After some thought, conversation and contemplation, the NHL players took action and sat out Thursday and Friday’s Stanley Cup Playoff games in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles.
Vegas Golden Knights tough guy Ryan Reaves led a big group of Western Conference players who spoke from Edmonton, and Bruins captain Zdeno Chara was a representative among Eastern Conference players doing the same in Toronto.
Chara added his thoughts to sitting out Friday night’s game against Tampa Bay, which has basically pushed everything on the NHL schedule back a day, with the Bruins and Lightning now playing Game 4 on Saturday at noon.
The message was very clear: These days are about shining a light on the racial injustices in American society right now and ways to fix it rather than shuffling it all in with the distraction that pro sports provides for everybody.
“We’re battling on the ice to move on and competing for the Stanley Cup,” said Chara. “But off the ice, we all recognize that we are in the same boat, we are united and we support the stand that other major leagues did. We thought it was the right thing to do for us to take a stand. I think it’s a conversation.
“We need to step back, reflect a little bit and take a moment to realize what is going on. Obviously, there is a problem in the [United] States and there’s a right reason that all of the major sports are doing what they are doing right now. We all realize there needs to be a change. It starts with conversations and acts will be very important to follow.”
The Western Conference press availability was truly inspiring with white players like Kevin Shattenkirk and the Vancouver Canucks leadership group reaching out to Reaves, who is also currently playing the Canucks in a spirited playoff series, on how to proceed when things started to happen around the sports world on Wednesday.
It all culminated with a group of 40-plus players on the dais standing behind Reaves, Nazem Kadri, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Jason Dickinson and Bo Horvat to show their full support for the player-driven boycott.
“Last night I struggled with what I wanted to do. I woke up with a text from [Kevin] Shattenkirk and he had a bunch of guys that wanted to talk,” said Reaves. “I got a text that Vancouver wanted to talk. The conversation started with white players wanting to talk. I couldn’t be prouder of these guys. The statement we’ve made today is something that’s going to last.
These two days aren’t going to fix anything, but the conversations and the statement that has been made are very powerful especially coming from this league.
The NHL and their players were criticized in the immediate hours Wednesday as NBA players boycotted in the aftermath of the disturbing shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Some MLB players opted to sit out their scheduled games, and MLS and WNBA players did the same while some NFL practices were cancelled. There was an immediate reaction to the unrest in Wisconsin, the subsequent killings of protesters by a white gunman and the inadequate reaction by authorities in Kenosha as yet another example of the systemic racism and unequal treatment that people unjustly endure in day-to-day American life.
Bruins players like Chara and Patrice Bergeron said they were preparing to play in Game 3 and didn’t realize what was happening until they were already in pregame playoff game mode, a moment in their minds that was too late to stop the games.
But give all NHL players credit for this: Rather than blindly following the lead of other leagues in a move that could be questioned as pandering or out of obligation, they took the time to discuss it with other players, involve the impressive Hockey Diversity Alliance and come up with a plan of action that shines a spotlight on inequality issues while giving the hockey world time to think about the next steps.
Everybody wants instant reaction and immediacy in this short attention span social media world that we live in, but the NHL and their players have time and time again shown the patience to gather facts, discuss it openly amongst everyone and come up with a sensible, effective game plan that everybody is on board with. It’s a very similar kind of deliberate, open-minded approach that has made the NHL’s bubble play so successful with the Stanley Cup Playoffs currently midway through crowning a champion.
Clearly the very real racial inequality and social injustice that’s spurring protests, boycotts and untold amounts of pain and anguish across the United States isn’t going to be solved in a couple of days as the sports world — including the NHL — takes a pause to think about what’s next.
That much is painfully and disturbingly obvious.
But professional athletes hitting the pause button has once again shown their power to push an important, uncomfortable conversation to the forefront, and for that alone everybody across the NBA, NHL, MLB, NFL, MLS and others deserves credit for putting real action to their words.