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Mark Fraser played for the New Jersey Devils, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Edmonton Oilers, as well as teams in Europe. He retired from professional hockey in 2020. Now he’s back with the Leafs, but this time, not as a defenceman. His new position is Player Development Lead for Equity, Diversity & Inclusion.
It’s a role that sees him doing everything from facilitating staff training and education to celebrating Black excellence within the franchise with the Maple Leafs’ first official Black History Month game. For Fraser, ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’ aren’t just abstract terms. It wasn't long ago he was navigating racist comments and microaggressions by himself, often as the only BIPOC player in the locker room, he recalls.
“You kind of want to say something to somebody. But then you look around the locker room and you literally say to yourself, ‘well, who in here would actually ever understand what I'm talking about because there's not a single person who looks like me who would see where I'm coming from,” Fraser said on the Perspectives podcast.
Fraser knows that the changes needed to make the league more welcoming to BIPOC players takes work. But he’s optimistic because that work seems to no longer solely fall on their shoulders. When a racist incident occurs, white players and coaches are now asking what they can do.
“That amount of support means so much because it doesn't only send a powerful message of allyship to Black players or Black stakeholders and hockey, but it does a lot I believe to encourage our other white peers and colleagues to do the same,” said Fraser.
Stephen Meurice: A few episodes back we posed the question: “How can we make the changes that are needed to make the culture of hockey reflect the current realities of this country?” In that episode, 2-time Olympic gold medalist and hockey broadcaster, Cassie Campbell-Pascall gave us her take:
CCP: You know in the women’s game we accepted everybody. And I think that’s something that the men’s game can learn from.
The issue of diversity in hockey is a big one. And with February being Black History Month — we’re approaching it today from the perspective of another former player.
Mark Fraser played in the NHL for almost a decade. For the New Jersey Devils. The Toronto Maple Leafs. And The Edmonton Oilers. He retired in 2020. Now he’s back with The Leafs. This time, not as a Defenceman. His new position is Player Development lead for Equity, Diversity & Inclusion for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
We invited him on today to tell us about his role with the Leafs, the change he’s seen in the game. And the work that still needs to be done.
Let’s get started
Mark, thanks so much for being on the show....
MF: Thank you very much for having me, Stephen, pleasure to be here.
SM: It's not every day we get a former NHL player on the show. So, I have to take advantage of this. I know you're only a couple of seasons removed from being on the ice as a player. But what memory of your time in the NHL stands out for you the most. Looking back.
MF: That's a good question. It's hard to pick at times individual moments. I mean my time spent with the Maple Leafs, that entire sort of shortened season. The 12/13 lockout season was remarkable. I mean my first game for the Devils was actually in Ottawa, my hometown. So, I mean that was amazing. It was one of the most memorable things. My first fight was against a guy like Chris Simon, which some of you may remember, but one of the scarier guys played when I was a kid growing up. So, it wasn't my intention. You know, scoring my first goal against Marc-Andre Fleury. Those are things that are pretty cool moments. But more than anything, I think some of my most memorable moments is just the relationships, the camaraderie, like the things that actually happened off the ice meaning just kind of moments in the locker room or certain road trips or dinners or hotel hangs with the guys. So that type of bond and the connections that you have with guys away from the ice is something that I think it will always be one of my lasting memories
SM: Right, and now you're back with the Leafs in a different role will come back to that in a couple of minutes. You mentioned that you grew up in Ottawa, Ottawa is your hometown. You know, we'll get to the subject of sort of inclusion and so on in hockey and I think things have gotten better. But when you were coming up, did you experience challenges or difficulties as a person of colour playing? I'm guessing with mostly white kids?
MF: Yeah, I did. I think my first Like real racial encounter in hockey, I was about 14 or so years old and it was just, I was in the penalty box. I think maybe for coincidental minor penalty and had some adults, I don't know if their parents or not, but like hanging over the glass and yelling taunts and gestures at me. And that was one of I think the first experiences I really had was at the age where I still wasn't quite piecing together like what had happened. Other than adults yelling at me and saying things for some reason, it was more the reaction I saw from our parents and the parents of my team asking me like what was said, what was happening that made me realize the severity I guess of the issue.
