By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - Despite staging a World Cup that features only six nations and two gimmicky teams, the National Hockey League insisted on Monday it is the most international of the Big Four North American professional sports.
With 25 percent of players in the NHL now coming from outside North America, commissioner Gary Bettman boasted that the league continues to lead the way when it comes to inclusion.
Yet Canada, United States, Russia, Sweden, Finland and Czech Republic are the only nations represented in the World Cup of Hockey being played in Toronto while the two other teams are hybrids, a concept developed to avoid unappealing routs.
Team Europe has been cobbled together with players from eight smaller hockey playing nations while Team North America features the best under-24 players from Canada and the United States.
"Historically, and we are about to celebrate our 100th anniversary, we have been and still are the most international of the North American sports leagues," said Bettman, speaking at the Hockey Sense Summit looking at social equality.
"Twenty-five percent of our players come from outside North America. When you look at the way our teams play, the way our sport emphasizes the best in sport, hard work, team work, diligence, professionalism - we are a true melting pot."
While NHL statistics do show that 25 percent of NHL rosters last season were made up of international players, the National Basketball Association (NBA) can argue that it is far more inclusive and diversified.
NHL teams were stocked with foreign talent from 17 countries while the NBA's opening night rosters included names from 37 nations and territories, although the 100 foreign players represented a smaller percentage overall at 22.4.
It has been 58 years since Willie O'Ree broke the NHL color barrier and while sport in general has made strides towards greater diversity in both the locker room and boardroom, the face of the NHL remains predominantly white.
The NFL has the Rooney rule that requires teams to interview minorities for all front office and head coaching positions. The NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball all have minority owners and head coaches.
Chinese-born Charles Wang, who has a stake in the New York Islanders, is the only minority listed as an NHL owner while the coaching fraternity has been even more exclusive with just three Europeans having served as head coaches, and none since Ivan Hlinka was sacked in 2001 after just one season.
With rosters for the upcoming season not yet set, the NHL said it estimates up to 32 African-Americans and as many as nine Asians could find their way onto team lineups.
"We just don't have the strength in numbers yet," former NHL netminder and broadcaster Kevin Weekes told Reuters. "You go to the league offices here and in New York you will see a lot of diversity.
"When I was on CBC Hockey Night in Canada, I was the first black hockey broadcaster in NHL history.
"It is all about continuing to grow, to evolve and having some discussions people don't want to have."
Due to the small number of minorities, the NHL has not yet had to deal with controversies that have grown out of Black Lives Matter protests whereby some NFL players refused to stand during the playing of the American national anthem and some of the NBA's biggest names have called for change.
"There is still a struggle, it is not going to end overnight," O'Ree told Reuters. "They feel they have the right to freedom of speech and some agree and some don't with them. They have to live with themselves.
"You're in the public eye, these players are doing what they feel is the right thing."
(Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)