Why you shouldn’t expect to see NFL-level protests in hockey

Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler speaks out about why he felt it was the right time for his Twitter stance against President Trump, and why he believes so strongly in the First Amendment.

EDMONTON — For those of us who have dealt with professional athletes from an array of different sports, it is unilaterally accepted: Hockey players are different.

So you can be disappointed that the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins did not choose to confront United States President Donald Trump’s politics when they accepted an invitation to be greeted at the White House, the way pro football and basketball players have.

I was.

But we shouldn’t be surprised.

Hockey players, you see, want nothing less than to stand out from their teammates as an individual. It is why Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews are two of the respected leaders in the game, why Connor McDavid is following closely in their footsteps, and why players like Evander Kane get traded. Not because he’s black, but because he marches to his own drummer and is said to be a poor teammate, which does not work in hockey circles.

It is why a player who scores a hat trick spends the first two or three questions in his post-game interview crediting his linemates. Or why the guy playing through excruciating pain won’t talk about it, because “everyone else is doing the same thing.”

So, if we are to criticize the Penguins for their continued “respect (for) the institution of the Office of the President,” we should first ask: Could you ever see a hockey player not standing for an anthem, while 19 teammates stood, helmets in hand?

“We’ll have 20 guys tonight, standing for both anthems,” confirmed Carolina’s Justin Faulk. “Probably every night, at least as of right now.”

Canadian content is also a factor here — the Penguins roster is nearly half American-born, a rarity. Milan Lucic, a Vancouver-born winger who spent nine seasons playing hockey in America, won a Cup with Boston in 2011.

“The year we won, we had one American. And he didn’t show up,” Lucic said, referencing goalie Tim Thomas’ White House boycott. “We were 15 Canadians, one American, one Finn, two Czechs, a Slovak and a German.”

Trump is seen by many, including this writer, as racist and xenophobic. While hockey is an international game, it isn’t exactly a game of colour.

Of the few black men in hockey, less than half of those are Americans. Toronto-born Trevor Daley was the only black man on the Penguins roster last season. Winnipeg-born Ryan Reaves is the only black player this season.

Heck, only one-quarter of National Hockey League rosters are American, and well over 90 per cent of those players are white.

So to expect a bunch of mostly Canadian and European white men — the products of largely upper middle class upbringing — to make a stand against bigotry and divisiveness in America is a reach. I wish I could write about that reach today, but alas, I can not.

There just isn’t enough oppression in hockey, or interest in American politics, to create an issue, yet.

“For me, part of winning is you get an opportunity to go to the White House, meet the President, and shake his hand, whether you like him or not,” said Lucic. “Americans are more emotionally involved in politics, compared to us (Canadians). It’s a bigger part of their lives, and a bigger topic at social events. At family or neighbourhood barbecues, it’s a topic.”

The White House visit is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, those who have been there say. As such, the gravity required to shun such an opportunity would have to be substantive. When you grow up without oppression, both because of the colour of your skin and your economic bracket, that level of political concern simply does not exist.

“It’s an honour to be invited to the White House, regardless. I respect that other people have different beliefs, different views. But for me, it’s still an honour and I’d love to go,” said Edmonton Oiler Mark Fayne, who hails from Nashua, New Hampshire. “I choose to stand for the troops, for everything the U.S. has afforded me, the privileges and opportunity. If (others) feel they’ve been slighted, it’s not my place to say anything.”

Fayne watched his Patriots play football Sunday, and perhaps it says something about the hockey mindset that he was somewhat taken aback by some 300 NFL players protesting. “I knew there would be some push back, but I was pretty surprised with how many (protested),” said Fayne.

He’s not the type to speak out, but Fayne is thoughtful and intelligent. He is worried about what is happening back home, far beyond a hockey team visiting the White House.

“You never like to see your country in such disarray,” he said. “Where there is such a… I don’t want to say division, but there’s such misunderstanding, or different views.

“I’d like to see people get back together, and really take pride in the country again. Right now it doesn’t seem like everybody has that.”