And that was unfortunate because you're a teen, you have a lot of things to a certain extent. Not a lot of things, but some things understood, but definitely still very naive and immature and inexperienced in a lot of ways. And I would say that I thrived, like a lot of my best buddies are guys that played hockey with guys that I went to school or grew up playing hockey with. I mean that was very, I think consistent with a lot of youth in Canada who grew up playing hockey at a young age, you might acknowledge that others look different than you, but you don't really know what that means and you certainly don't think to look at anyone differently because of that. So, a lot of my best boys were all white guys. I definitely have diverse friends now, but that was the environment I kind of always grew up in. I mean I'm also biracial so I could just as easily go to a family event and outside of my siblings or my father, you know, my family is all gonna be white, so it was definitely an environment I was comfortable in, but it's funny and I'm sure we'll touch us a bit later — I realized later on in life and certainly as I turned pro and hockey became more of a job and everyday thing and I got further and further and deeply ingrained into the pro side of it. That's when I started to feel different by being a biracial Black guy in these spaces where when you're a kid, you don't really focus on it.
And I mean, my dad was driving me to most of the games. So like I didn't, I feel like an outsider in that sense, but at the pro level when things start to get a little bit more systemic, even at juniors to be honest, it's more of a conscious presence, like in your mind that every day you kind of walk into the arena, you're the only one who's going to look like you. So that was definitely easier when I was a kid because you certainly didn't think of it. And it wasn't like my life was identified as a hockey player when I was, you know, seven or 10 or 14. But as I was 18 years old and on, that was something that I had to accept and deal with and navigate a lot more.
SM: I don't want to dwell on this too long. I really want to get to what your role is now with the Leafs, but I do want to just stay with that for a second. I mean, there continue to be incidents that you hear about, you know, racial incidents in hockey, maybe more at minor league levels as opposed to the NHL. There was that incident not long ago in the East Coast Hockey League where a player was making racist gestures at Jordan Subban. That player was ultimately suspended indefinitely. How do you see the, the evolution of the efforts to tackle those things? Do you see it evolving? Is it getting better?
MF: That's a good question. The short answer is yes. And an example with the Jordan Subban incident that was recently following another one with another Black player just weeks prior. Having already kind of seen that one, that Jordan Subban one on social media, it was about a day or two later. I was just by myself in my living room, watching Hockey Night in Canada and it was Calgary/ Edmonton Oilers games. So being in the east coast is the later of the two on the west coast game and they talked about it in the intermission and I remember thinking back to when I was a kid watching these doubleheaders staying up late and thinking ‘I never would have seen this story kind of getting light when I was a child growing up. But now it is.’
So, in that sense, I think the fact that there's more of a spotlight being shone on these negative events when they do happen, I would say does point to the evolution of the game trying to change. Now the game, much like my environment growing up in Ottawa as a kid is very much, you know, white people. And there's still a lot that needs to be learned. There's still a lot that needs to be understood. There's still perspectives that just haven't been had by a large number of the hockey community because plain and simply these things don't happen towards them. They're not directed towards them in the same capacity that they are. And it's not bold to say every day for a Black hockey player, there may not be aggressive blatantly racial things, but certainly daily microaggressions is just normal existence for Black or by BIPOC players in hockey. So, I think the evolution is starting to get better. Yes. But there's still so much more to come. The thing that I guess is optimistic in this sense, people are trying to address it, people are trying to punish those who are responsible and those are the types of things that just never really existed. There is a little bit more protection being put in place now for Black hockey players, where I can’t honestly say that there's any protection ever before.
SM: Right. So in your new — well new, it's a year old — a year or so you've been in this role with the Maple Leafs can you describe what that role is and how did you end up in that space?
MF: Yeah, it's a very unique role and part of it is because it's never really existed before. So, my responsibilities are everywhere from creating an education and sort of awareness training for our players and for our team staff. For the whole organization, essentially. Beyond that, engaging with new equity seeking community partners in the grassroots hockey space in the GTA and then kind of everything in between. So the value that I bring is being a former player myself, actually having sat in that actual locker room and being able to now engage and share these messages with the players has created a bit of a normalizing of some of these topics that it's okay to be afraid to ask questions at times because of fear of, you know, putting your foot in your mouth or coming off insensitive or sounding ignorant or naive or rude. But the important thing is we can't just allow that anxiousness or nervousness that sets in be reason to not ask these questions because then their education never grows. Then our learning, growth or awareness, understanding other perspectives, curbing your own bias. Those things can't happen unless we're actually talking about this stuff.
