As someone who is of Mexican-American descent (first-born in the US on my father’s side), I often feel that my own ethnic background is overlooked. I’m no longer someone who is considered Latina, instead, I’m considered white. I’m scoffed at and told things like, “there’s no ice in Mexico,” as if the fact that being mixed race AND a hockey fan could ever coexist. It’s discouraging. I want to enjoy hockey as much as the next person, but small mindedness isn’t helping. The Panthers introducing Arley Londoño as a regularly-scheduled Latinx voice helps me feel more secure in identifying as a fan who comes from a Latinx background.
French broadcasts seem like second nature to fans of the Montreal Canadiens. There’s even a whole channel dedicated to broadcasting for French-speakers (TVA, for those who are interested). A Punjabi broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada is readily available in Canada. So, it would only make sense for the NHL to make a Spanish-language broadcast available to residents of the US and/or Canada, right? Spanish is only the second-most spoken language behind English in the US, why should it matter?
For many people, ice hockey is a difficult sport to learn, in and of itself. There are rules like icing and penalties and face-offs, but what happens when we bring a language barrier into the equation? We start to lose people.
Sure, it’s easy to say, “when the opposition shoots from behind the red line” or “he’s sitting out for two minutes because he held the puck in his hand.” But how does that translate to another language? Especially a language primarily spoken in countries that don’t have ice hockey readily accessible to them, given their clustered location around the equator.
Fortunately, hockey has a lot in common with a sport that is already popular amongst Latinx fans: soccer. Due to the ease of access to soccer, the sport has fans all over the world. NBCSN airs Premier League games, the United States Women’s National Team won during the World Cup, which was widely broadcast on Fox-affiliated networks. Both of those help soccer’s visibility to the general public. While hockey might have the Olympics and the upcoming World Cup of Hockey, and a contract with NBCSN, it is has been relatively inaccessible to a growing part of the US population, due partially to the fact that no one has attempted to breach the language barrier. Hockey has a couple of terms that are similar to soccer’s, such as offsides, wingers, scoring a hat trick, and goaltender. The universal term that everyone is going to recognize is “goal.” Not only does the word sound the same, but the art of the “celly” has been perfected in both sports.
Too often, we forget to talk about another barrier to entry for fans: the privilege barrier. Hockey is an expensive sport. Ice time isn’t always easy to come by, and when it is made available, it tends to be expensive. That’s why sports like soccer and basketball tend to thrive more than sports that require a high cost of participation like ice hockey and lacrosse. It’s easier to spend $20 on a ball every couple of months than it is to drop approximately $1,200 a year for hockey.
It’s almost unheard of to see a subsidized, state/municipal-funded youth hockey program, just because the cost of purchasing new equipment and facilities would be astronomically high. Something along these lines might be heard of in Canada, where most kids are on skates as soon as they’re walking. However, try and imagine a subsidized youth hockey program in a market like Florida, Arizona, or anywhere in the South where ice is more difficult to come by and the likelihood becomes even smaller. By the time kids participating in subsidized sports are old enough to play competitively, league fees jump exponentially in price and immediately those who were able to experience the sport of hockey are shut out, because their families are unable to afford it.
All of this adds up to why the deal between the Florida Panthers and ESPN Deportes is so important. Three games was a step in the right direction. Seven was an even bigger milestone last year, and how could we so soon forget the incredible Brandon Pirri goal call? Florida has an exciting, young, and competitive team.
A different culture accompanies hockey. One that assumes that one has many experiences with snow and the cold, or that they’ve been around the sport for most of their lives. There are characters that are widely recognized by fans, like Don Cherry and Doc Emrick.
The voice that Panthers fans will recognize from 20 years ago is Arley Londoño. From the 93-94 season until the 1996 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Panthers had a regularly-scheduled Spanish broadcast, anchored by Londoño. Now, there’s a new generation of people who will be able to listen to Londoño’s calls, providing another way for Latinx families to bond over the sport of hockey. That opens up opportunities for children and adults to become more involved with the sport and participate, which is important for the NHL, since their goal has been to “grow the game.” Londoño’s broadcasts is a step towards the Latinx community feeling more represented in a very white-washed sport.
While there are only a couple of NHL players who are of Latinx descent, 2016’s potential first-overall draft pick, Auston Matthews, is Mexican-American. According to a Sportsnet article, Matthews’ mother is from Mexico, while his father is from California. Matthew Nieto shares a similar ethnic background to Auston Matthews. The important and potentially influential narrative of people of color, specifically those of Latinx descent, succeeding in the NHL is often put on the back burner, especially when the person is of mixed race. It’s overruled by “growing up in a non-traditional market” like the West Coast or Arizona.
The Spanish broadcast is one way to forge a connection between a team and its fans. Another would be to create Spanish-language content online to accompany the broadcast. Rules of the game, player bios, news about other teams, and information about prospects are just a few areas teams could start generating bilingual material. This partnership is significant to me, as it brings in more people who are like myself, similar in heritage. It helps me feel more comfortable identifying myself as Latinx, and contributes to feeling more comfortable in my own skin, as I have struggled with racial identity issues my entire life. The broadcast also literally gives a voice to those of Latinx heritage, which helps us feel represented in world of hockey. It’s no longer just lip service for Latinx fans, no more “we think this is best for our fans.”
This is our opportunity to be heard as a community, and as a Latinx fan base. Not only does the broadcast bring in new fans, but it will also bring new ideas about the game and how to grow it, which is what the NHL needs. I can only hope that this is just the beginning.