Matt Dumba knows the challenges of growing up brown in a predominantly white sport.
Dumba, 25, a Filipino defenseman for the Minnesota Wild of the NHL, said that he was usually the only person of color on his teams growing up in Calgary, Alberta, and that he often endured racism from other players.
“Little kids threw the bag at you when it came to racial slurs,” he told NBC Asian America.
Now, he is working to bring more diversity to the game.
Dumba and six current and former Black NHL players — Evander Kane, Akim Aliu, Wayne Simmonds, Trevor Daley, Joel Ward and Chris Stewart — this month announced the formation of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, or HDA, a group independent of the NHL that aims to make the game more inclusive at all levels through community and youth outreach.
“Our mission is to eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey,” the players wrote in a joint statement.
The announcement comes as the NHL reckons with accusations of racism.
Last year, Aliu, who is Nigerian Canadian, accused Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters of directing racial slurs at him when he played in the minor leagues a decade ago, and last month he wrote an essay in The Players’ Tribune about racist abuse and violence he experienced throughout his career. And New York Rangers prospect K’Andre Miller was subjected to racist slurs this year during a Zoom call with fans to celebrate his new contract.
More diverse representation in the sport is another focus of the HDA.
According to an analysis by The New York Times, the NHL has had only about 100 Black players in its century-plus-long history and even fewer players of Asian descent, according to Asian Americans in Hockey’s database, despite longstanding initiatives such as Hockey Is For Everyone, which aim to bring more people of color into the sport. By contrast, players of color make up 70 percent of the NFL and 81 percent of the NBA, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.
Dumba’s work on racial justice isn’t limited to the HDA. After the death of George Floyd in police custody, Dumba teamed up with the Minneapolis nonprofit Lake Street Council to raise money to rebuild areas damaged by this month’s uprisings and pledged to match up to $100,000 in donations.
NBC Asian America spoke with Dumba last week about his efforts and the challenges of growing up as a person of color in a predominantly white sport. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
NBC Asian America: How did it feel when the Hockey Diversity Alliance put out its first public statement?
Dumba: It felt good. To express that to the team, the original seven [members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance], they honestly embraced it. It gives us strength as a group, having a guy that can see from a little bit of a different perspective but has also gone through a lot of the same hardships that some of the Black members have in our group.
In saying that, we’d love to be a very inclusive group. We’ve added [Colorado Avalanche center] Nazem Kadri on board. He’s Lebanese. And also [Ottawa Senators left wing] Anthony Duclair. I’m sure we’re going to add to the list as it continues to grow.
I think being that dude in HDA is cool, branch out to a completely different demographic of people to grow our game. That’s how the boys looked at it, and that’s how I looked at it, as well. I’m really happy to be a part of it.
NBC Asian America: Why is it important now for hockey players to step out of their shells and speak out against racism and not just “shut up and dribble,” as Fox News host Laura Ingraham infamously told LeBron James?
Dumba: That’s a hard question. I believe that there’s kind of a subculture in hockey that you learn when you’re little. It’s trying to be part of a 20-man team. When you’re little, trying to be a part of that team, kids will go to any extent to fit in or be cool. I think a lot of stuff just starts there. That is where racism starts in our game, with the youth.
That’s one of our goals with the HDA — to eradicate racism. Teach our youth, start with grassroots hockey that accepting and diverse culture in our game.
You just kind of work up the ranks to the NHL level. It really is such a team-oriented sport. There needs to be a sense of that unity across the board. Yet, it’s looking at it from a little bit different perspective.
What makes that team is the group of individuals and their special strength when they do play as a team. But I think it’s just understanding that everyone sharing, everyone working together towards a common goal, doesn’t necessarily mean that you all have to share the same political views, listen to the same music, dress the same.
I think hockey is starting to come around where there’s a change in that. HDA is trying to promote that. That culture in hockey, we’re not trying to break away from it completely. Because it is a team sport, you’re only as good as your worst player. Having that unity as a group is huge. But away from the rink, what you do on your own time is your own time. There’s a lot of cool people in the game, and there are interesting individuals. I think hockey can try to put those individuals out there and show you how that cool our game can be.
NBC Asian America: Both you and [San Jose Sharks left wing] Evander Kane, when you talked about HDA a couple weeks ago, pointed out that change comes from the top and trickles down. But how do you convince the people at the top to change?
Dumba: To give it to you straight, I think the people at the top, those guys speak dollars, right? Imagine if you could get into the demographics of Asia, spreading the game to people who have never seen it before. But once they watch a game or go to a game and just feel the energy of it, they could possibly fall in love with the game. That’s how it starts for people to become fans of the game.
So reaching out to as many people as you possibly can and making the game as diverse as you possibly can, I think will only grow it.