I sat in that actual room and had things that have been said to me, whether it's from a fan or a media member or whomever. And you kind of want to like say something to somebody. But then you look around the locker room and you literally say to yourself, well, who in here would actually ever understand what I'm talking about because there's not a single person who looks like me who would see where I'm coming from. So, there's a lot of other lanes to what the job is beyond that. But more than anything is working with the entire Maple Leafs and MLSE organization to figure out, we need equity, diversity inclusion to be in the forefront of all of our minds. And just recently we've kind of been seeing some of the fruits of that labour come out again in response to the Jordan Subban incidents. It wasn't something that was even actually on my radar to respond to because as a Black hockey player, my bias was, this happens all the time to us. So, if I'm going to talk about it all the time, the message is going to be drowned out.
But it was our white leaders and John Tavares and Sheldon Keefe, Kyle Dubas, our general manager and head coach. Greg Moore and Ryan Hardy for the Toronto Marlies reaching out after those moments when Jordan and Boko happened saying ‘is there something we can do for our Black players? A way that we could show support to them in these moments?’ That was one of my most proud moments because it showed some of the work of what I've been doing in my role.
One thing I'm really excited about is this season, the Toronto Maple Leafs, we have our first official Black History Month game and from our pregame ceremony to integrating different Black alumni we've had and just taking the theme of celebrating Black excellence and I've been very proud of that.
And, and sorry, the last part of your question. It was just kind of how it came to be and it was really just everything — as you touched on, I retired in 2020. So it's been a couple of years now, everything that happened post George Floyd's murder and I just found myself at a very… it was a tough summer for me emotionally and just navigating where I fit in in society and hockey and how the racial divide, that incident with George Floyd had sparked and then continuing on when hockey and the rest of sports had shut down and they return to play in the bubble and it was the Maple Leafs players who decided to wear Black Lives Matter t-shirts and showing support and that single moment, that single gesture, it was so impactful and powerful to me because I had never, ever in my career and at that point I was 33 years old. So in about 30 some years of hockey, I never, I felt that support from my peers before. That was maybe a message. I didn't know I needed to hear before. But that small gesture of them wearing those t shirts with the three words on it spoke so powerfully to me that I reached out to Kyle Dubas requesting some time to chat and encouraging the team that this is a good time to look for, to consider diversity and inclusion type roles in hockey. I feel the Maple Leafs are a great organization to start it and I would love to be a part of that. And seven months later a job opportunity was created and I had a chance to apply and the rest was history.
SM: People use the word ‘allyship’ a lot these days. Without using that word, I think you kind of referred to that a few times in the course of that answer. I guess that's how it manifests itself in hockey.
MF: Absolutely. Just sparing us having to relive trauma. Talk about this topic again at exhaustion, having others who don't have the lived experience or don't look like us or really cannot actually admit, ‘I don't understand what it feels like, but I certainly can have your back and support and say, hey, I'll help you on this one. You don't have to.’ That amount of support means so much because it doesn't only send a powerful message of allyship to Black players or Black stakeholders and hockey, but it does a lot I believe to encourage our other white peers and colleagues to do the same. We've been speaking out on it for centuries and it hasn't really changed. So, we need that allyship and that support and, and those who have recently been showing up in moments with our club.
SM: It seems like changes are happening within organizations like the Maple Leafs, but also sort of more broadly within the community with programs, not to toot our own horns, but Scotiabank's Hockey for All program. What kind of role does that play or how does that make you feel that it's spreading more broadly within the community?
MF: Absolutely, no, you're totally right about that. To be frank, we can't have enough of the different types of support. It can't just be from NHL clubs, it can't just be from fans or different stakeholders. It needs to be from everyone, including partnerships and I do see Scotiabank as a leading partner in trying to foster some of this change and create inclusive spaces and create powerful messages of equitable opportunities and the importance to diversify and show that representation at all different levels. It all creates positive impact and change for our youth and for the culture of hockey.
SM: Okay, last question. You've been in the job with the Leafs for a year or so. What does success look like ultimately? What's your goal for this role?
MF: I think seeing more people who don't look like me, people who would be considered the majority in a lot of spaces, most certainly in the hockey community, being vocal. Because we're resilient and we'll do it regardless. But what success looks like for me is where we don't have to field all this on our own shoulders and we have a lot more support and the burden actually feels lifted because everyone else is a part of this fight now and it's not just our fight with support from some others. So that the few of us here in the minority don't have to constantly live through exhaustion and trauma and emotional roller coasters just to be a part of this great game.
SM: I think that's a great way of wrapping it up. Mark, I want to thank you very much for coming and joining us today. It was really great to talk to you.
MF: I really appreciate the time again, Stephen. Thanks for having me on.
SM: I've been speaking with Mark Fraser. Player Development Lead for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion for the Toronto Maple Leafs.