Will the Death of George Floyd Mark a Time of Reckoning for the Hockey World?

NHL stars such as Braden Holtby have come out in increasing numbers expressing their condemnation for the killing of George Floyd and systemic racism against Blacks. It has galvanized the sport, probably like never before. But will it last?
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Reading Braden Holtby’s statement on racism Wednesday morning makes me wonder exactly what he’ll say once he finds the words. The Washington Capitals goalie and Stanley Cup champion prefaced his statement on social media Wednesday by saying, “I couldn’t find the words to say. And I still haven’t.” Then he went on to craft the most powerful statement on the George Floyd killing and racism than we’ve seen from any other NHL player or organization.

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On the same day that Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby joined a rapidly growing number of NHL players by making a statement through his charitable foundation, Holtby talked about the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which is not far from where he lives in Virginia, a bridge that spans the Potomac River into Prince George’s County in Maryland, a county that is more than 60% Black and is the wealthiest African-American majority county in the United States.

“And here a monstrous bridge stands, named after a racist president,” Holtby wrote. “A president who was an outspoken white supremacist. Who segregated federal workers based on race. The bridge sits there mocking every black person who has to travel across it while reading that name as a reminder of how much pain has been inflicted on their race. And yet, the society that has inflicted that pain seems proud of it. Proud enough to name a bridge in a white supremacists (sic) honor.”

Like we said, it’ll be interesting to hear what Holtby says when he comes up with the words.

These are indeed dark times, for a number of reasons. What is happening in America as a result of the George Floyd killing at the hands of police in Minneapolis is almost beyond comprehension. But something remarkable is also happening surrounding the issue of racism. There’s a video clip of George Floyd’s six-year-old daughter Giana where she says, “Daddy changed the world.” Perhaps he has. To be sure, his killing and its aftermath have opened the debate like never before. And like so many other people, the hockey world is making its voice heard. Loudly.

Some are vocal and passionate, such as Holtby’s. Others, such as P.K. Subban, are matching their words by making a $50,000 donation to the GoFundMe initiative for Giana Floyd, an amount that is being matched by the NHL. These are not empty gestures. And in the cases of Holtby and Subban, they’re not one-offs. We should not be surprised at Holtby’s passion. He’s the Capitals’ ambassador for both Hockey is for Everyone and You Can Play. He has marched in the DC Pride Parade with his wife, Brandi. He was one of three Capitals – joined by Devante Smith-Pelly and Brett Connolly – to turn down the invitation to join U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House to commemorate the Capitals’ Stanley Cup championship. And in 2018, he was the keynote speaker at the Human Rights Campaign’s annual national dinner, a group that raises money and awareness for LGBTQ issues.

Holtby acknowledges that he comes from a position of white privilege. “I know I will never truly know what it’s like to walk in a black man’s shoes. But I know I have arms, and ears, and a voice to walk beside and listen to every word of anguish and give my strength to every black man, woman or child until their shoes weight the same as mine…Keep fighting and I vow to demonstrate and educate what you are fighting for…Because America will never be great until all BLACK lives matter.”

Very powerful words indeed. So were the words of Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, who taped a recorded message via Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey’s Twitter account advocating for the passage of two bills in the state legislature that would expand existing transgender anti-discrimination laws to apply to public spaces. These are heavy hitters, some of the game’s most visible players, making these statements.

Speaking of the game’s most visible players, Crosby seemed to come under some scrutiny for not speaking out, which is ridiculous, of course. And then, of course, came the predictable criticisms of it being too late and not strong enough. Also ridiculous. When one of the best players in the world says, “I will educate myself on how I can make a difference,” the rest of the hockey world should be applauding him.

Is the NHL perfect in this regard? Not even close. Is it even good? Well, it’s trying. Trying very hard to shed the label that it’s a sport dominated by white people, some of whom are ignorant at best and racist at worst. Former NHLer Ben Scrivens said in his own post that he’s less-than-awed by the current show of support by players. “It would have been more meaningful, in my eyes, to see these messages come out during the Bill Peters’ firing saga or after K’Andre Miller’s zoom call, or after Akim Aliu’s Players’ Tribune article,” wrote Scrivens, who is currently working on a Master’s degree in social work. “My natural cynicism wonders how much of this is expediency, and how much follow through we have seen from white players who have publicly stated their intentions.”

Those are pretty uncomfortable words at a time like this. But they’re also necessary. It will be fascinating to see where this all goes, whether Giana Floyd’s father actually changed the world and whether the hockey world changes along with it. Perhaps, as terrible and tragic as it has been, the murder of George Floyd will be a time of reckoning for both. It has certainly altered the perception of a lot of players, who are often seen as automatons who have nothing compelling to say beyond their team’s need to get pucks in deep. As Scrivens also wrote, “The work is never finished.” For much of the hockey world, the work is just getting started.

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