Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler says it’s high time white athletes like himself to use their privilege and platform to raise awareness about important social issues such as racism and police brutality that they have traditionally remained silent on.
The 33-year-old held court with media for 45 minutes Tuesday morning, and the subject of hockey barely came up. Instead, Wheeler discussed the videotaped killing of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white police officer in his home state of Minnesota and the related protests which have flared up across the U.S.
“Clearly, it’s hit home. Never did I envision that Minneapolis-St. Paul, my hometown, would be the epicentre of these things happening. I have a lot of family there, obviously. My wife has a lot of family there. We have a lot of friends there. People are scared,” Wheeler said via Zoom from his off-season home in Florida, where has resumed skating while awaiting a potential return-to-play later this summer.
That fear is also being felt by Wheeler, his wife and three young children. The oldest, seven-year-old son, Louie, has many questions that are difficult to answer.
“We’re showing them what’s going on on TV. They watched George Floyd die on TV. That’s been really challenging trying to explain, especially to Louie. He’s asking, ‘Why won’t he get off his neck? Why won’t he get off his neck?’ And to have to explain that to him, to try to explain to him, to a seven-year-old, that the police that he feels are out there to protect us and look out for us that that’s not always the case. That’s a hard conversation to have,” said Wheeler.
“It’s too bad that we’re not in Minneapolis. And clearly during a pandemic, too, our first responsibility is the safety of our kids. But we would’ve loved to take our family out to the protests to show them how powerful it can be and really what a beautiful thing it was, all the people coming together in our hometown. We talked about it a lot and showed them as much as we can to just try to continue that education and try to show them and really have it be imprinted in their mind that this is what it should look like.”
Wheeler admitted hockey culture traditionally frowns upon players speaking up about such issues, but these conversations are long overdue.
“Clearly, it’s hit home. Never did I envision that Minneapolis–St. Paul, my hometown, would be the epicentre of these things happening.” – Blake Wheeler
“We have to be as involved in this as black athletes. It can’t just be their fight. When Colin Kaepernick was taking a knee during the national anthem and trying to do it in a peaceful way in 2016 and trying to raise awareness of this in a peaceful manner, unfortunately there wasn’t more – and I want to be real clear, here. I look in the mirror about this before I look out at everyone else. I wish that I was more involved sooner than I was. I wish that it didn’t take me this long to get behind it in a meaningful way,” said Wheeler.
“But I guess what you can do is try to be better going forward. That’s kind of been my position on it. I want to be part of the change going forward. Whether that resonates with everyone, whether that spreads with everyone, is clearly, I’m only one person, but I do have a small platform to try to promote this and promote change.”
Wheeler credited former teammate Evander Kane, who now plays in San Jose, with being a vocal advocate who has called on many of his hockey peers to speak up. Wheeler, and an increasing number of others, have now done so in the past couple days.
“I think it’s something that over time we need to be more comfortable doing. We need to be OK voicing our opinion on this. I strongly feel that this has nothing to do with politics. You can vote for whoever you want. You can have your opinions about policy and Republican and Democrat, all that. But these are human rights fundamentally. There should be Republicans who are on board with this, Democrats — we should all agree on this,” he said.
“There’s so much hurt out there. There are so many people that don’t have jobs, that have families that don’t know where their next meal is coming from. The list seems never–ending, and on top of it, we’re still treating people this way during a pandemic.” – Blake Wheeler
Wheeler is concerned about what he’s seen during some of the protests, specifically with police and even government officials inflicting more violence on citizens, such as the tear-gassing on Monday afternoon of peaceful protesters in Washington. He called such a move “pouring gas on the fire.”
“There’s so much hurt out there. There are so many people that don’t have jobs, that have families that don’t know where their next meal is coming from. The list seems never-ending, and on top of it, we’re still treating people this way during a pandemic. During something that hasn’t been seen in lifetimes. To have a country be going through this economically, socially, everything, and then we’re still treating each other like this, yeah, it’s worrisome,” he said.
“Through that anxiety and through that fear and through kind of that worry about the country, I’m optimistic and hopeful about the future. I got a text from my dad two days ago and he was telling me — he grew up in Detroit — about the race riots in Detroit in the late ’60s, and he just said, ‘My generation didn’t get it right and hopefully yours does.’ I’m hopeful my generation and my kids’ generation fix this and get this country so that there’s brighter days ahead.”
Wheeler acknowledged there will be those who think he should just shut up and play hockey, which is why some athletes are likely reluctant to speak up.
“I wish I didn’t care what people thought of me. I do. It’s sort of exhausting, especially as the captain of a team, especially the way I’m wired, the way I go about my business. Yeah, you care about what people think about you and you care that, at least I do and I wish I didn’t, but when you’re saying something like this, you need to not care,” he said.
“I think the most positive things that have come out of this have been police officers joining in protest or walking with protesters or hugging them. Those are the types of things that we need more of. If we can have the police acknowledging the pain that people are going through and sort of latching onto that and embracing it, I think that that’s a step in the right direction. And I think that hopefully the violence can start to subside and we can start turning the page and try to look forward to the next step in making this a positive movement and one that holds, that sticks, that truly changes things.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
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