New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Breaking the ice: The Asian players of NYU ice hockey

Three NYU ice hockey players shared their experiences as players of Asian descent in a predominantly white sport.
Krish Dev
Senior Tommy He. (Krish Dev for WSN)

Ice hockey is, and has always been, a white-dominated sport. Though the National Hockey League does not keep official statistics on the racial and ethnic demographic of players, the lack of, and resistance to, diversity on the ice is clear. Almost all coaches and officials, as well as more than 90% of players, are white. 

NYU hockey’s roster is also primarily white, but the percentage of Asian players is still significant when compared to NCAA ice hockey as a whole — where less than 1% identify as Asian. For NYU, that number jumps to around 20%, according to players who spoke with WSN. 

While hockey can be exclusionary and unwelcoming to players of color, the NYU club may very well be an exception to the rule. In interviews with WSN, three members of NYU’s hockey team of Asian descent said they feel as welcomed to the team as any of their white teammates. 

First-year Leo Wang started playing hockey when he was just 5 years old in Beijing, having been surrounded solely by Asian teammates. However, when he moved to Oregon for middle school, he was only accompanied by one other Asian player.

Wang told WSN that hockey is not as popular in Asian culture compared to American culture, adding that many Asian students his age oftentimes focused more on school than other activities like sports.

Like Wang, senior Tommy He — also on the team — is from Beijing and started playing hockey when he was 5 years old. Growing up, He said he was discouraged from playing hockey after his teacher recommended that he step back from the sport to improve his grades and focus on securing a spot at a top high school.  

“My middle school teacher suggested that I not play ice hockey,” He said. “She said it was a waste of time.”

Despite his teacher’s warning, He persevered in both his academic and athletic life. In 2020, he was selected for the China U20 National Team and was admitted into NYU later that year.

He also highlighted the unpopularity of hockey in China when he was growing up, having been the only student in his primary school to play ice hockey. He explained that the lack of participation was also a result of inaccessibility to equipment.

“In China, ice hockey is kind of expensive to play,” He said. “There’s not a lot of rinks, so booking practice time is expensive.” 

Similar to the United States, ice hockey is characterized as an upper-class sport in China due to the expense of necessary equipment like protective gear, sticks and ice skates, which can cost around $2,000 annually.

According to He, the popularity and accessibility has increased in recent years. After securing a bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics, China made a concerted effort to produce a winning team. Between 2017 and 2018 alone, over 11,000 people began playing hockey in China. China also added 337 indoor rinks between 2015 and 2021. 

The Chinese government continually invested in the Kontinental Hockey League, a group of teams across Asia and Europe to increase the sport’s popularity. NHL legend Wayne Gretzky was part of the effort, stepping in as an ambassador for KHL team Kunlun Red Star and hosting youth training programs in Beijing and Shenzhen. 

Though sports like basketball and table tennis are still much more popular in China, and have been for decades, he is optimistic about the future of ice hockey. 

“It’s created a really great hockey community,” He said.

Kunal Gangwani, a first-year, grew up in Chicago, home to the NHL’s Blackhawks. He started playing hockey at 8 years old, wanting to follow in the footsteps of his older brother. Gangwani says that the lack of Asian representation in hockey neither discouraged nor motivated him — but it certainly didn’t go unnoticed.

“I’d see that there’s no Asian player in the league — especially not any stars that are getting any recognition,” Gangwani said. “I’d sit there and say, ‘That would be cool to make it there someday.’”

Arshdeep Bains made his NHL debut with the Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 20 and became the fourth Punjabi player in the league’s history. Since Larry Kwong broke the league’s color barrier in 1948, there have only been 31 players of Asian descent as of May 2023.

According to Gangwani, hockey is a sport typically picked up by people with family members who also play, which is part of the reason seeing Asian — especially South Asian — hockey players is uncommon. Gangwani also said that because most of South Asia has a warm climate, that makes maintaining ice rinks particularly difficult and expensive. 

Cricket is by far the most popular sport in India, where Gangwani’s parents immigrated from. Other sports like field hockey and badminton are much more popular and require less monetary investment to play. 

Representation in the NHL could pave the way for more South Asian players to pursue ice hockey. However, it will also require more welcoming environments for aspiring amateur athletes. “​​My experience here has been great,” Gangwani said. “Everyone here at NYU is super open, super receptive. The team is open arms to everybody.”

Contact Sydney Barragan at [email protected].

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About the Contributors
Sydney Barragan, Sports Editor
Sydney Barragan is a senior majoring in Journalism and Public Policy. She spends her free time reading, rewatching the same TV shows and talking about the Dodgers. Find her on Instagram @sydneybarragan.
Krish Dev, Multimedia Editor
Krish is a first-year planning to major in Computer Science and Linguistics at CAS. In his free time, he enjoys posting photos on @krish_dev.creations, obsessing over geography, watching new films with friends, taking public transport to new places and letting Arsenal make or break his week.

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