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Mark Fraser On Driving Change and Inclusion in the NHL

Mark Fraser used to lace his skates and hit the ice for the Toronto Maple Leafs, looking to make a positive impact. Now in his new role with the organization, he’s looking to change hockey culture.

Born and raised in the Ottawa area, Mark Fraser has 219 games of NHL experience on his resume. A 3rd round (84th overall) draft pick of the New Jersey Devils in the 2005 NHL draft, Mark spent time with the Devils, Leafs, and Edmonton Oilers. You can also add 132 games of experience playing overseas in Finland, Slovakia, and Germany, to his resume.

Mark continues to call Ottawa home, where he leads the Leafs in his player development role with the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion team. It’s a role he pitched to the team in 2020, and it’s become the first of its kind in the NHL. Mark is also working on a documentary that explores the experience of black hockey players in the NHL. He knows that real change takes uncomfortable conversations, and a look at the larger picture. It’s precisely here, at what he refers to as the intersection of social justice and hockey, that the former Leaf intends to make his impact.

We talked to Mark about growing up in Ottawa, his memories from his pro hockey career, and his journey to spearheading the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion role with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

 

Photography by Sean Sisk

 

What was it like growing up in Ottawa?

Growing up in Blackburn, my memories are of the community. It’s where a lot of my early friendships started. Playing street hockey, floor hockey, basement hockey, mini sticks, hockey video games… and trading hockey cards. It was so easy to run from park-to-park, basement-to-basement in our community. We had a bit of a longer leash and were allowed to be unsupervised at a young age because it was such a safe, protected neighbourhood. Growing up, it was all sports with my boys, friends, and older brother. We had a pretty good childhood in that neighbourhood.

What was it like playing Junior hockey for the Gloucester Rangers, your hometown team?

It was a lot of fun. I remember being an elementary school kid, going to the Junior A games and thinking it was like pro hockey. Initially, I was school-driven and wanted to go to the NCAA. So, before I committed to Kitchener in the OHL, it was a no-brainer and so convenient. I went to Gloucester High School, so being able to literally walk across the parking lot after class to go practice, was great. I still have a lot of love for that Earl Armstrong arena today.

In 2005, you were drafted by the Devils in the 3rd round, but also played for the Leafs. What was it like being from Ottawa but playing for Toronto?

It was awesome. I was a little bit of a Blackhawks fan growing up, but the Leafs and Doug Gilmour were my favorite team and player. That was probably influenced by my older brother. I played in the era with the Leafs where we won a lot of games. That’s always nice, being on the winning side of the battle of Ontario. It’s just so special. Getting a chance to play in the NHL for a franchise like the Leafs, and then being able to come back home, and have your family and friends watch the rivalry. It was a lot of fun. All the games were very memorable.

After playing in the NHL, you played hockey in Europe. What are some differences between the two? How much of an adjustment was it for you?

There were a few moments where it was a big adjustment. Going to Finland, it was hard adjusting to the darkness and the lack of sunlight. Finnish is a tough language to learn, but I was lucky I was in a big enough city in Turku where English was quite common. Going to Slovakia, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Culturally speaking, I felt estranged from life in Slovakia. Thankfully, playing in Germany was a bit better, but still a small town. There’s a lot of nuances that are very normal because you’re playing hockey elsewhere. You’re meeting new guys who are like you, and you’re coming away with these 20 new friendships everywhere you go. Life away from the rink was a lot different. As different as things can be in the game, you still have your safe spaces. Outside of that, things were more challenging. Culturally speaking, Slovakia and parts of Germany were tough for me to vibe with.

What has life after hockey been like? Was it a transition for you?

When I retired at the beginning of 2020, I had a backup plan ready to go. The transition was real. At the same time, I was very grateful for my career and I was ready to step away. The pandemic hitting solidified my decision. For a lot of hockey players and athletes alike, it’s hard to find that sense of purpose outside of hockey. I was very grateful I had a clothing line that I was starting to work on. There’s a documentary that I’ve been working on for a few years, to tell the story of the black hockey players’ experience. Having those things helped me find that sense of purpose. It was unexpected that I got back into hockey as quickly as I did with the Maple Leafs, which truly just came from the circumstances of 2020. I started working at the intersection of social justice and hockey, and found so much of my lived experience was coming out. It gave me a whole new sense of purpose and a whole new drive to try to create some change. I’m very fortunate that my transition wasn’t that long.

What’s it like seeing the NHL starting to take action about diversity in hockey?

It’s nice to see, this one was well overdue. To be quite frank, I would like to see a lot more. The fact that we are acknowledging certain experiences from certain equity-seeking groups is a start, but I think we’re still far behind. The NHL’s approach is still to be those of followers and not leaders themselves. I know that this change takes time, we’re talking about systemic change. I’m happy because it’s starting to bring awareness to a lot of stakeholders, people who weren’t aware of the experiences of people like me, in the game. I think there’s still a lot more that needs to be done.

Have you dealt with discrimination while you were playing? Was there a time that it affected you?

Two experiences come to mind. The first time I experienced discrimination was as a 14-year-old playing in Buckingham. I got a coincidental penalty, but then I was getting harassed by a couple of adults, hanging over the glass in the penalty box. They were yelling relentlessly, chirping, telling me to go back to the bush.

