No Change? No Hockey. Why NHL Players Took a Stand Against Racism

It took longer to sink in than it did for NBA players. But NHLers realized they couldn't play games right now in good conscience, and they united in protest.
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The screen on the Zoom call was so full that it couldn’t even fit everyone.

It was already a powerful statement when NHL players from the Stanley Cup playoffs’ eight remaining teams decided Thursday not to play the next games of their series, leading the NHL to officially postpone play until Saturday. But seeing the numbers that turned out for the media availability really conveyed the message’s power. At the beginning of post-season bubble play, Matt Dumba protested racism without the publicly demonstrated support of teammates. It was a monumental moment when just three players – Robin Lehner, Jason Dickinson and Tyler Seguin – joined Ryan Reaves kneeling for the anthems earlier this month. But the image was different Thursday night.

Prominent players of color Ryan Reaves, Nazem Kadri and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare stood at the forefront, speaking into microphones, but they were not alone. Dozens and dozens stood with them, sending the message that they wouldn’t stand for the injustice done to Jacob Blake, shot seven times Sunday by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and that Black Lives Matter.

“If you look around this room, there’s a lot of white athletes in here, and that’s the statement that’s being made right now,” Reaves said. “It’s great that the NBA did this, and the MLB and WNBA, but they have a lot of black players in those leagues. But for all these athletes in here, to take a stand and say, ‘You know what, we see the problem too, and we stand behind you’ – I go to war with these guys, and I hate their guts on the ice, but I couldn’t be more proud of these guys. The statement they’ve made today is something that’s going to last. These two days aren’t going to fix anything, but the conversation and the statement that’s been made is very powerful, especially coming from this league.”

The NBA led the way in the movement to set sports aside and bring attention to social justice Wednesday, starting with the Milwaukee Bucks’ boycott and eventually leading to the NBA postponing games. A handful of Major League Baseball teams walked off the field as well. The NHL was caught off guard Wednesday, with some teams in the middle of play when the news was breaking and other teams going ahead and playing a few hours later, unsure of what to do. The NHL limply honored Blake before the Lighting-Bruins game Thursday with a 33-second moment of reflection to “wish Jacob and his family well.”

The lack of a strong statement didn’t sit well with the players overnight. The Vegas Golden Knights’ Reaves said he couldn’t sleep. It weighed on the Tampa Bay Lightning players’ minds too, notably Kevin Shattenkirk, and he texted his former St. Louis teammate Reaves to see if they could put their heads together. The Vancouver Canucks reached out to Reaves and the Golden Knights, too, proposing a bond between current playoff opponents.

“We talked about it in the room this morning,” said Canucks captain Bo Horvat on the Western Conference Zoom call. “Obviously realizing the impact it’s having on the world and around the sports communities and seeing what was going on with basketball and the MLB, we talked about it as a group and wanted to go over and talk to Ryan and Vegas. We just all thought it was the best course of action. Everything that Ryan’s been saying, that we need to come together and this stuff can’t stand and that we need to educate ourselves and realize what’s going on the world, he’s hit the nail on the head that there needs to be change. And us being all together as one definitely shows strength in the hockey community as well as in the world.”

"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 that, obviously in a predominantly white sport they feel alienated, but they have the support of every single one of us,” Shattenkirk said on the Eastern Conference Zoom. “And that's what we're striving to achieve here – inclusion and making sure everyone feels welcome in the sport of hockey."

As is the case with the other pro sports, it was the players, not the league, leading the charge Thursday. That was evident when the San Jose Sharks' Evander Kane tweeted the Hockey Diversity Alliance’s formal request that the NHL suspend play. It was the players’ decision to walk away from games, and their coaches supported them.

“I stand behind our players,” said Canucks coach Travis Green. "You talk about racism, how it has to stop, injustice has to stop, there has to be change, and taking action obviously is a way to make change. And to see our players today try to make change makes you proud as a coach. I figured this morning that our players would be thinking about making change. It weighed on their minds. Personally I was thinking about it last night, what would happen this morning when I got to the rink, and I’m proud of our group.”

The league responded to the players’ actions. Per a statement issued Thursday evening:

“The NHL supports the players’ decision and will reschedule those four games beginning Saturday and adjust the remainder of the Second Round schedule accordingly.

“Black and Brown communities continue to face real, painful experiences. The NHL and NHLPA recognize that much work remains to be done before we can play an appropriate role in a discussion centered on diversity, inclusion and social justice.

“We understand that the tragedies involving Jacob Blake, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others require us to recognize this moment. We pledge to work to use our sport to influence positive change in society.”

Players speaking Thursday indicated the two-day break to raise awareness is just the beginning, hinting at further initiatives to come when they leave the bubble. For now, it’s a time to reflect on the change across the sporting world and think about what to do next to ensure the stories of people like Blake, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd don’t get swept aside and forgotten once sports resume play.

“We can use these next couple days to try and further educate ourselves for the betterment of society,” Kadri said. “It’s something that needed to be done, and I think hockey’s a team sport, a team game. Every single one of these guys are on the same page and stand with each other.”

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