NHL VP Kim Davis talks social policies, inclusivity

NHL executive vice president Kim Davis opened up about criticism, punitive action, and NHL’s social policies in an exclusive interview with Yahoo Sports Canada. (Getty Images)

Kim Davis is the executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs for the NHL. Davis and her department are responsible for making hockey a safer space for marginalized communities and enacting initiatives such as Hockey Is For Everyone.

I’ve been an outspoken critic of Davis, stemming from our first interview in 2019 about where the NHL failed in implementing an effective anti-racism strategy.

Davis and I spoke for 30 minutes at the Carnegie Initiative Summit on Saturday, hosted at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. We spoke about a number of issues regarding the league’s approach to anti-racism and sexism, along with the media’s role in facilitating these conversations.

Here is a lightly condensed version of our conversation.

When we spoke in 2019, you told me that you wanted to be judged on the progress your department made. In the four years since we last spoke, how would you assess the way the NHL has progressed on its diversity and inclusion initiatives?

Lots of dimensions, I would say at the highest level. Producing the league’s first-ever diversity, equity and inclusion impact report of October 2022 was a milestone for the league. Not just in terms of the transparency of information from demographics of the league and the clubs, but also the development of the seven-point framework that is really governing how we’re creating consistency across the league and all the clubs.

I think events like this point to the fact that we are beginning to normalize in the sport of hockey these conversations. I often say getting comfortable with uncomfortable conversations. And I think that the league has played a role in helping create an environment up and down the hockey spine, the ecosystem that brings us to a moment where we can all engage in a real productive way in these types of conversations.

What would you say to people who are critical of your leadership and your department, who say you’re not moving fast enough?

Well, I mean, are you ever moving fast enough when you are behind in any kind of changes? If you look at the history of those who have been on the front line of change, you have to be prepared for a certain level of criticism and you can’t let that be daunting. We’re all human — I’m not going to do everything that is going to be pleasing to everyone, I’m going to have mistakes and disagreements with people. But I think as long as we are collectively making progress and we are making people who have otherwise not felt comfortable in the sport of hockey, feel comfortable and start feeling well-heard and ushering in a new era, I’m OK with the criticism.

How does the NHL build policy initiatives that actualize these goals? With the Ivan Provorov incident, I’m sure you’re sick of talking about it. Would the league ever consider punitive action for those who don’t participate in these initiatives, or to incentivize participation in some way?

I don’t personally agree with that. I think you make far more progress in any kind of change effort by educating people and allowing them to come to a change process through their own desires. That’s my own personal belief system in change. I’ve seen it be more far effective than a punitive approach.

People have far more stake in things when they can bring themselves to it through their own volition. That’s not the approach I support in the change effort. That’s how I would be thinking of it.

What would you like to see from the media when covering the intersections of racism and sexism in hockey, what would you like to see from us in our coverage efforts?

I would say a more proactive approach to understanding the work that is going on behind the scenes that’s not the salacious or the sexy work, but to help readers and consumers to really understand holistically what goes into the change process. And then it helps people understand that it’s not as simple as turning on a switch or telling someone what to do. That might help you in the moment but this is a journey. And it’s a journey of change that you want people to believe in it and adapt it and adopt it.

So you can make people do anything, but is that sustainable? And guess how we know it’s not sustainable? Because we’ve been at this work for so many years and we haven’t liked it. So there’s something to be said about having conversations, getting people to humanize relationships. Looking someone in the eye and seeing the humanity of the relationship and then people getting comfortable with that. It’s very different to write about something and to make assumptions about what someone’s intent is versus sitting down and looking them in the eye and seeing the humanity of who they are.

I think that’s why these kind of settings are important. Regardless of how you might personally feel, how you grew up and what your belief system is about the LGBTQ+ community, when you listen to (Daniel Larson, Team Trans Ice Hockey Founder) it humanizes it for you. You can feel and touch and understand that is just someone who is trying to live and operate in the world and have everything that everyone else wants. We’ve gotten away from that and I think that’s what it’s going to take us to make that kind of change.

I think the media can be helpful. I’m not saying it’s just the media’s responsibility, it’s all of our responsibility but we all have to hold ourselves accountable to the truth and bringing the full truth to bear.

Shouldn’t journalists be encouraged to speak to the league then about these issues, rather than being presumptive about the league’s approach? How would you like us to approach our relationship with the league?

I think it takes a while to build trust-based relationships. There’s something about the way our systems are set up that creates this adversarial dynamic. But I do think if each side gives a little and we start having more authentic conversations. It’s not going to be the first time, it’s not going to be the second time but if you start believing that if I am being vulnerable to share like I am sharing with you right now, I have to trust and believe that you’ll represent my voice appropriately and not turn it into something — I’m not saying everyone’s going to like it but at least represent the intention of what it is I’m trying to communicate.

