How players pushed the game aside to take a stand against systemic racism

When asked about playing a back-to-back in the playoffs, Tampa Bay Lightning defensemen Braydon Coburn and Luke Schenn were very insistent on keeping the discussion away from hockey and on important conversations surrounding racial injustice.

TORONTO — On another day, in another playoffs, the trials and travails of Luke Schenn and Braydon Coburn would make for fine copy.

The veteran Tampa Bay Lightning defencemen each left families behind to spend a month inside the Stanley Cup bubble getting scratched before finally having the chance to contribute in back-to-back wins over the Boston Bruins this week

However, when asked about that Friday afternoon, I heard a response unlike any I can recall in 15 years of covering the NHL on a daily basis.

“Thanks for the question,” Coburn began. “I think today for the most part … we kind of want to make sure that we keep the attention and the conversation around the issues and that’s kind of where I think our heads are at right now. Thank you, though.”

Let’s mark this down as the kind of small, but significant change that shouldn’t go unnoticed after NHL players decided to postpone two days worth of games to make a statement about systemic racism.

Or, how about this from Boston Bruins winger Brad Marchand?

“Sports, it’s a luxury. It’s a luxury to watch this game, to play this game,” he said. “But when it becomes about people’s safety and people’s lives and people feeling comfortable to be in their own skin, it’s much more important than that. I understand people want to watch the games and I understand people want to see this, but it’s too bad.”

History will eventually judge if this was a movement or a moment by the tangible steps taken in our sport — be it establishing grassroots programs, specific hiring targets for Black executives or even having NHL arenas opened as polling stations — but in real time we shouldn’t overlook some of the finer shifts already taking place.

What happened inside the bubbles late Wednesday night and all through Thursday was organic. It was real. This was a group of predominantly white players engaging in conversations most had never been part of before and ultimately deciding to take a collective stand.

“Never in my NHL career did I think that we’d be with four other teams and you’d be having these discussions that we had,” said Coburn. “I think it’s very productive, it’s been enlightening and it’s something that a lot of guys are very proud of.”

For the Lightning, Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders, it started on Wednesday night.

Each of those teams played games at Scotiabank Arena that day — while the Milwaukee Bucks were refusing to take the court in the NBA’s Disney World Bubble, and WNBA, MLS and MLB players started following their lead — which brought the discussion to Hotel X here in Toronto.

Those talks first played out among the individual teams. Then the Bruins and Lightning, in the midst of a second-round playoff series against each other, made plans to meet Thursday morning. Then a discussion started among players waiting outside the interview room set up on the second floor of the hotel.

“It kind of snowballed from there,” said Bruins centre Patrice Bergeron.

Eventually there were veteran players from each of the four teams remaining inside the Eastern Conference bubble gathering together for honest dialogue. A similar scene was playing out in Edmonton, where members of the Vancouver Canucks reached out to Vegas Golden Knights forward Ryan Reaves, who is Black, to discuss the possibility of stepping back from Thursday’s game.

Reaves had also been in touch with former teammate Kevin Shattenkirk of the Lightning, while members of the Flyers were speaking with Chris Stewart of the Hockey Diversity Alliance.

The spark had been lit.

“I was actually just outside our coaching room and you saw 30 or 40 players together,” said Islanders coach Barry Trotz. “All from different teams, all who maybe the night before or hours leading up to that would have been on the ice going nose-to-nose gathering around and trying to come up with solutions and understanding and being very supportive.

“When you look back at that, those are powerful moments that you sometimes don’t recognize because of the bigger picture that’s not even evolving yet.”

In the next few weeks, one of those teams will get a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.

But all of that was pushed aside for 48 hours designed to make a statement about the importance of human rights. The NHL is trailing behind other sports when it comes to both conversation and action around the Black Lives Matter movement, but there’s been an awakening at a level never previously seen.

“I think for us, we’re at the table now and I think that’s really the important thing,” said Coburn.

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