Jan. 16, 2002 -- They may still be children but the National Hockey League wants to sign them up as players now, as part of a program called "Ice Hockey in Harlem."
Ice hockey has long been a predominantly white sport, even though Willie O'Ree broke the color barrier in 1958 when he briefly played for Boston Bruins.
It has taken a long time to get better integrated.
The diversity program is part of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's effort to broaden the game and attract new players and new fans. The league started "Ice Hockey in Harlem" in 1987 as one of its outreach programs.
Ice hockey is expensive. The equipment costs between $600 and $1,000, plus the cost of ice time — if you can find a rink. It's not basketball. So Bettman decided to help inner-city families and the league underwrites equipment and helps pay to launch new leagues around the world.
"My main job," says O'Ree, who has become the director of the NHL's Diversity Task Force, "is basically going out there and trying to encourage more boys and girls to get interested in playing hockey and just broaden the sport to boys and girls who haven't had the opportunity to play."
Jamal Mayers, whose father comes from Barbados, where there's not much ice, salutes O'Ree. "We're indebted to him as minority players in the game today. We're indebted to guys like Willie O'Ree who paved the way and made it possible."
There are now 29 players of color in the NHL, including the Calgary Flames' Jarome Iginla, the league's leading scorer. His father comes from Nigeria. Then there's Manny Malhotra, whose father comes from India, and who plays for the New York Rangers.
"You see more and more kids of ethnic backgrounds getting into the game," says Malhotra. "And I think over the next five years you'll see more and more players developing at the minor level and at the NHL level."
There's a good reason for the emphasis on diversity in the NHL besides it being the right thing to do. The sports business is hugely competitive while the television audience is fragmented. So pro hockey is using as many tools as possible to attract more fans to the game.
"What we're trying to do," says Bettman, "is afford children an opportunity to participate in a game that they would otherwise be barred from playing, not because of the color of their skin but because of the economic ability; they don't have the social structure to get involved."
Thanks to O'Ree and players like Iginla, Malhotra, the Edmonton Oilers' Anson Carter and Kevin Weekes of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the kids now have some role models to follow.