Player-driven postponement an awakening for historically conformist NHL

Matt Dumba and Akim Aliu joined Ron MacLean on The Conversation to discuss the NHL players response to pausing the NHL playoffs and fighting systemic racism.

EDMONTON – It looked less like a protest than an awakening.

Nearly 100 National Hockey League players from four Western Conference teams trying to beat each other to go to the Stanley Cup, players from many countries and ethnicities, stood shoulder to shoulder Thursday in support of a two-day shutdown intended to shine a spotlight once again on systemic racism in the wake of the shooting of another unarmed Black man by a white police officer.

At the front and centre of the group, crowded into a press conference room inside the Edmonton bubble near the end of a historic day, stood Ryan Reaves, literally the biggest Black man in hockey.

This was a moment of empowerment – the manifestation of the players’ realization that on issues that are most important to them and their communities beyond hockey, they need not wait for their teams and league to tell them how they should feel and act.

“I think if you look around this room, there are a lot of white athletes in here, and I think that’s the statement that’s being made right now,” Reaves, the battering-ram forward from the Vegas Golden Knights who had been scheduled to terrorize the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday night, told reporters.

“It’s great that the NBA did this, and MLB and the WNBA. They have a lot of Black players in those leagues. But for all these athletes in here to take a stand and say: ‘You know what? We see the problem, too. And we stand behind you.’

“I go to war with these guys and I hate their guts on the ice, but I couldn’t be more proud of these guys. The statement they’ve made today is something that’s going to last.”

Racism is not a minority problem. It belongs to all of us. It is ridiculous to think the victims alone can fix it. Or should.

As the NHL allowed Wednesday night’s playoff games to go on even as players from the NBA and other leagues refused to perform after a Wisconsin police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back while his three young children watched, Reaves wondered how he could possibly play Thursday.

If he sat out, he wondered if he would be the only one – and how would that look? Instead, 200 players walked out with him, and none will play again until Saturday as all eight teams left in the Stanley Cup tournament will postpone one game.

Reaves said he woke Thursday to a text from former St. Louis Blues teammate Kevin Shattenkirk, still playing in the Eastern Conference playoffs with the Tampa Bay Lightning, asking Reaves to speak to some players in the Toronto bubble.

Then he received a text from a player on the Canucks, tied 1-1 with the Knights in the second-round series, asking for a meeting.

Representing one of the most culturally and racially diverse cities in North America, Canucks players had talked early Thursday and were uncomfortable playing. They reached out to Reaves and then met with players from the Golden Knights.

Later, the group invited Evander Kane and Matt Dumba from the Hockey Diversity Alliance to speak to players, and more than 100 of them listened and asked questions. Players from the Canucks, Knights, Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars all decided not to play and informed the NHL and its Players’ Association.

The players decided.

“We were 100 per cent behind this from the moment it was brought up by the players,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said in a coaches’ press conference that followed the players’ video call. “Yes, it’s player-driven, but it’s team-supported.”

“There’s sports and then there are things that are bigger than sports,” Canuck coach Travis Green said. “I wasn’t surprised at all this morning when I spoke to our players and they wanted to talk to Ryan. These guys, they’re teammates within the league. They all care about each other, but when they go on the ice they still compete hard against each other. Yet they’re family. I felt that our group wanted to make sure the Vegas team knew, or Ryan knew, that they were behind him. I was behind them all the way, supported them 100 per cent with whatever decision they made. It’s hard not to be proud of them.”

Reaves was joined at the front of the room by Canucks captain Bo Horvat, Colorado Avalanche players Nazem Kadri and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Dallas Stars centre Jason Dickinson.

The sight of all these players standing together, surrounded by teammates, made for a powerful and lasting image. This defiance in the name of social consciousness felt like a watershed moment for a league in which conformity and compliance are hallmarks of its culture.

“We need to come together,” Horvat said. “Obviously, this kind of stuff can’t stand. We need to educate ourselves and realize what’s going on in the world. I think (Reaves) hit the nail on the head: there needs to be change, and us being all together here as one definitely shows the strength in the hockey community.”

Kadri said: “Some things are bigger than sports and there comes a time you’ve got to start acting on your word. You can put up signs and have all that stuff, but at the end of the day, what are you really doing to make a difference? It’s that time for action.”

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