It seems from the outside looking in that certain teams are doing better than others at implementing anti-racism and inclusion initiatives. For example, the Seattle Kraken are well-represented here today and they’ve been widely lauded for truly and actually listening, actually learning, actually acting and implementing real strategy when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Do you think that teams like the Kraken’s strategy could be broadly replicated for all 32 teams, and do you think that teams that are doing it well should be instructive to teams that aren’t doing it well?

I think it’s fair to say that and the Kraken leadership says this all the time — in fact, they’ve said it when they first started and came into the league — it’s a lot easier to start with a clean piece of paper than to undo things that have been done over time. They’ve had the luxury, I would say, of being able to learn from the mistakes of others. And Tod (Leiweke) was incredible in reaching out. I spent a lot of time, I went up three times before the team even came online at his invitation, learning about what have been blind spots for others. They’ve been able to start and build from the ground up.

A lot of other teams had to re-tool, dismantle, reeducate. I want to show some grace for those teams that may not be as far along on the journey as the Kraken, and also tell you that there are very few teams, if any, that aren’t somewhere in the progress of change.

Every market is different. There’s not a one size fits all and if there’s anything I’ve learned in these five years I’ve been with the league is to respect the fact it’s that every market, every culture, every organization is different. One of the smartest things I did upon joining the NHL was that for the first 18 months, I just went around and visited all the teams and the markets. And I learned to do that from being the president of the JPMorgan Chase Foundation and really having responsibility globally, and understanding that the way we applied philanthropy in the United States was going to be very different than the way we did in the Middle East and Japan.

And going around to these markets helped me to understand indeed that there’s not one size fits all, and I had to help these teams take policies and processes that we could help develop but then, make it very customized in the local market. That takes time. It goes back to the journey, not an event. This movement, not a moment.

And yeah, people get frustrated by it. I share in that frustration! I’m not going to tell you that every day is an easy day. For me, there are sometimes decisions that we make that I don’t agree with. But being part of a team, sometimes you have to suck it up and keep moving forward. That’s what change is about, that’s how change works. It’s a movement, not a moment, that’s all I can tell you. You got to keep leaning in, you’ve got to be steadfast.

Do you feel that being in your position, you unfairly take the weight of what people perceive, or know to be real, about the failings of the NHL?

I’m very visible and that’s OK. People are going to look for the most visible person and that’s human nature. I’m not bothered or daunted by that. I’m not easily rattled, so it’s fine. But there are a lot of people in the organization, at the league level, my colleagues and senior executives across all the different businesses, who are committed to this, who are leaning in, who are integrating this work into the DNA of how our business operates, whether it’s on the broadcast side, on the game presentation side, on the social media side, on the legal side. It takes an integrated team effort across every dimension of our business — marketing, finance — in order for this to work.

I may be the person they see, but they need to understand that none of this happens if we don’t integrate this way of thinking into the DNA of how our business runs. Starting from the top with Gary (Bettman) and Bill (Daly), all the way down, this is happening. And believe me, I wouldn’t say this if this wasn’t true.

What do you think of the Hockey Diversity Alliance’s work, what do you think of other groups doing work in this space, and what would you want the league’s approach to be with these organizations?

We are not going to see eye-to-eye with every single organization and that’s OK. But what I will tell you and this is the conversation that I’ve had with members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance as recently as a couple of months ago with (Matt) Dumba in Minnesota and I said to him: don’t let the media or anyone else back you or me into a corner of making it sound like we are not aligned around our ultimate goal. And that goal is undeniable, and that is to ensure that kids that look like you and I feel comfortable, safe and welcomed in the sport. We may have different ways to get there but at the end of the day, that’s what we’re all in service of. And there will never be too many organizations trying to do that and he and I agreed to that. I’m OK with people with having different methods and ways of doing it, as long as we all remain clear about the ultimate goal and that is to leave the sport of hockey better than any of us found it when we started on our journey.

Last year at the inaugural Carnegie Initiative Summit, Gary Bettman said the NHL would donate $100,000 to a number of initiatives he didn’t specify at the time. Could you provide some clarification about how that works?

We provided the funding for the initial research grants. We’ve funded both the research projects in Canada and the U.S, and that’s the way we want to use our dollars. What we want these researchers to do is help us solve some of the issues in the sport of hockey that they can really drill into not just the league, but universally.

We provided the funding to Carnegie, and they used the funding to fund those projects. We specified when we provided that money to Carnegie, that’s the way we wanted the funds to be used.

Is there something that I haven’t asked you today, or that you’d like the public to know about the department or anything else?

I hope you will talk about what I shared. You’re never going to do everything to everyone’s liking. But what I can tell you about the work that’s underway is that it is a body of committed work from committed individuals, from people that may have their own views of what those individuals are from what they’ve seen in the media. Don’t always judge a book by its cover. Understand that in any kind of change effort, there’s always things that you never know. If we can try to humanize the characters, if you will, as part of this change effort, starting with the characters of the NHL by having deeper conversations and articles that reflect that, it will help.

It’s not going to help everybody, we’re never going to be perfect but it’s going to help people see that things are actually not as bad as they may appear.

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