TORONTO — The arenas inside the bubbles will go dark tonight.
As they should.
The NHL found a way to safely conduct the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the middle of a pandemic, but it couldn’t keep the most important issue of the day outside the walls of the secure zones it constructed in Toronto and Edmonton.
The Black Lives Matter movement has finally arrived in a predominantly white sport, and it’s at least a day late and a dollar short. But it’s here. The players have used their voices like those in bigger, more culturally diverse and profitable sports leagues and decided not to play the two games originally scheduled for Thursday (Islanders vs. Flyers, and Canucks vs. Golden Knights), plus two more scheduled Friday (Bruins vs. Lightning, and Stars vs. Avalanche).
The Hockey Diversity Alliance helped guide the decision-making process, first by formally asking the league to suspend all playoff games to make a statement about human rights taking precedence over sports, and then by leading a conference call with a meaningful number of players inside the bubble.
Evander Kane, Matt Dumba, Akim Aliu, Wayne Simmonds, Nazem Kadri and the HDA’s other founding members have clearly articulated the biggest impediment to change: They can’t be the only ones taking up these issues.
If you only ever have Black players and Filipino players and Lebanese players speaking up, they’re not truly going to be heard at the volume needed to make a significant impact. To understand why, you need only walk into a dressing room at any level of the sport in basically every place it is played.
I fell in love with hockey while growing up in small-town Canada, surrounded almost exclusively by kids who looked exactly like me. And I consider it one of my life’s true blessings that I’ve been able to turn that passion into a job that never feels like work.
But on Wednesday night, I didn’t want to be at work.
The empty stands at Scotiabank Arena couldn’t have felt any more hollow while Boston and Tampa played Game 3 of their second-round series. After watching history get made inside the NBA’s Disney World bubble, where the Milwaukee Bucks set off a wave of player-initiated strikes in the WNBA, MLS, MLB and professional tennis by refusing to take the court to face the Orlando Magic, it simply didn’t feel right to see the NHL play on.
“I don’t think anything feels right, right now, to be honest,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Thursday morning when asked to reflect on the decision to go ahead with the game.
That’s true, but continuing to put their heads down, withdraw further into the bubble and take the ice for games would have been downright wrong.
The hockey community has taken steps in the proper direction since George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by white police officers in Minnesota three months ago. We saw a huge number of NHL players put out statements condemning systemic racism. We saw entire teams wear “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts. We even saw a couple players take a knee during the national anthems at the outset of these playoffs.
But we also saw Dumba forced to kneel alone before the first game played at Rogers Place inside the bubble after delivering a heart-felt message about the need to fight racism.
“Hockey is a great game, but it could be a whole lot greater, and it starts with all of us,” Dumba said that afternoon.
The truth is that we’ve trailed behind the collective conversations being held elsewhere in the sporting world in large part because we weren’t forced to have them. Even after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police, plus a list of others so long it should make you cry. Not even after all of that and then the shooting last weekend in Kenosha, Wis., of Jacob Blake, who was left paralyzed after taking at least seven bullets in the back from officers.
It took other leagues stopping to compel us towards action.
The NHL is largely composed of white players from North America and Europe, and largely covered by media members with those same backgrounds.
People like me. People who have incorrectly thought that not being overtly racist in our behaviour was enough, which is the very definition of white privilege. People who can do more to affect change and stand beside our neighbours regardless of ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.
Do you want to know what postponing a couple hockey games in August accomplishes?
At minimum, it forces those of us inhabiting that world to step back, reflect and have some honest conversations about why it needed to happen. It’s a step. The first of many more to come.
"The players are going to have to get involved, I’m going to have to get involved, everybody," said New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz. "And if you do that, that will effect change for our country. And it definitely needs it right now."
It’s important to remember that none of us gets to choose the time we live in.
Sometimes a pandemic arrives without warning and turns the world upside down, which can be tumultuous and uncertain and scary even for those of us who enjoy the privilege of a comfortable life.
But we should not lose sight of the fact that with disruption comes opportunity — a chance to slow down, and reflect, and see some things we’ve been missing in plain view.
That’s where we are right now.
I will be the first to put my hand up and say that there have been numerous times in the past when I could have been a stronger, more forceful ally to the Black Lives Matter movement. And I’m sure many others in the NHL community feel the same way, starting with the mistake made by playing games Wednesday night that thankfully won’t be repeated here tonight.
That’s action, and it means more than the words we’ve spoken before.
As the Chinese proverb goes, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.