As NHL makes gains in front-office diversity, can hockey keep up?

The National Hockey League had its "glass ceiling" moment when it came to front office hires in 2022.  

The league now has five women in assistant GM roles – and the first Black general manager in league history with Mike Grier leading the San Jose Sharks – as the NHL attempts to diversify its leadership ranks in a predominately white sport. 

Kate Madigan (New Jersey Devils), Meghan Hunter (Chicago Blackhawks) and Dr. Hayley Wickenheiser (Toronto Maple Leafs) were promoted internally this offseason, and the Vancouver Canucks hired Émilie Castonguay and Cammi Granato, a 1998 gold medalist and former scout with the Seattle Kraken, early in 2022.

"The game is evolving with the times," said Grier, who played 14 seasons in the NHL (1996-2011) before becoming a scout, assistant coach and most recently a hockey operations advisor for the New York Rangers in 2021. 

Madigan puts her own spin on the saying "the future is female."  

"The female is present," she told USA TODAY Sports. 

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The New Jersey Devils announced Kate Madigan's promotion to assistant general manager in July.

"You almost just feel it bubbling up," Hunter told USA TODAY Sports. "There are so many knowledgeable, educated females within the game that played it at a high level … it was just a matter of time before we were going to be promoted." 

With the exception of Granato and Castonguay, a former player agent, all held senior positions in their respective front offices. Wickenheiser noted that awareness of hierarchy matters in hockey. 

"I think the nature and tradition of hockey, it’s been a male-dominated sport," said Wickenheiser, a five-time Olympian for Canada.

Wickenheiser – the former Maple Leafs senior director of player development, graduated from the University of Calgary medical school in early 2020 – is also in a family medicine residency program in Toronto.

"But we know that in the rest of society, women play very important roles," she said. "I don’t see why it could be any different here in hockey."

Toronto Maple Leafs assistant general manager Hayley Wickenheiser, left, takes part in the first round of the NHL draft in July 7.

NHL senior executive director for social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs Kim Davis said sustaining the movement – without allowing decades of limited progress to pass – can be achieved through organization-backed initiatives such as a coaching fellowship held by the Arizona Coyotes.

"These were talents that were already in our ecosystem,” said Davis, who joined the NHL in December 2017. “What we are now operationalizing is the opportunity for people to have access and exposure in a way that allows them to be seen and known.” 

This progress has benefited women more than people of color, according to league demographics. Davis said in a June 2022 interview there are currently 54 active players who are Arab, Asian, Black, Latino or Indigenous, which would make up roughly 7% of the league. 

Skeptics also say it will have little impact on a culture that has been marred this summer by the revelation of past sexual misconduct allegations against Hockey Canada players and that organization's faulty leadership. 

The issue is that the league lacks little league-driven initiatives, said Jashvina Shah, who co-authored "Game Misconduct: Hockey's Culture and How To Fix It." Until the NHL codifies better practices, it will be left to individual organizations to improve diversity in key decision-making roles. Such practices exist in other leagues, like the NFL and the Rooney rule, which requires teams to interview people of color for various vacant coaching roles and front-office positions. 

"The Rooney Rule might suck, and it has its issues, but the idea is that it’s a concerted league effort," Shah told USA TODAY Sports. "It’s the league mandating this thing. In the NHL, it’s every man for themselves. If you want to hire a woman, great, but I’m not going to tell you to."

Teams like the Sharks are few and far between, Shah said. But that won't stop those who have taken the leap in this space from considering it a turning point. 

"I’m definitely going to try and give people opportunities to show what they can do in this league," Grier said.

Jim Rutherford, the Canucks' president of hockey operations and three-time Stanley Cup winner with the Carolina Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins, had been seeking a chance to diversify his front office for nearly a decade. When Vancouver cleaned house and hired Rutherford at the top of the department in December, that allowed him to make not one, but two, historic hires in Castonguay and Granato. 

"We follow not only the sport but we also follow what’s going on culture-wise," Rutherford told USA TODAY Sports. "And certainly, as women’s hockey has grown over the years and they’ve done a really good job with it, becoming bigger internationally now, you just see all these people that have put themselves in a position to grow in hockey.

"I’m even happier today than I was the day that I hired Émilie and Cammi because now I’ve worked with them for a number of months and recognized how good they are and how prepared they were for their positions." 

Davis said league data shows that club-run fellowship programs have a 28% more diverse participation rate compared to overall full-time employment in the league office and in the 32 clubs.

Next month, the NHL plans on releasing its first-ever diversity and inclusion impact report. The league will measure itself against that going forward.

Vancouver Canucks assistant general manager Cammi Granato during the second day of the 2022 NHL draft.

“The movement has been quicker in the last few years than the 10 years before that. The adaptation has been great,” Granato told reporters ahead of July's NHL draft.  

Davis subscribes to the idea that the most financially successful companies are ones in which the CEO has a "chief diversity officer" mindset. Leading from the front – as Rutherford did in Vancouver – will always be a catalyst for change, Davis said.  

"If my hiring and Jim making that very forward-thinking decision has opened doors for the rest of the league and women in this industry, then I commend him," Castonguay said before the draft. "I only accepted the job. He’s the one who offered it to me."

Even for someone like Madigan, who never played but is the daughter of former NHL scout and current Northeastern University athletics director Jim Madigan, doors are opening. Madigan reached out to Ray Shero, her father's former boss. 

“You know that there’s a coach and a GM and someone who does the salary cap, but not all the positions are in the media," Madigan said. "You don’t know what it takes to run a front office.”

Shero gave Madigan reading assignments and informed her of those various roles within an organization. He also let her know about the huge life change she'd experience after working at Deloitte for two years. 

Two months later, Shero offered Madigan a job in the newly created information and video department.

“I would have done anything to get inside the door,” Madigan said.

When Hunter was young, she made a list of three goals. One, earn a scholarship (check). Two, play in the Olympics (check). Three, play in the NHL – just like her uncles Dave (won three Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s), Dale (who played for 19 seasons and coached the Washington Capitals for one) and Mark (who played 12 seasons and won a Stanley Cup with the Calgary Flames). Needing to adjust the last benchmark, she gravitated toward coaching because she didn't see any women in hockey operations. 

Now Hunter can be that face for the next wave.

"It shows that females can get to this leadership level," Hunter said. 

She added: "People want to think outside the box and realize that women bring diverse opinions and deserve to be in these upper-management roles and bring a lot of value to the organization. Props to the NHL and all the various teams across the league that try to become more diverse, more opinions. Try to be the best team they can be, and gain the inside edge on everybody." 

Contributing: Associated Press

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.