EDMONTON — If you want to see your typical NHL player squirm, just invite him to weigh in on a meaty subject that has nothing to do with the game itself. In this case, the Black Lives Matter movement and related issues surrounding racism and police brutality currently gripping our world.
They can’t take a pass quickly enough.
“I’d prefer to talk about hockey questions. Guys are free to do whatever they want,” Winnipeg Jets centre Mark Scheifele said the other day when asked how players might address the situation when the Stanley Cup playoffs get underway later this week.
“For this interview, I’ll probably just stick to hockey questions for now. Thanks,” teammate Neal Pionk replied to a similar query.
“I’d prefer to talk about hockey questions. Guys are free to do whatever they want.” – Mark Scheifele
Not exactly gripping social commentary, is it? To be fair, these guys are paid to dazzle us with their on-ice skills, and nothing more, so it may be asking too much of them to go beyond breaking down the Xs and Os. But with great power comes great responsibility, and athletes are increasingly using their voices and platforms to amplify what is happening around them.
We’ve seen it in the NFL, where Colin Kaepernick sparked a movement by taking a knee during the U.S. national anthem, a move that cost him his career. We’ve seen similar protests in recent days in MLB and the NBA, both of which have resumed operations in the midst of a global pandemic.
Now the spotlight is about to shine brightly on the NHL, a league where the overwhelming majority of players are young, wealthy Caucasian men and where the traditional stance has been to just shut up and play.
Which is why it might surprise you to hear what the league has planned. Although you likely won’t see a string of players suddenly waxing poetic on the podium, this appears to be a case of hoping actions will speak louder than words.
On Aug. 1, the NHL will launch an initiative honoring Front Line Workers & Social Justice Efforts, using the customizable hashtags #WeSkateFor and #ISkateFor. https://t.co/x3j55fGKMN pic.twitter.com/WqPD1m20Za
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) July 24, 2020
For starters, every NHL player will be wearing a customized helmet and uniform decal bearing hashtags of “#ISkateFor” and “#WeSkateFor.” Where they go from there is entirely up to each individual, with nothing apparently off limits.
The branding is readily apparent walking around the bubble here in Edmonton, with the hashtag pasted on banners wrapped around the various team hotels and Rogers Place. This represents a scaled-down version of the NBA, which is allowing players to put specific slogans on the back of their jerseys instead of their name.
Might we see some hockey players include names such as Black Americans George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery? Floyd and Taylor were killed by white police officers in the U.S., while three white men are accused of pursuing and then killing Arbery while he was out for a run in a south Georgia residential area in February. There’s a golden opportunity here to convey a powerful message. Toronto star John Tavares took a step in the right direction the other day when he wore a Black Lives Matter shirt during a virtual scrum with reporters, and it would be great if others followed suit.
During a conference last Friday with a number of prominent NHL officials, chief content officer Steve Mayer said they realize they can’t keep their collective head stuck in the sand. He mentioned there will be a “significant and powerful opening evening” to the playoffs Saturday, in both hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto. One element will focus on front-line workers who have worked tirelessly battling COVID-19. But another will venture into uncharted waters.
“We’ll see how our players react naturally to what we will present opening night, but there will be some moments within the opening night ceremony that will touch on Black Lives Matter and social justice,” said Mayer. “More to come on that, but it is significant that we’re talking about incorporating.”
Jets captain Blake Wheeler is a clear exception to the above-stated stereotype of hockey players traditionally scared to stick their neck out on a real-life issue of actual importance. You’ll recall he went where few hockey players dared to go following Floyd’s slaying in his home state of Minnesota, making numerous public statements including an emotional, 45-minute unscripted conference call with media in which he admitted to his own privilege and called for change.
Wheeler’s actions seemed to inspire a handful of other high-profile NHLers to also speak up. Not surprisingly, he didn’t shy away from the issue when I asked him about it on Monday.
“I think everyone’s individual circumstance is going to dictate how they respond to those things. I think the league has shown an appetite to be a part of what’s going on, especially in the United States. Every guy’s situation is different. Every guy comes from different places, different backgrounds, has different feelings on what’s going on in the world so that’s a very broad question to answer,” Wheeler replied.
“I think, as a league, they’re doing whatever they can to open the door for anyone that would like to take part and be a part of it and I think that’s really where you leave it.”
Many baseball teams have taken a collective knee since the 2020 season got underway late last week. I’m told how the Jets handle things is still being discussed in the room prior to opening their playoff series against Calgary Saturday night, specifically with the leadership group.
I think we already know where Wheeler stands, but whether it extends to something poignant such as taking a knee remains to be seen.
It’s no surprise Wheeler was named Winnipeg’s representative for the King Clancy Memorial Trophy on Monday, which is presented to the player “who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community.” Three finalists will be chosen by a committee of senior NHL executives and announced next month, with the winner revealed during the Conference Finals in mid-September along with other major league awards.
Former Jets forward Evander Kane should be the favourite, considering the current San Jose Sharks member has led the charge for change and is part of the newly formed Hockey Diversity Alliance, which is tackling the toxic culture that often rears up in hockey.
Just like that long-overdue move, the NHL and its players now have another chance to show they’re serious. It may not be a comfortable conversation to have, but staying silent is no longer an option.
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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