NHL Players' Actions Represent a Seismic Shift

With players from other leagues sitting on the sidelines to protest racial injustice, hockey players were forced to have some difficult conversations. And now they want us to have them, too.
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It’s not as though we’re going to wake up Saturday morning and all the systemic racism and social injustice will vanish because a group of millionaire hockey players decided to take a couple of days off. And there’s a very good chance that at some point, a George Floyd/Jacob Blake/Breonna Taylor-like incident will dominate the headlines again. So if that’s your measuring stick for the success of the delayed action by NHL players, it’s already a dismal failure.

When someone would be late to join a media scrum, Hall of Fame coach Pat Quinn would talk about that person being, “a day late and a dollar short.” And you could say that about NHL and its players, that they followed the crowd, shamed into following their peers in other sports. But the fact that hockey players, even a day later, joined this fight in a meaningful way, is an enormous shift from even a couple of weeks ago. That those who play a rich sport that is dominated by white players would make the statement they are making is seismic. Forced into dialogue because of the bubble atmosphere they were in, opponents in the same series reached out and talked to one another. White players sought the counsel of their Black teammates and opponents. And they talked. And that’s where the success should be measured.

Even though we’re still in the midst of the playoffs, somehow it doesn’t seem right to talk about power plays and momentum and goaltending and coaching strategies today. Those who look to their favorite sport as an escape from real-world problems will not particularly like that. But this is why the players sat. For the two days we’re not watching and talking about hockey, we have an opportunity to have the same conversations with our friends and families that the players are having with each other.

When these playoffs started 28 days ago, the league invited Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba to speak about this issue. He gave an incredible speech, then knelt down for the national anthem, with goalie Malcolm Subban of the Chicago Blackhawks and defenseman Darnell Nurse of the Edmonton Oilers, both players of color, putting their hands on his shoulders. In another game, Ryan Reaves and Robin Lehner of the Vegas Golden Knights and Jason Dickinson and Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars all took a knee during the anthem. And that was about as far as hockey players were willing to go.

Four weeks later – four weeks later! – they took the kind of bold step and made the kind of statement that hockey players have been accused of avoiding for years. A culture that often thumbs its nose at others and takes pride in being an outlier saw the value in joining other sports and realizing that there are some things that are bigger than playing for the entertainment of others. Reaves talked about the fact that white players reached out to him and other Black players as his biggest takeaway. Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk talked eloquently about making the game more welcoming to minorities and people of color.

“Today, I think, unified us as a group to realize that any Black player in this league, any Black player who's a kid coming up playing hockey, can feel like they have a voice, can feel that the NHL and the sport itself is a safe place and a place,” Shattenkirk said. “Obviously in a predominately white sport they feel alienated, but they have the support of every single one of us. And that's what we’re striving to achieve here - inclusion and making sure everyone feels welcome in the sport of hockey.”

“We came to understand and have the opportunity to support our fellow Black players in this league and they weren’t comfortable playing,” said Anders Lee of the New York Islanders. “We were right behind them.”

My goodness, that’s huge for a sport that has demanded for too long that its athletes just shut up and play and stick to hockey. And while players in other sports made a statement on Wednesday by not playing, hockey was content to do just that for one day. That the confines of the bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton helped these conversations along and spurred them to action is the biggest takeaway here. For two days, NHL players were not content to stick to hockey. And they don’t want us to, either. So if you’re measuring success, you might want to start there.