No, hockey isn't perfect - and it never will be on the ice - but those who play, coach, officiate, manage and spectate are making something happen - right here in Nashville - like we've never seen before.
"We all say hockey's for everyone, and it is, and it should be, but that's not always the case," Predators Amateur Hockey and Fan Development Manager Jennifer Boniecki said. "Whether that's a financial barrier, or maybe not feeling welcomed into the rink, we wanted to take a really specific approach to this, to reach out and say, 'Hey, we would like you to come to the rink, and we want everyone to feel welcome.' Hockey is just so unique and so different that people may have felt that they just couldn't do it. So, we just want to say this is for everyone. And we want to make it for everyone."
Ever since Bridgestone put their name on the home of the Nashville Predators at the corner of Fifth and Broadway in Music City, the bond between the two organizations has been virtually unbreakable. The Preds know they can count on Bridgestone, and so do their neighbors with their North American headquarters one block away from the arena.
Bridgestone's relationship with the NHL is steadfast too, and the company is always looking for that next idea to make the game better.
On Thursday, that announcement was made.
Bridgestone committed $200,000 to the National Hockey League Foundation in support of diversity and inclusion initiatives to create more access to the sport of hockey for children in two cities - Las Vegas and Nashville.
In Tennessee, $100,000 of that donation will benefit the Nashville Predators Foundation, and it has been allocated to fully fund the Nashville Predators Youth Hockey Diversity Program, an initiative that aims to significantly reduce the barrier of entry to the game of hockey for minority communities.
The program has also evolved from the team's GUIDER initiative. Established by the Preds, Bridgestone Arena and Ford Ice Centers, GUIDER, which stands for the following principles - Growth, Understanding, Inclusion, Diversity, Equality and Representation - was founded with the objective of diminishing the prevalence of social injustice.
The goal of GUIDER is to utilize the resources, relationships and reach of the Predators and its affiliated entities to bring awareness and implement change in the four areas that are at the core of their organizational existence - their staff, their fans, their sport and the Nashville community.
Not only will the Preds Youth Hockey Diversity program introduce hockey to players between the ages of 4 and 8 and support their development through various stages of instruction and league competition, but it will also do so at low or no cost. Structured to cover equipment, coaching and ice-time expenses, among other things, children of all backgrounds will now have the opportunity to learn and grow from the many benefits of hockey.
"Being involved in youth hockey and helping grow the game is something I'm passionate about, and since my first day in Nashville, I've been able to see how special the hockey community is here," Preds center Ryan Johansen, who is involved with the project, said. "With help from Bridgestone, the Preds Youth Hockey Diversity program will help us take what we've all built together over the last few years and make it even better and stronger. I want to commend the Predators and Bridgestone for their help and commitment to grow youth hockey in Middle Tennessee and make it more accessible than it's ever been."
That work will take place at the Ford Ice Centers in the Nashville suburbs of Antioch and Bellevue, with the intention of opening up the sport to all who have interest and eliminating the barriers that have kept such a large portion of the community off the ice in the past.
"We talked about how we help grow our fanbase and grow the sport of hockey, especially at the Ford Ice Centers, and while looking at our past programs, we realized as much as we were doing in the community, we still weren't very diverse," Boniecki said. "We were kind of just sticking with the same old hockey culture, and we wanted to open up the sport a little bit. We want to welcome kids of all backgrounds into hockey and give them their own community."
"Early on, when we had one of our first conversations about getting involved in different things, we talked about diversity, we talked about inclusiveness, we talked about changing our game, the face of our game in our offices and our stands and on the ice," Predators President & CEO Sean Henry said. "What we're doing is the right thing to do, but it also happens to be the smart thing to do. And we're going to grow as an organization, we're going to grow as a sport and we're growing our bonds with our biggest partner."
Video: Bridgestone helps fund youth hockey in Nashville
That partner hasn't hesitated to get involved in the past, and the same held true with this opportunity as well.
Bridgestone is no different than any other organization in America analyzing their own culture and how they handle inclusiveness in the workplace. For them, this involvement with the Preds not only funds the on-ice project, but it helps Bridgestone be even better within their four walls too.
"What the Predators are trying to do is very synonymous with what we're trying to do organizationally," Bridgestone Americas VP of Talent Management and Development Susie Long said. "We are on a diversity, equity and inclusion journey ourselves. When we heard about what the Predators were wanting to do with making sure that hockey is accessible to everyone, and really investing in that and making sure that our community is represented with our hockey teams…it's very similar to the journey that we're on as an organization… We have a deep passion for diversity, equity and inclusion, and we're trying to create a workplace that is exemplary of the communities that we support and the communities that we're in. So much of what the Predators are focused on is so in sync with what we're focused on as an organization, so it just made sense."
There is added pride in the project for Bridgestone with Nashville being their North American home, and to be involved in a sport - and a city - they're already passionate about, made the decision to help that much easier as they look to be a driver for social change in the community.
"We're most looking forward to helping our hometown team create more diverse and inclusive opportunities for new young Nashvillians to not only experience the sport, but be fully supported along their journey so they are more willing to stick with it," Bridgestone Americas President & CEO Paolo Ferrari said. "It's something we know the Predators have been passionate about for a long time, and we share their excitement. We believe this program will make a real difference for deserving children and families in this region, and we're honored to be a part of it."
And so is the NHL.
Under the guidance of Kim Davis, the NHL's Executive Vice President of Social Impact, Growth Initiatives & Legislative Affairs, and her team, the League and its 32 member clubs have made hockey more accessible than ever before.
A project like this doesn't happen without support from the League, and once again, the Predators are not only helping to champion the game alongside the NHL, they're doing so at a time when it matters most.
"The word I would use is intentionality," Davis said. "For many, many years, the NHL and the clubs have done a pretty good job of reaching out to the community in a broad way - a lot of times, we haven't talked about that work - but what I've seen over the past couple of years is much more intentionality about attracting and being focused on those growth demographics that are going to be so key to the future of our sport. Every market is different with regard to those demographics, but specifically as you look at this program in Nashville, we know that both the black community has a great history in Nashville, but the Hispanic community is growing rapidly. And so, an opportunity to be very, very focused on engaging those kids and those families, for those families to be able to own and love the sport of hockey and attend games, that's how we build future fandom, and I see more and more clubs being very laser focused on this notion of being intentional."
Ultimately, that work will come down to people like Boniecki who will be on the ice with the participants to help them take their first strides with skates and a stick. As a lifelong hockey player herself, it's work she doesn't take lightly. Because just like generations have done before her, and now after her too, she fell in love with an imperfect game that is, in fact, perfect to so many.
She wants to share that with anyone who wants to step on the ice, no matter what they look like or what street they live on.
Indeed, hockey should be for everyone, and that sentiment is inching closer to reality.
"We want these kids to fall in love with the game, become hockey players and stick with our programs and build their own community within the Ford Ice Center," Boniecki said. "My favorite part of my job is when I get to see kids take their very first steps on the ice. I see all of the emotions that a kid goes through when they try it for the first time - that nervousness, almost that fear of getting out there, and then the absolute joy once they pick it up and figure it out and not wanting to get off the ice ever, and that's a really special moment. I love the game so much that I want to give back to it and see that look on a kid's face where they fall in love with it just like I did."