the new role?
It’s an area that I’m super passionate about. Drawing on my relationship with the NHLPA, I felt like I was uniquely positioned to build on the great work that we’ve been doing over the last decade building the NHL’s commitment to diversity and to partner with the NHLPA on some initiatives. Also, given my background in employment law I have a specific and unique perspective as it relates to employee engagement, talent and things like that.
There are roles like yours across all of sports not just the major ones seen in America. How often do you get to collaborate with your counterparts in other leagues?
I feel like I have very good relationships with the other leagues. In the course of my career I have consistently drawn upon those relationships for the sharing of best practices. I will call over to the other leagues to brainstorm and to ask questions about things that they’ve done and to ask about their challenges so that we can find solutions together.
So you’ll have a chance to do just that at the Beyond Sport conference. What topics are you most excited to gain more knowledge about in terms of best practices and ideas that you can incorporate within the NHL?
I think particularly because this a new role for me just the opportunity to learn from the other leagues who have done such great work already. Learning from how they’ve grown, challenges they’ve overcome and really identify hurdles that maybe we can avoid as we grow in this space. Yes, these are people that I have relationships with and I can pick up the phone and call them but this is a unique forum where everybody is together. I am also looking forward to getting feedback from people attending the conference who all do great work in this space.
I know it will be hard to single out one but which social issue is the most pressing for the NHL or do you think is league’s greatest challenge currently?
From a social standpoint, which may not be unique to the NHL, it’s the daily challenge of making sure we stay really disciplined in our connection to our business, our plan and our game. We need to focus on the strengths that we have as a league while at the same time focusing on our challenges and coming up with programming that is both external and internal facing to proactively address those issues.
The NHL has a complex perception versus reality dynamic going on where the league isn’t seen as diverse. The league is technically very diverse with players from many cultures and countries. Still, the Hispanic and African-American populations are sparsely represented across the league. How do you effect change in that regard and get those populations more acutely involved?
I think there are a couple of things. Number one, it’s an area that I think we’ve continued to grow. Our champion of diversity that we’ve noted for the Beyond Sport conference is Willie O’Ree who was the first black player in the NHL in 1958. He is our diversity ambassador and he goes out and works with kids of diverse backgrounds. I do believe in the saying ‘You have to see it to believe it’ so I think he’s critical for that in terms of kids looking and saying ‘He did it, so I feel like I can do it’. There’s definitely no substitute for that kind of demonstrated presence. I think change like that takes a lot of time–generations. This is an area that we’ve been focused on for a while now. It takes that turnover of authenticity and growing and then I think it does pick up momentum as you gain a more critical mass.
If you look around the league today we have players that are currently relevant who are not what you would maybe think of when you refer to those challenges. Players like Joel Ward who performed so well in the Stanley Cup playoffs…but not only performing well on the ice but using his voice to talk about diversity. It’s not just through action but it’s also through words to create that environment that’s inclusive. Also players like P.K. Subban, they are there and they have been there. I think in today’s game, more than before maybe as a virtue of social media and other programs, players a more direct voice in the community but those players are using their voice to talk about their experience. Take a player like Seth Jones whose dad played in the NBA. He told his dad that he wanted play ice hockey. I won’t say that the league can take credit for those type of things but it shows that our sport is evolving and creating an environment where those youths can say ‘I’m a good athlete and hockey is a sport I can consider’.
I’ll also say that from a diversity standpoint organizations, like I said before, need to focus on their strengths as well as their challenges. I think that when you focus on your strengths you can build some momentum to address some of your challenges. So a place where I feel like we are uniquely a leader is in the international diversity space. Although you alluded to some challenges that certainly are there from a perception standpoint in terms of race that we obviously take seriously and are working to address–I think we are one of the most diverse sports when it comes to international inclusion. So from that perspective we can build on that.
I believe wholeheartedly that sensitivity, acceptance and inclusion are universal. So if you create an environment that is accepting for one type of person–although there might be unique challenges that exist in its application in other contexts– generally speaking…I think it creates an environment that’s welcoming. So the fact that we have teams that might have five, six, seven or eight different countries represented within their core performance of a team and doing well…I think sets the tone for us to really effectuate that change in the diversity space.
Can you tell me a little about the Hockey is for everyone program?
The program is still active and it does outreach in the community. Essentially it provides access to kids in communities that might not otherwise have access to hockey. Primarily socioeconomically challenged communities and many of those communities are those traditionally accepted notions of diversity from your earlier question. Willie is our ambassador for that program and we have many programs across the country.
