“There will always be a hill to climb”  — former NHLer Mark Fraser on diversity in hockey
People & Places

“There will always be a hill to climb” — former NHLer Mark Fraser on diversity in hockey

He has played professional hockey in Finland, Slovakia, and Germany, as well as in North America with the Edmonton Oilers, New Jersey Devils, and Toronto Maple Leafs. Now the Ottawa native is taking on a new role with the Leafs as an advocate for equity and diversity in the hockey world.

Former NHL player Mark Fraser was photographed at the newly remodeled Lois Kemp Arena in Blackburn Hamlet. Photo by Spencer Colby

Were you surprised by the offer from the Toronto Maple Leafs? How did it unfold?
I had requested to speak with the Leafs’ general manager, Kyle Dubas, back in July 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. I had encouraged them that this is a time when every NHL team should be looking to create a role in the equity, diversity, and inclusion space. Kyle was receptive to the idea and expressed a ton of knowledge with the issues surrounding racism in hockey and the disconnect our sport has to minority demographics. They hired a Senior VP for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) and created a new position, which I applied for and got. 

Why did you feel it was important to accept this position?
There’s a long list of reasons why this is a very important role not only for any corporate company but especially in professional hockey, given the large disconnect between our game and minority communities. With more and more players of colour coming forward to speak on their difficult experiences in the hockey world, this is an important role to help educate the hockey community. Having a former NHL player like myself in this position allows me to bring that unique perspective to the table while also creating relatability, trust, and a connection with our athletes and staff simply because I have the experience of being in this very locker room as a player.

You’ve played in professional hockey leagues in Europe and North America. What was discrimination like in Europe?
The things you experience as a Black hockey player anywhere you play are unconscious biases and micro-aggressions. That is unfortunately unavoidable due to the long historical culture in hockey of being a white-male-dominated sport. Being biracial, I would often have teammates say to me, “You play hockey, you’re not Black,” but when I’d do something that was normal to my culture, the same teammates would say, “Well that’s because you’re Black.” Well which one am I, guys? I have always been very proud of both sides of my family, but which one I represented would be determined by my teammates and how they viewed me. That was something that would always anger me, but I felt like I couldn’t speak out against it. I’ve had a coach in the NHL suggest, in front of the whole team, that if anyone has spent the night in jail it would have been me, the Black guy. Even before signing my contract in Slovakia, the general manager asked the team’s captains if signing a Black player would potentially have a negative effect on the team. I wouldn’t suggest that all coaches or managers would do that, but there were countless times I would have tolerated a comment without confrontation for fear of it hurting my opportunities to further my professional career.

Fraser was born and raised in Blackburn Hamlet and now raises money to support youth hockey in the area through his clothing line, Blackburn by Shug. Photo by Spencer Colby

What would or will success look like?
There are many different ways we can measure success in my role. What I would like to see is growth in education and advocacy for a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive workplace for our team and staff, to grow a stronger relationship with and enhance minority youth engagement in the game of hockey, and strive to create a more diverse fan base that will more accurately reflect the diversity in our cities and communities. It’s important to normalize these conversations, become more educated, and understand that we all have blind spots and biases.

Am I right to say that ideally, success would mean that your position would disappear?
No, because unfortunately this will never be a non-issue. There will always be a hill to climb with regard to growing diversity, equity, and inclusion in sports, especially hockey. Even if we can grow an incredibly diverse fan base and the most inclusive environment, there will always be a need to continue to educate ourselves on understanding the experiences, lack of opportunities, perspectives, and overall disconnection between hockey and different marginalized groups. Even with measured success, we should always be striving to be better.