CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia are right around the corner. And among the many sports that we'll be watching is ice hockey. Historically, the sport of ice hockey has been dominated by white athletes. But players of minority backgrounds are increasingly thriving on the ice, and fans of all kinds of ethnic and racial backgrounds are showing up to hockey arenas as fans. William Douglas has created a blog in which he writes about minorities in hockey. The blog is called "The Color of Hockey." Bill joins me here in Washington, D.C. Welcome to the program.
WILLIAM DOUGLAS: Thank you for having me.
HEADLEE: So you've been playing hockey for a very long time. How long have you been playing?
DOUGLAS: Since I was about 13, and I'm 55 now. So a good chunk of change.
HEADLEE: Long time.
DOUGLAS: Long time.
HEADLEE: And for most of that time - your time on the ice - you were one of, if not the only, person of color.
DOUGLAS: Usually the only or one of two or one of three. I played two years of Junior B hockey in Philadelphia and actually had a black teammate for one season. And then the rest of the time - a league that covered like four states - I was normally the only player of color.
HEADLEE: You must have the same experience of - one of my friends is a paraglider and he's African-American - you must have the same experience where people - his black friends all the time saying what are you doing - that's not a black sport?
DOUGLAS: Yes. It's interesting the responses that you get from within the black community - less so now than in the past - but it's sort of like, you know, why are you doing this? Or, you know, it's a white sport, why are you doing this?
DOUGLAS: And from white people it's more often than not, wow, that's really interesting.
HEADLEE: How'd you get into that?
DOUGLAS: Exactly, exactly. Or you go to the rink and people are very nice to you and they're watching you get dressed to make sure you put the equipment on properly.
HEADLEE: Oh, wow.
DOUGLAS: But, you know, it's less of that now.
HEADLEE: Well, so let's talk about how it's less of that. Why do you think now more people of color are getting interested in both watching and playing hockey?
DOUGLAS: Well, I think a couple things have happened. I think part of it is you have more minorities becoming more affluent and moving out the suburbs. And kids are getting interested in hockey because they're assimilating. They're taking up the sport with their friends.
HEADLEE: And it's offered at the schools, yeah.
DOUGLAS: Their friends are playing. They'll go hang out at the local rink with their friends. And they just want to be part of a crowd and they pick that up. The other thing that's happening is throughout the U.S. and Canada, you have more and more programs that are - that have been formed to cater or to help direct minority kids or urban youth into hockey. Here, you have the Fort Dupont program in Washington, in the Anacostia section. It's been in existence for 35 years. And its mission has been to get more kids of color into hockey. And you do this by alleviating the obstacles. The obstacles being expense.
HEADLEE: It's very expensive.
DOUGLAS: It is very, very expensive. It's very expensive for ice time. The equipment can cost anywhere from $300 to several thousand dollars to dress a kid for hockey.
HEADLEE: And don't forget all the travel. Many times when you're on a team, you're traveling long-distances.
DOUGLAS: Correct. So these programs help lift the burden of that cost. And you've got - in the U.S. you've got almost 32 of these programs, and several more in Canada.
HEADLEE: So what's the purpose of your blog? Is it just an outpouring of your passion for the sport? Or is there a deeper purpose?
DOUGLAS: Both actually. You know, I love hockey. I've talked people's ears off about it over the years. My friends and my family have been very patient. Thank you, I love you all. But also the fact that it sort of hit me in 2012 that when Joel Ward of the Washington Capitals scored - he scored an overtime goal in Game 7 of a Stanley Cup playoff match against the Boston Bruins - you know, it was a very important goal.
It was a pivotal moment. It knocked the Bruins out of the series. It let the Capitals advance. Almost seconds after he scored the goal, there were just deluges of really hateful tweets and e-mails from Bruins fans. Some of it was just really awful. It was bad enough that the Boston Bruins organization, Commissioner Gary Bettman of the National Hockey League had to put out a statement basically admonishing the fans.
HEADLEE: We should say Ward is African-American.
DOUGLAS: Correct. No, African-Canadian.
HEADLEE: That's correct.
DOUGLAS: That's the other thing about this - a lot of people sort of talk - well, there aren't African-Americans in hockey. There are a few African-Americans in hockey, most are Afro-Canadian. You have a few who are Afro-Swedish - from various parts of the world. So it's not just African-American.
HEADLEE: So let's talk about Sochi. You're headed - you're actually going to go to Sochi to cover the Olympics, correct?
DOUGLAS: Correct, for McClatchy Newspapers.
HEADLEE: All right, so for the hockey neophyte, what are we watching for?
DOUGLAS: It's an interesting tournament that's going to happen because there's a lot of pressure on Russia because they're the home team.
HEADLEE: Of course, and they've always had great players.
DOUGLAS: They've had great players but they haven't been able to really put it together the last couple of Olympics. You have to watch Canada. There's a lot of pressure on Canada. The Canadians are sort of in a state of mourning because they had a major junior world championship tournament in Malmo, Sweden that was played in late December - early January. And the Canadians failed to win a medal in that competition, which was very, very stressful for the Canadian psyche. So they're looking at the Olympics for redemption. There's pressure on the United States as well. The U.S. did very well in the Vancouver games in 2010. They finished with a silver medal. They came very, very close to winning a gold, and they would very much like to do that. There is also pressure on the U.S...
HEADLEE: We should mention, who won gold in 2010?
DOUGLAS: That would be Canada.
DOUGLAS: But there's also pressure on the U.S. and Canada because the Olympics are being held outside of North America. And they've never ever done well outside North America in international tournaments - largely because the ice surface is larger. So the U.S. and Canada have formed their Olympic teams, specifically, to address the issue of playing on a larger surface.
HEADLEE: I almost feel as though the U.S. Olympic hockey team will be better off when people forget the miracle on ice. It's almost as though nothing will ever be as good as the miracle on ice.
DOUGLAS: Well, that's a special moment. And that moment helped catapult U.S. hockey. So you can't really forget that moment because that moment made hockey a prime time entity in this country. That galvanized a country. It made people who maybe didn't look at the sport before look at it. So you can never forget that. The idea is to sort of get beyond it.
DOUGLAS: You know, recognize it, but also, you know, use that as a springboard. And they've done that. One of the things that USA hockey is pleased about for this Olympics and for 2010 - the selection process for them was very, very difficult. They have a talented pool of players in the National Hockey League. There have a very talented pool of players coming up through the college ranks, through major junior hockey. Maybe two, three or four Olympics ago, you know, they could just automatically pick the Olympic team because there were so few good American players that were talented enough to compete.
HEADLEE: Now they have a good problem.
DOUGLAS: Now they have a wonderful problem.
HEADLEE: All right, so we're going to be checking in with you as Sochi begins but any predictions? Is the U.S. going to medal this year?
DOUGLAS: Good question. I think they will medal, I'm not quite sure it will be a gold medal. I think there might be a surprise. You know, we're so focused on the U.S. and Canada and Russia...
DOUGLAS: But Finland and Sweden are very, very talented teams as well that could surprise. There's nothing that the Finns and the Swedes would like better than to win a gold medal on Russian soil. They have some history there...
HEADLEE: Good point.
DOUGLAS: ...That they would like to extract a little revenge on.
HEADLEE: I don't know what you're talking about.
DOUGLAS: So it's - the U.S. will likely medal, I'm not sure it will be gold.
HEADLEE: William Douglas, creator of the blog "The Color of Hockey." Thanks for joining us. We'll touch base with you again.
DOUGLAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.