So talking about the many programs across the world trying to spread the growth of the sport–when you see a place like Jamaica form a national hockey team or any place that is non-traditional in the roots of the sport–is that something that instills faith that the game can expand? What role does the NHL look to play in that? Is it something the league tries to capitalize on to keep the interest and momentum rising?
Absolutely and I will use this opportunity to talk about the most relevant thing that’s upcoming right now to that question which is the World Cup of Hockey. We’re hosting that event this upcoming September in the city of Toronto. As part of that we’ll be hosting a town hall discussion where we are going to be sharing best practices on hockey development internationally. So that’s an example of fusing our muscle power essentially to gather, share and disseminate all of those best practices to countries that aspire to be like the countries who are fortunate enough to have the robust programs to participate in the elite international tournament that we’re hosting in September. There are countries like Jamaica, Australia, India and so many others that are as you say non traditional but are looking to build their hockey programs. We are here as a resource for them. We do our best to facilitate communication and sharing of information between them and the more established and developed federations–like our strongest relationships with USA Hockey and Hockey Canada. We view that as something that is really important for the growth of our sport internationally.
Are you able to go any of those places and help in the development? I know you said many of them will be coming to the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto, but is there the ability to physically go on their home turf and ingratiate the game to those new populations?
Physically from a resources standpoint I can say that I certainly haven’t. But there are people here that have made specific trips internationally to share and disseminate that information to make that outreach letting those federations know that we care about them and want them to continue develop their roots in hockey. We are in conversations with organizations that provide resources to those developing hockey countries. So it’s something that we are definitely focused on as we kind of reengage with the World Cup which is really kind of our big entry point on the international scene with respect to these newer countries.
On the issue of gay or bisexual players the NHL hasn’t had a player come out yet. But how has the league been proactive in creating a welcoming atmosphere if that were to occur?
Well we were one of the first league’s to partner with You Can Play. They are an organization that focuses on LBGTQ inclusion through sport. All of the major sports organizations have partnered with them and they have really effectuated major change in the LBGTQ space. The roots of that organization are in hockey. It was founded by a universally beloved hockey family that had a son who was gay and that was a hockey player. Unfortunately, he died tragically in a car accident but the organization was formed as a vehicle to promote inclusion of gay athletes. That’s an organization that we at the league take pride in the work that we do with them. They do education with our players. It’s a three-way relationship because they are available to the league and the NHLPA. We consult with them on issues that they hear about and they ensure that we’re proactive to facilitate that environment.
I will say in terms of the entry of your question, and I think the commissioner has been quoted as saying this as well, we don’t really use the fact that we don’t have an openly gay player in our league as a barometer for our success in that space. It’s really a personal decision. For a player to kind of take that on they have to really want to from a personal standpoint and we wouldn’t want anyone to feel pressured to do that. I believe there was USA Today poll that reported that 95% of our players would have no problem accepting an openly gay player. I have no reason to think there’s any impediments to it that are systemic or cultural. In fact I think our players are the type of people who promote the values of teamwork, handwork and perseverance and they’d be accepting. I think that’s why the You Can Play mantra has resonated with our players.
How much do these programs get introduced to incoming players as part of their rookie transition to the league?
We use this as an opportunity to educate our players 100%. We have an annual rookie orientation program and You Can Play is educating our players there. We also do what we call festivity training which covers the gamut of all the inclusion messages to ensure the themes of mutual respect and understanding of everyone’s differences is what comes out.
What is the five-year plan so to speak when it comes to the NHL’s growth in social responsibility?
I think it’s really to continue to build on the momentum that we currently have. We’ve done such great work across the board with NHL Green and our sustainability work where we are kind of a leader there. We’ve touched on the diversity stuff. We have our Hockey Fights Cancer program which started back in the 90’s before social responsibility was…dare I say trendy. We just want to take all of the great work we’ve already done and just continue to build upon it.
Are there any ways that NHL fans can get involved with the league initiatives or maybe at the local level with teams in their respective cities?
All of our teams have fan outreach for this stuff. So throughout the year you will see things tied to our season calendar with different pushes of ways to get involved. We have Hockey Fights Cancer in October, our holiday drive, hospital visits and work that we do with equality heading into Black History Month in February. We also have our Green Week, which we do on a league-wide basis in March. Obviously it’s critical that our teams have the ability to customize their messages and activations based on their relationships in their communities with nonprofits. Our job at at the league is to provide that broad platform that teams can engage with. At the league level we’ll insert our direct engagement through the premiere events we do like the Outdoor Games, All-Star, World Cup and things that we have more direct control over.