Hours after the NHL officially announced it had postponed two days of playoff games due to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Western Conference players held a 20-minute press conference from inside the Edmonton bubble explaining their decision.
Black players Ryan Reaves of the Colorado Avalanche and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare of the Colorado Avalanche were joined at the podium by the Avalanche’s Nazem Kadri, a Hockey Diversity Alliance member whose family is from Lebanon and identifies as a Muslim; the Stars’ Jason Dickinson, who kneeled with three other players during an August 3 game; and Bo Horvat, the captain of the Vancouver Canucks. The five speakers were joined by dozens of their mask-wearing teammates who stood behind them in unity. In a league that has always sported predominantly white athletes, it was a powerful and unprecedented moment against systemic racism.
The players explained that the movement was organic and started by the league’s white athletes. Players wanted games canceled on Thursday and Friday so that they, along with NHL fans, could reflect and educate themselves on racial injustice and make changes moving forward.
Ryan Reaves, at times emotional, explained how it all happened.
“Last night I struggled with what I wanted to do,” Reaves said, as he observed other athletes in sports boycott games. “Whether it was, ‘Am I really going to walk out on my team and be the only guy (to protest)? Or Is it going to be a couple of guys?’ But I woke up to a text from Kevin Shattenkirk and he had a bunch of guys out East there. They wanted to talk. Then I got a text that Vancouver wanted to talk. That, I think, was more powerful – the conversation started by white players on other teams wanting to talk. I think that’s the most powerful thing that happened today.
“It’s great that the NBA did this and the MLB and the WNBA,” Reaves continued. “They have a lot of Black players in those leagues. But for all these athletes in here to take a stand and say ‘You know what? We see the problem too and we stand behind you.’ I go to war with these guys and hate their guts on the ice but I couldn’t be more proud of these guys. The statement they made today is something that’s going to last… The conversation and the statement is very powerful, especially coming from this league.”
The decision to squash two days’ worth of games began with the Vancouver Canucks, who held a team meeting during their morning skate and then reached out to Reaves to start a dialogue on how they could be supportive.
“We talked about it in the room this morning and obviously realizing the impact it’s having on the world and around the sports communities and everything that was going on with basketball and the MLB, we talked about it as a group and then we wanted to talk to Ryan and Vegas,” Bo Horvat said. “We just all thought it was the best course of action. This kind of stuff can’t stand. We need to educate ourselves and realize what’s going on in the world. There needs to be change and us, being all together here as one, definitely shows strength in the hockey community as well as in the world.”
"There needs to be change. Us being all together here, as one, definitely shows the strength in the hockey community" – Bo Horvat
"The conversation started with white players on other teams wanting to talk" – Ryan Reaves pic.twitter.com/dEKuLw9Fr0
— SB Nation NHL (@SBNationNHL) August 28, 2020
Players began to meet as a whole and eventually the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders followed suit wanting to sit out their game. Players on every remaining team, in the end, chose to postpone one game each and the NHL will restart playing on Saturday. Thursday evening, the NHL made it official and announced the decision in a joint press release along with the NHLPA.
Nazem Kadri, who chose to wear a Cassius Clay hoodie to the press conference, said that Muhammad Ali, an activist and one of the greatest boxers of all-time, was his favorite athlete. Ali’s leadership decades ago, criticizing the Vietnam War and advocating for racial justice, impacted this moment.
“As leaders up here with the NHL, I think we have a unique opportunity to create sustainable change,” Kadri said. “That’s what this is all about. It’s not just about one or two guys, it’s every single player being on the same page and sticking together. Morally and ethically, this is the right thing to do.”
He added, “Some things are bigger than sports. There comes a time where you’ve got to start acting on your word. You can say and put up signs and have all that stuff (on social media), it’s great, but at the end of the day, what are we really doing to make a difference? It’s that time for action.”
The NHL, which frequently leads from behind on racial issues, was criticized for being the only major sports league to not postpone games. Jason Dickinson said that everything happened so fast on Wednesday that the players were unable to start a meaningful dialogue.
“I don’t think us not reacting quick enough was necessarily a bad thing,” Dickinson said. “We’re doing our part now and we’re trying to do what we can here today and tomorrow. We could have not played yesterday but it was hard for us to start that conversation and get it going. We were able to dive into it better today and open up as a group. Obviously, Vancouver and Vegas were able to open up together and things stemmed from there.”
The NHLPA is beginning to lean on the recently-created Hockey Diversity Alliance, which consists of nine current or former minority NHL players, for advice and leadership. The HDA formally asked the NHL to postpone games on Thursday afternoon after meeting with players throughout the day. The press release said that postponing games would allow “players and fans to reflect on what happened and to send a message that human rights must take priority over sport.”
“They’re getting the ball rolling to bring the white allyship rolling and bring us on board,” Dickinson said. “I can’t say that we’ve got a definitive plan today. We’re working on things and that’s why we need a couple days to talk things out and get organized and really hash out a plan because we can talk all we want, but until we do something, it’s all just words.”
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare added that “the main point is that we’re all here and we’re aware of what’s going on and it has to stop. This is a message that we’re sending to the NHL that we want to work together to make a different step and making sure this never happens again. The HDA has a plan and it’s up to us, after the bubble, to make sure that we work together with our communities to make sure it gets better and better. The reason why we’re here right now is because there’s nobody happy in this room with what’s happening right now.”
Kadri, an HDA member, added that the group has proposed “certain initiatives and policies that we would like the NHL to act on. We feel that it’s very reasonable.”
In the end, NHL players felt that having a collective voice as one was the most important.
“You can change the five guys in front of the mics it would be the same answers and that’s the key,” Bellemare observed.
Four Eastern Conference players, Anders Lee of the New York Islanders, James van Riemsdyk of the Philadelphia Flyers, Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins, and Kevin Shattenkirk of the Tampa Bay Lightning, also met with the media and gave their perspectives.
Shattenkirk, who was one of the leaders of the movement, summed it up best.
“Today, I think unified us as a group to realize that any Black player in this league, any Black player as a kid coming up playing hockey, can feel like they have a voice,” Shattenkirk said. He added, we want them to “feel like the NHL and the sport itself is a safe place and a place that obviously in a predominantly white sport, they feel alienated, they have the support of every single one of us. That’s what we’re striving to achieve here is inclusion and make sure everyone feels welcome in the sport of hockey.”
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