Maple Leafs, politics and the ‘slippery slope’ of taking a stand

Colin Kaepernick has the right to kneel during the national anthem.

Sidney Crosby has the right to feel honoured that Donald Trump invited him and his team to the White House.

And you have the right to wake up feeling sick to your stomach that an athlete with great power squandered an opportunity to take a stand.

During the same weekend where frictions boiled between the president and the Golden State Warriors and National Football League players, amidst knee-down anthem protests and raised fists, the Stanley Cup–champion Pittsburgh Penguins decided it would be an appropriate time to announce they will be visiting Trump’s White House as per tradition.

“Everyone’s got the right to go or not to go,” Crosby told reporters. “But we’ve been invited and we accepted the invitation. I don’t think you have to read into it any more than that.”

The President is reading into it, however, positioning the Penguins’ field trip to D.C. as an endorsement, unlike those ungrateful Warriors.

How will that photograph age?

A gathering of predominantly white athletes — of various cultural backgrounds, the majority Canadian or European — smiling behind a man who has defended neo-Nazis.

Hockey in North America, by its cultural mandate, has zero to little interest in politics. And that stance of not having a stance is endorsed from the National Hockey League’s highest levels.

“It’s not about what your politics are and who’s in the White House,” commissioner Gary Bettman said on the Milken Institute panel in May. “Respecting the national anthem, I think it’s great for our players to be involved in political and social causes. But I also think that’s not why people come to games to see them.

“So, I would encourage and I do encourage our players to do it on their own time,” Bettman elaborated. “That block of time should be apolitical, and we can use our platforms to demonstrate diversity, inclusiveness, educating communities on good causes whether or not it’s health or the environment. But when the game is being played, it should be about the game because that’s what fans want.”

Silence can speak volumes, and the line between apolitical and apathy can get fuzzy.

Some fans like their athletes more Muhammad Ali than Michael Jordan.

Those fans lost a measure of respect for Crosby and gained some for Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler this weekend for how they used their respective podiums.

Wheeler, it seems, is an outlier in his represent-the-name-on-the-front sport.

“I saw Blake Wheeler’s tweet the other day. I thought he had a very good point,” says Toronto Maple Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk.

Van Riemsdyk, an American, didn’t vote in the Trump-Clinton election. Neither did Auston Matthews, Jake Gardiner nor Connor Carrick, U.S. citizens making their living in Toronto.

“Your role as a citizen is to vote, so I’m definitely disappointed in myself that I didn’t do that,” van Riemsdyk said. “That’ll be the last time that happens. It’s important to make your voice heard.”

Perhaps it’s the hockey way, or the way of the Leafs — where everyone steps to the microphone clean-shaven and on message — but publicly there is feeling of this not being their battle. Even though the climate couldn’t be safer for speaking up, now that NBA and NFL players have taken courageous, fierce positions.

“I don’t know if there’s a need to respond in the NHL. I don’t think we’ve gotten that that type of attention,” says Carrick. “It can be a very toxic subject right now. It’s hard to talk about.”

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The Jeff Blair Show
Originally aired September 25 2017

So hard to talk about, Leafs defenceman Ron Hainsey, who’s from Connecticut and was integral to the Penguins’ championship, declined requests for comment through a team spokesperson. Crosby said the Penguins decided as a team to attend the White House, but we don’t yet know if Hainsey was involved in those discussions or plans to attend himself.

Nazem Kadri, a Canadian Muslim, had previously called Trump’s Muslim travel ban “delusional,” stating in December 2015 that such a stance could hurt his campaign. But Kadri selected his words carefully Monday after practice.

“For us hockey players, that’s a slippery slope,” Kadri said. “You can have an opinion on it, but to speak publicly on it is definitely a bit dangerous, especially if you don’t have everybody feeling the same way.”

“What do you mean ‘dangerous’?” we asked.

“Just because not everyone’s going to agree with you,” Kadri said.

“It’s about unity. If the whole team decides to do something, I think the whole team should do it.”

Kaepernick, we remind you, remains unemployed.

Matthews just turned 20 years old. He’s far from politically inclined but says some issues are too big to ignore. In response to NFLers protesting during the anthem, Matthews said: “Isn’t that one of the Amendments? You have the right to say whatever you want. They have the right to do that, so good for them.”

Matthews said he would “probably” attend the White House were he invited and certainly won’t be kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“My great-uncle served, I have friends and family who’ve served, there’s men and women who have risked their lives for the United States, people who have died for the United States,” Matthews said.

“I don’t know if kneeling, sitting, stretching is something I’d really look into doing because to me it’s like a dishonour to the men and women that fight for that flag, fight for the U.S. I don’t think I’d be one of the people to take part in that.”

Coach Mike Babcock, a dual citizen and father of two American-born children, also invoked his friends who served in the military.

“When that national anthem’s played, to me, that’s an important thing,” Babcock said. “The great thing about the world is you get to make your own decisions. We are supposed to respect people who think different than us.”

The anthem strikes a dissimilar chord to the athlete, the fan, the coach, depending on his or her experience.

“Well, you know what else is disrespectful to our flag?” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Racism.”

Crosby believes the invitation to Trump’s White House is “an opportunity,” and surely it is. Just as it’s an opportunity each time a sporting hero is asked his opinion on social issues.

“You’ve got to pinch yourself to be able to realize how much influence you do have on younger kids or the outside world, or how many people actually look up to you and believe in what you’re trying to say,” Kadri said.

“It’s a great platform to make a statement and stand up for what you believe in.”

Only if you use it.