I think that’s where we first start. It’s only the first couple of weeks that we’ve been in an alliance. There’s more to come, for sure. That is a good point. The system will have to change. But I’m as hopeful as ever.
NBC Asian America: What were some of the challenges that you faced growing up as a Filipino kid playing in a predominantly white sport?
Dumba: Up in Canada, people didn’t really know what I was. You have to have a conversation and break through my family history and ethnicity. Little kids threw the bag at you when it came to racial slurs and stuff to get at you. But I took offense to almost everything that was said to me just because of my family background, how many different races are involved in that. Just wanted to stand up for my family. That was a little bit tough. But you work through it. I’m grateful that my love of the game was so strong and I just kept battling through a lot of that.
NBC Asian America: How did those childhood experiences shape what you’re doing with HDA?
Dumba: Everything that’s happened in the last couple weeks and talking to HDA has brought up all those old experiences that, you know, I just tried to forget, I kind of buried.
So pretty powerful stuff that I’ve been working through. Then hearing the stories from the other guys in our group and what they had gone through, it just made so much sense for us to do this now. Not wait. That’s why I’m so happy that we did it and we’re out here now and fighting towards making a real change in our game.
NBC Asian America: Is there a particular racist incident that has happened to you or somebody else that has stuck with you over the years?
Dumba: I think the ones that stick with me are a little boy or girl who comes through the locker room after a game. I kind of know their story already, how they’ve been subject to racism while playing hockey. Seeing that they’re just almost defeated and demoralized. They don’t want to play. They don’t think hockey is the game for them anymore. That’s what really hurts me, a game that I love so much has something wrong at its core.
That needs to be changed, because I don’t want to see that. I think about how many great players, minority players, there could be if maybe they weren’t pushed away from the game at an early age like some of these kids are. That’s the sad part for me.
Kids can be really mean. That goes back to the subculture of fitting in that I talked about before. Some of these kids might not even be saying the things that they’re saying because they believe it. Maybe it’s just an act of being cool. I don’t want to crucify kids for saying something, but I do want them to learn and know what they’ve said and have consequences.
That’s what HDA is looking to do, trying to get policies in place with Hockey Canada and USA Hockey to regulate that.
NBC Asian America: Where have you seen this happen?
Dumba: I’ve seen it firsthand from a lot of kids in Minnesota. You try to bring them to a Wild game, encourage them to keep working through it. But it’s tough. It is. Words can hurt.
For a little kid who’s going through it, who doesn’t totally understand it, either, that can steer away completely. That’s the sad part for me.
Me personally, I was such a hockey fanatic and had such good friends who supported me, whoever said something about me, you’re going to have to pay for it on the ice. I was taking names and numbers.
When I was little like that, that’s how you have to go about handling business. I can remember talks on the bench with some of my friends, going up to my buddy and saying, Hey, this guy said this to me. You put a target on your back for saying something like that. And that’s not right, either. That’s just how it was.
NBC Asian America: I know you grew up as a big fan of Paul Kariya, who in 2017 became the first player of Asian descent to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Can you talk about what he meant to you?
Dumba: Paul Kariya was the first player that I knew. It was probably around ’98. I don’t know if he played on [Team Canada’s] Nagano team …
NBC Asian America: He was injured, he was supposed to…
Dumba: He was supposed to. That was one of my earliest memories of hockey.
My two other earliest memories are playing this flashcard game with my dad, and he would say the team’s location and I’d have to say the team’s name. So Toronto. Maple Leafs. Anaheim. The Mighty Ducks. Then it was Paul Kariya and this book called “[Hockey] Magician.” It was about 125 pages. I wish I still had it.
But it was just a book about Paul and what his family had faced, being of Japanese descent. The first couple chapters are about his family and how they were put into internment camps in Vancouver. It’s a crazy story. Then you follow his career, the numbers he was running at [the University of] Maine and the NHL.
I literally thought, up until I was 15 years old, that I was just going to Maine and play hockey there. Just like Paul.
Paul’s the original. He’s the man.
NBC Asian America: Why is it important for you to stand with other people of color at this time?
Dumba: With all the craziness going on right now, I think now more than ever, people need to look inside themselves and really think what can they do better? What can they do? Can they do more?
When I did that myself, seeing all the injustice, all this stuff that has been going on in the States and in Canada, as well, for so long, it’s just enough’s enough.
I can stand by some of my Black friends and Black family, just feel that strength of numbers and unity and everyone’s voice as one.
I think that’s what we need right now, everyone to come together and make a real change. On everything. People’s perspectives, systematic racism. … There’s a lot of problems that need to be addressed.
I hope people don’t just forget. Why, in this time right now, why we’re all coming together. Me being an athlete, that comes hand in hand, amplifying those voices and using that platform for real change and real good in our world.