Photo courtesy Dubuque Fighting Saints
*This story originally appeared in the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald*
Oliver David considers the Dubuque Fighting Saints’ locker room a unique cultural melting pot.
The Saints’ 25-man roster includes players from 12 different states, spanning California to New York, as well as two Canadian provinces and three European countries — Finland, Latvia and Sweden. The ownership group and staff mirror that diversity in background.
“We’re all basically from somewhere else, right? Not just our hockey team, but society in general,” said David, the Saints’ second-year head coach who grew up in the non-traditional hockey market of Los Angeles. “This team truly is a melting pot of players from different cultures, different ethnicities and different parts of the world who have come together as one with the goal of winning hockey games. Diversity in the way we play the game and the way we think is a big part of that equation.”
Fittingly, the Saints organization joined forces with United Way of Dubuque Area Tri-States and John Deere Dubuque Works to present the “Hockey for All” campaign during the month of February. The three groups patterned the initiative, the first of its kind by a United States Hockey League franchise, after the National Hockey League’s wildly successful “Hockey is for Everyone” program promoting diversity and inclusion.
The “Hockey for All” idea surfaced when the Saints’ front office convened for a summer brainstorming session on ways to take the organization’s already strong commitment to the community to another level.
Casey Weitz, the Saints’ director of business development, had recently attended a Rotary Club meeting where John Deere general manager Mark Dickson presented thoughts on the value of diversity and inclusion in one of the community’s leading employers.
“Everyone wants to work in an environment that’s inclusive,” Dickson said. “But we really need to be inclusive and we need diversity within our organization because we work with such a diverse set of constituents. More and more of our customers come from diverse backgrounds — such as women-owned companies and companies that are owned by people of color — and we have a global presence.
“When you work with such a diverse set of customers and such a diverse set of suppliers and you market your products globally, you have to present yourself that way. But, more importantly, you have to understand where they’re coming from and how they think. Being inclusive puts us in a position to be much more attractive to employees, customers and suppliers.”
Weitz began coming up with ideas to augment the long-standing relationship between John Deere and the United Way by adding a hockey element to it.
“We recognize the impact that organizations like John Deere and the United Way have on the community,” Weitz said. “Every year, we want to continue to pursue excellence, not only on the ice but more importantly off the ice. Our goal is to promote diversity and inclusion throughout the tri-state area. To partner with John Deere and the United Way allows us to spread the message of ‘Hockey for All’ to a larger number of people.”
Throughout the month, the Saints will wear special warm-up jerseys sponsored by John Deere and featuring pride colors that promote diversity and inclusion. They will also wear the jerseys and auction them off following the Feb. 22 “Hockey for All” game against Cedar Rapids at Mystique Community Ice Center. Proceeds from the auction, a 50/50 raffle that evening and sales of special “Hockey for All” pucks will benefit the local United Way.
Danielle Peterson, the president of United Way of Dubuque Area Tri-States, believes the new partnership will significantly increase visibility and awareness of her organization’s programs. “Hockey for All” also includes a significant social media presence.
“You couldn’t find two better brands in Dubuque than John Deere and the Fighting Saints, so we’re ecstatic to partner with both of them,” Peterson said. “Their partnership will help us share our message to a whole new segment of the community that perhaps isn’t exposed to United Way.
“John Deere has always been a wonderful supporter of United Way through donations, corporate support and volunteerism. And the Saints have done so many wonderful things in the community. ‘Hockey for All’ kind of ties everything together.”
The NHL already had a successful template in place. It also celebrates “Hockey is for Everyone” during the month of February in an attempt to erase all labels.
More than 120,000 boys and girls have participated in the “Hockey is for Everyone” youth program since it debuted 21 years ago. The NHL program encourages diversity and inclusion while promoting the values of dedication, perseverance and teamwork to teach kids positive life skills.
“The NHL has such a successful program when it comes to diversity and inclusion, and borrowing some of their ideas is a great thing,” Saints president Nick Shane said. “But we also wanted to make it specific to the Dubuque Fighting Saints, so we’ve added to it. We’re excited about the fact our players will be interacting with different segments of the community that we haven’t been as involved with in the past.
“‘Hockey for All’ is just a great message. It’s a way to bring everyone together, despite whatever differences we may have. It’s a uniting message and will help people learn more about others in their community.”
In addition to the special night and the funds raised for United Way, the Saints will pay visits to The Workshop in Galena, Ill., St. Mark Youth Enrichment and the Boys & Girls Club of Dubuque during the month.
“In the three years I’ve been in Dubuque, it’s very apparent that we do things differently here,” Saints defenseman Jacob Semik said. “The organization wants to develop more than just hockey players, which is awesome. Understanding that there are real-life events going on outside of our world is only going to help prepare us for college and life after hockey.
“When you come here, you know there’s a huge responsibility to give back to the community, which you really should do. Any little piece we can do to promote or raise awareness for causes like ‘Hockey for All,’ we’re happy to do it. And we’re glad to have an organization behind us that gives us the opportunity to do so.”
In the nine seasons since returning to the USHL, the Saints have embraced several key community initiatives, including the support of local veterans and cancer awareness. They have been active in character development within the schools, support the local youth hockey program and donate to various other charities with 50/50 drawings at every home game.
As of December, the team had raised in excess of $127,000 through its Military Appreciation Night and more than $555,000 for all local charities in nine seasons.
“Hockey for All” takes the local involvement to another, ground-breaking level.
“Dubuque has always been one of our anchor franchises,” USHL president and commissioner Tom Garrity said. “They’ve done so many great things in the community, and this is another example of how they lead our league in important initiatives. As we sit around collectively with our owners and discuss platforms, certain teams take it upon themselves to do what’s necessary to improve their communities, and Dubuque is one of them.
“‘Hockey for All’ is a fantastic initiative and something I’d definitely like all of our teams to take a look at and try to incorporate, because, obviously, we want to be a very inclusive, very family friendly league. I’m sure they’ll be getting a lot of phone calls from teams around the league, asking how they put everything together.”
The Saints have already received one somewhat surprising phone call since announcing the initiative. Shane said one fan in Sioux City ordered tickets for the Feb. 22 game and inquired about the bidding process for a jersey.
As David and the Saints organization believe, there’s always room to expand their melting pot.
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 17th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2018-19. The USHL had a record 45 players selected at the 2018 NHL Draft, more than any junior league in the world, and more than 400 players on team rosters last season committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.