NHL missed opportunity to stand up for social justice Wednesday night

Evander Kane joined David Amber to talk about the response to social issues from the NHL, and what they can learn from other leagues like the NBA.

Maybe other parents have discovered the same thing.

That it’s when you are tucking your children into bed, they most want to talk. Ask big questions.

Growing up with a sports-mad father, my nine-year-old son, Will, wants to know the other scores before he falls asleep after I let him stay up and watch the first period.

On Wednesday night, that meant telling Will about the bravery of the Milwaukee Bucks, and it meant explaining the “PPD” next to all the NBA scores and a bunch of the baseball games as well.

It also meant a flood of follow-up questions building on a recurring topic in our home that began before George Floyd’s murder but has certainly spiked in frequency and detail since then:

“The cop was white, right?”

“I don’t understand. Why shoot seven times?”

“How old is Jacob Blake? Does he have kids?”

“Why didn’t the NHL players take a stand?”

“Are all NHL players white?”

I want my son to know that Jacob Blake is 29 years old. That he is a dad. That he was unarmed. That he may never walk again. And, you’re right, Will, that’s not fair.

What I wanted to tell my son is that the NHL players we’ve been entertained by each night this month stood by the NBA, members of MLB, WNBA, MLS and professional tennis. That they all banned united with athletes from other backgrounds and other sports for the common cause of decency.

That they boycotted, or they knelt, or they said something into a microphone we could feel. Be proud of.

The way Doc Rivers did. Or Kenny Smith. Or Chris Webber. Or Sam Mitchell. Or Dominic Smith.

Wednesday won’t be the only opportunity to stand up to police brutality against Black people — there’s no deadline for that — but it was a golden one.

Hockey is my favourite sport, and today I’m a little embarrassed to write that. I won’t pretend to imagine how people of colour who love the sport — fans, players, media members — must be feeling.

The 33-second moment of silence to “erase racism” and wish Blake’s family well before one of the three games played Wednesday felt flippant. The “We Skate for Black Lives” signage that hangs inside Scotiabank Arena rings as empty as the rink itself.

“The signs and the hockey ops is great and everything, but eventually words get stale,” Nazem Kadri said post-game. “It’s about action and making a difference.”

Wednesday night sure felt like a chance for some action, to spread the conversation to a largely white audience. To spark some discussion in households and make people pay attention to the injustice. For a start, watch this:

“If even one player had come to me and said, ‘Hey, I don’t think we should play,’ then we would’ve addressed it as a team. But I never got word from anyone in our room, and the league hadn’t said the players are thinking about not playing,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said.

“It’s obviously an important topic and something we need to think long and hard about as a country. But I just think tonight wasn’t maybe the time and place for us.”

So, in the hockey world, it was left to people with no Stanley Cup to play for this year — Evander Kane, Matt Dumba, Akim Aliu, Kelly Hrudey — to speak up.

“I don’t think we should be here. I really think the NHL should postpone the games,” Hrudey said on Hockey Night in Canada. “I really feel we should be more supportive of Black Lives Matter.”

The games felt unworthy of commentary outside of the disappointment that they happened at all.

Did players not protest out of fear of speaking or standing out as individuals while playoff hockey was front of mind for their teams? Peer pressure is powerful and ridding hockey culture of its rigid conformity and reluctance to embrace diversity won’t happen overnight.

But this one was on a platter for hockey players. A tap-in. They didn’t have to lead, just follow the pack of humanity. Listen. Support. Be an ally.

“The NHL, we’re always late to the party, especially on these topics, so it’s sorta sad and disheartening for me and other members of the HDA [Hockey Diversity Alliance], and I’m sure other guys across the league,” said Dumba, who once knelt alone.

“But if no one stands up and does anything, it’s the same thing — it’s just that silence that you’re just outside looking in on actually being leaders and invoking real change when you have such an opportunity to do so.”

“It’s another instance, unfortunately, that still hasn’t been acknowledged and we’re about — what? — three or four days into this video being released, or this incident occurring, and I still haven’t seen or heard anything in regards to it. So, that’s disappointing. And as a Black player in this league, it’s even more disappointing,” Kane said.

Kane also tweeted this: “Actually, it’s incredibly insulting as a Black man in hockey the lack of action and acknowledgement from the @nhl, just straight up insulting.”

Dumba, sounding defeated during his interview on Sportsnet 650, urged his white peers to join the fight.

“In hockey, that’s what it comes back to: you’re relying on the minority guys to step up and say it. But what would really make the most impact is to have strong white leaders from teams step up and have their two cents heard,” Dumba said.

“All the other white kids who grow up watching them, who might be their biggest fans, can look up and say, ‘Wow, if he’s seeing this and trying to stand up and listen, then why am I not as well? Why am I continuing to hold on to this ignorance or hate that I feel toward a subject that I maybe don’t know everything about?’ ”

On Thursday afternoon Kane, Dumba, Akim Aliu and the Hockey Diversity Alliance called on the NHL to postpone its games later that night. The players are now preparing for those cancellations.

There is power in numbers. In unity.

And there is incredible power, when you’re tucking your kids in at night, explaining to them why the NHL players chose not to play a game. Why they stood up for people who don’t look quite the same. And why they, too, believe what’s happening is unfair.

Why they chose not to skate for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake on Wednesday night?

Yeah, the NHL is in a bubble alright.

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