Behind the Maple Leafs’ ‘player-driven’ Black Lives Matter initiative

Leafs captain John Tavares discusses what wearing the "Black Lives Matter" t-shirt means to him, and why it's so important for the organization to stand up for the black community and against racism.

TORONTO – Monday was supposed to be the perfect stick-to-sports day.

For the first time in 125 days, we saw actual hockey being played by full(ish) professional teams at their 24 respective practice facilities.

The second edition of 2019-20’s training camps bubbled with tangible hockey news: line combinations, notable absences, some key signings of KHL imports after much handwringing, Auston Matthews discussing his bout with COVID-19, a few more boxcars coupling aboard the Nick Robertson hype train….

And yet there were the Toronto Maple Leafs — a collection of privileged white athletes — gathered, at last, as one unit in the dressing room, enlarging the conversation. Powder-blue masks covered their faces so their identical black T-shirts could do the talking, in all caps: BLACK LIVES MATTER.

The workout gear as statement, captain John Tavares explains, was a “player-driven” initiative supported from the offices up top. And fans should expect to see them again. Another reminder that, yes, life can go on without sports — but sports can’t truly operate in a bubble.

“On a day when everyone wants to talk about hockey and everyone’s excited to get back to playing, it’s important to have that Black Lives Matter movement be prevalent, and we want to make sure that that’s not lost in all of this,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “It is a very important issue that we haven’t forgotten about. We want to be a big part of making positive change.”

Last week, the Toronto Raptors rolled up to Orlando in twin championship team buses plastered with “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in block letters.

On Sunday evening, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment gathered up the last of its applications for a newly created full-time executive position: senior vice president of inclusion and diversity, upgrading the role from its original “director” designation.

During an appearance on Tim & Sid last month, Leafs president Brendan Shanahan politely turned a line of return-to-play hockey questioning to the greater issue of systemic racism.

In reading Raptors chief Masai Ujiri’s op-ed in The Globe and Mail, Shanahan was forced to rethink his instinctive approach to what has too long been viewed as someone else’s problem.

“When something like this happens, as a white person, you feel embarrassed. You feel ashamed,” Shanahan said.

“It was important for us as a hockey organization — which is a very white sport — to let the Raptors and to let the Argos and TFC and our wonderful leaders there take the lead,” Shanahan said. “The one thing I wanted to make clear to them and make clear to all of our fans, and our Leaf fans and our employees is where we stand as Toronto Maple Leafs, and where I stand as an individual.”

To see that unified stance front and centre on Day 1 of a hockey training camp gives a little more hope that the ambition of the Hockey Diversity Alliance will not be in vain. That silence might not be hockey players’ default setting.

“Y’all making me a proud Leaf alum right now,” tweeted Mark Fraser, author of the must-read “Silence Is Violence” for the Players’ Tribune.

Morgan Rielly says the murder of George Floyd inspired the Leafs to have conversations about racism with each other.

“And I think what we realized is that not all of us have had the experiences that people around the world have had. And I think that this is just our small way to keep the conversation going to really try to acknowledge the fact that this is an ongoing thing, and it’s going to take a lot of work,” Rielly said, post-skate. “We’re completely committed to supporting the movement.”

“[I] judge somebody by their heart and by their character, not by their race,” added Matthews. “There’s obviously been so much going on in society over the last couple months, and I think for us we just wanted to continue that message that we stand with supporting them.”

It’s a simple gesture, sure, but an impactful one coming from a group of the city’s influential stars. Kids notice what their heroes wear. Just ask the Jordans in my closet.

“Personally, I don’t know what it feels like to be judged based on your colour, but I do know what it feels like to be judged based on your religion,” Zach Hyman said. “I am Jewish. I have experienced antisemitism, so I can empathize. For me, it’s pretty clear that racism and any type of judgment based on your race, religion or gender, is not tolerant. We want to show that we’re aware and that we’re learning and we’re trying to support in the best way that we can.”

Tavares wants fans to understand that the Maple Leafs stand with the black community, with black hockey players, the black staff members and athletes at MLSE — and especially the black community here in Toronto.

They don’t have all the answers, but they have chosen a side.

“We just want to be part of the conversation and do what we can to help have positive change in a very important matter that we all take very seriously around here,” Tavares said.

Just because the Leafs are punctuating a point here doesn’t mean the non-sports talk is over.

“It’s been an ongoing conversation,” Reilly said. “The players are happy to wear them, so I would expect to keep them around.”

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