 

One of the more recent moments that stands out happened while I was playing in Slovakia. There was a moment when one of our captains, who knew I was probably a little bit down, started to chat with me. He admitted that before I signed partway through the year, the GM had asked their three captains how they would feel bringing in a black player and if it would have a negative impact on team morale or not. That just smacked me so hard in the face. I wasn’t even upset with the General Manager asking because I felt like maybe he understood the culture of Slovakia and was doing his due diligence. I’d be ignorant to say that all my downfalls in hockey were because of my skin colour, but naive to not think, has this happened before? What other potential job opportunities did I not get?

The irony of playing in Slovakia was I had the most NHL experience of anyone in the entire league, but my resume wasn’t enough to get me there. They still questioned if bringing a black player into their locker room would create a problem. Being a 30 something-year-old, former NHLer, and still having someone question your capability to contribute to their team positively because of skin colour, not skills or assets. It didn’t hurt me the way some racial epithets would; it hurt me to realize how handcuffed I may have been during my actual career.

Would the best way to affect change at the higher levels be to start with minor hockey and the grassroots levels?

Absolutely, I think it starts at the grassroots level. The important thing at the pro level is that that’s where representations are often the most seen. There need to be significant changes at the pro and NHL levels of representation. Visible, racialized, or marginalized people, whether it’s women or anyone from the LGBTQ plus community, persons with disabilities, also need to feel represented. So, it absolutely starts at the grassroots level, and educating our parents, coaches, and the youth themselves. In minor hockey, I know that racially penalized racial slurs are growing, let alone the non-penalized ones. Why nowadays, is that continuing to grow? It’s a huge onus on the grassroots level.

How have you enjoyed leading the Maple Leafs in your player development role in Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion?

It’s been great. Like anything, it’s not without its challenges, because what I’m also trying to address and change is a cultural pivot. Even within the Maple Leafs, we’re a huge entity in hockey and with that still comes systemic change that needs to happen. It’s challenging for sure, but I’m enjoying it. I think the best value and fulfillment I get from this position is just normalizing conversations inside the locker room. I’m already seeing the growth within our players and staff in a small amount of time. We’re creating a new awareness amongst ourselves, eliminating bias, and looking at things from a different perspective. A lot of these topics aren’t comfortable, people generally don’t want to speak up for fear of coming off as being insensitive or putting their foot in their mouth. I encourage everyone the same way that as athletes, we train to be better. Putting time in the gym occasionally sucks; it physically hurts. We have to lean into that discomfort, that anxiety, and that fear to be better. I’m now seeing the players reciprocate that, and my staff and colleagues reciprocate it. I’m having people come up to me, confiding in me with a question or something they read or heard, and wanting to know if it’s right or wrong. I’m seeing the willingness and courage of others to start speaking up on things. It has honestly been one of the most fulfilling parts of my role.

Kyle Dubas has been so big for Diversity and Inclusion in hockey. How have you enjoyed working with him? Does it make you proud working for an organization that wants to affect change?

Absolutely. There are two reasons why I ended up back with the Maple Leafs, and one of those is Kyle. When I initially reached out to him in July of 2020, I was trying to encourage and suggest they start looking for diversity/inclusion type roles in their company. I was pleasantly surprised that Kyle did not need an education in this space. He was well aware of what was happening in our society and our game. He’s incredibly passionate about diversity, inclusion, and providing equitable opportunities in our game. Fostering an inclusive environment is somewhat of a foreign concept in hockey. So I was honoured that I got the time to connect with the Leafs and shoot my shot, but at the same time, they received it so well they brought me back into the fold. I think it speaks significantly to Kyle Dubas and the type of person he is. He’s the first general manager in hockey who has created a position like this.

You brought up earlier that you started a clothing line, Blackburn by Shug. Where did that idea come from?

It came from being a proud Blackburn kid. I started just messing around, making some logos, repping Blackburn on a couple of t-shirts, and people started liking it. So, I thought maybe instead of making this for myself, let’s make it for the masses. It’s still relatively small but we’re starting to take on more corporate clients. We’ve just launched a small campaign heading into the holidays for the Blackburn Minor Hockey Association.

I’m a guy who’s never been defined as just a hockey player. Music, film, fashion, culture, these are all things that I’ve always had an interest in. When it came to creating a little bit of an urban line or fulfilling certain corporate orders, the plans were for me to do something that can represent the community, but at the same time, give it back and pay a little bit forward. Our company pledges that a portion of our proceeds from every sale goes back to community programming. We’re focusing on Blackburn minor hockey right now. We want to make sure that lower-income, different equity-seeking, or racialized families, who don’t have the same accessibility or perhaps can’t afford it, can still have the same opportunities that hockey gave me. It’s a fun, passionate project for me where I can generate some funds and help the future youth in my community have similar experiences to the game that I grew up loving.

Outside of hockey, what are just some of your interests? What do you like to do around Ottawa?

I have a seven-month-old puppy, Winnie the Whoodle, and she’s been taking up a lot of time. She’s fantastic, I love being a dog parent. Beyond that, my big interest is documentary films and music culture. I love all genres of music, other than country. I’m a huge hip-hop head, I love the storytelling you find in the lyrics. If I do have downtime, I go on Spotify and find an artist that I haven’t listened to in a while. Then I’ll go down a deep rabbit hole to discover a whole bunch of new music. That’s where I would say my next biggest passion lies, outside of hockey. I love spending hours upon hours getting lost in music. If I’m going for a walk, I want music in my ears. If I’m cruising, I want music in my ears. So, I’d say what I like to do outside of sports, is generally to spend a lot of time messing around and discovering new music.

@MarkFraser02

 

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