Before Sharks forward Evander Kane and six other current and former black NHL players announced the Hockey Diversity Alliance's formation on Monday, he and his peers spoke with the man whose protest nearly four years ago jumpstarted the conversation Kane's organization is trying to advance.
Kane said Tuesday that he was on their call with former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whom the newly formed group turned to for "invaluable" advice.
"He's been the leader of this whole movement from when he first took a knee (during the national anthem)," Kane said of Kaepernick on a conference call with reporters. "It was great to be able to talk to him, and for all of us to really talk to him. He shared some of his experiences, ups and downs, that he went through. It was great to get some advice on things we could maybe avoid that he wasn't able to because he was the first one to do it."
Kane and former NHL player Akim Aliu are the co-heads of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, whose stated mission "is to eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey." TSN's Rick Westhead reported Monday that they were "advised in recent days by" Kaepernick.
Conversations about forming the group began late last year, Kane said, soon after Aliu revealed that former Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters directed racist slurs towards him when he played for Peters in the AHL during the 2009-10 season. Those discussions occurred less frequently, according to Kane, until the last month.
Aliu outlined his experience with racism at all levels of hockey in a self-penned piece on The Players Tribune on May 19. That was six days before George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, died in Minneapolis police custody after a white officer pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes. That officer, Derek Chauvin, was fired a day later, and he now faces charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Protests arose around the world after Floyd's death, which occurred within months of Louisville police fatally shooting Breonna Taylor, 26, in her home and two white men allegedly followed and shot Ahmaud Arbery, 25, as he jogged in his Georgia neighborhood. Global demonstrations against police brutality and institutional racism have brought renewed attention to Kaepernick's 2016 protest, in which he kneeled while "The Star-Spangled Banner" played before games to highlight those same issues.
"(Kaepernick) also gave us some real positive information on how to go about what we wanted to do," Kane continued. "So he's a real good voice and leader for our group in terms of our initial conversations, and his advice -- especially when it comes to these types of social injustice conversations -- was invaluable."
Kaepernick has not been signed by an NFL team for the last three seasons after he opted out of his 49ers contract when the team told him he'd otherwise be released. The quarterback, in a since-settled collusion lawsuit with the NFL, argued that no team signed him because of his protest.
Just over 200 NFL players kneeled or sat during the national anthem days after President Donald Trump said owners should "[get] that son of a b---h off the field" if players protested during the anthem in September 2017. J.T. Brown, who is African American, became the first NHL player to join them when he raised his fist during the playing of the anthem on Oct. 7.
Brown, then with the Tampa Bay Lightning, said he received death threats for his protest. The Lightning's initial statement said they "celebrate" the playing of the national anthem, though they also "respect our players and individual choices they may make on social and political issues." It didn't mention Brown by name, and Brown announced he would stop protesting on Oct. 18. No other NHL players protested during the anthem.
The Hockey Diversity Alliance -- which was formed independently of the NHL -- said in their statement this week they "are hopeful that anyone who puts on skates or sits in the stands" can "express their culture, identity, values and personality without fear of retribution."
"It's imperative that players feel comfortable to be able to express themselves in a professional and peaceful way," Kane said Tuesday when asked about players feeling comfortable protesting on the ice and speaking out off of it. "At the same time, you talk about showcasing us as individuals. That's a whole other discussion, and again, it's something we're focusing in on as well and as a part of that culture change: Players having personality, and that personality being invited by the league and really just hockey in general. ... I think it's something that, really, just depends on the individual and the more comfortable people get, you'll see even more players and people and organizations continue to flourish in that regard."
Kane said the group, which also seeks to make hockey more "accessible and affordable" for youth in order to make the sport more diverse, should be ready to announce their charity initiatives Wednesday. That's an area in which Kaepernick is experienced. The QB donated $1 million across more than 30 organizations and formed Know Your Rights Camp, a charitable organization that seeks to "advance the liberation and well-being of [black] and [brown] communities."
Kaepernick has led the way for athletes speaking out against social injustice since he started protesting in 2016. His influence on the Hockey Diversity Alliance could be just as tangible.
"I will say the advice that he was able to give us was invaluable, and it was awesome to be able to hear some of the trials and tribulations he went through," Kane said of speaking with Kaepernick. "Obviously they've been well-documented, the majority of them, but (we also discussed) a lot of the positive change he's been able to make as an individual throughout these last three years, and how his movement is just gonna be able to continue to grow."