The NHL was one of the few professional sports leagues in North America that held games on Wednesday night, as players boycotted and leagues postponed games in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
For Evander Kane and other members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA), that simply wasn’t acceptable.
“Actually, it’s incredibly insulting as a Black man in hockey, the lack of action and acknowledgement from the NHL, just straight up insulting,” said Kane in a tweet on Wednesday.
Thursday morning, the HDA formally requested the NHL postpone two playoff games: the Philadelphia Flyers vs Boston Bruins in Toronto and Vancouver Canucks vs Vegas Golden Knights in Edmonton. In a statement, they said it would send "a clear message that human rights take priority over sports."
Players on each playoff team then had discussions with members of the HDA. In addition, Canucks players reportedly had discussions with Ryan Reaves, a Black player for the Golden Knights, about how to proceed. In the end, players pushed for the postponement of playoff games.
On Thursday afternoon, the NHL formally announced the postponement of not only both games on Thursday, but also games on Friday, affecting all eight remaining playoff teams. Games will resume on Saturday.
"After much discussion, NHL Players believe that the best course of action would be to take a step back and not play tonight's and tomorrow's games as scheduled," said a statement from the NHL. "The NHL supports the Players' decision."
Exactly. The PLAYERS took a stand today, they stepped up. Proud of my fellow nhl PLAYERS for their action. https://t.co/IKcsvcoUbl— Evander Kane (@evanderkane_9) August 27, 2020
According to TSN’s Frank Seravelli, at least one NHL team conducted a vote within the room and decided to support the HDA and to not play their Thursday night game. Larry Brooks of the New York Post reported that the team that was the “driving force” behind the decision not to play was the Canucks.
According to source, NYI-Philly were going to play tonight, but Canucks' stance shifted the dynamic heading into PA call. Van was scheduled to play Vegas.— Larry Brooks (@NYP_Brooksie) August 27, 2020
When asked about the situation after Wednesday’s practice, Troy Stecher’s thoughts and prayers were with the family and community in Kenosha.
“Personally, I haven’t seen the video, but I’ve heard all about the context and the incident,” said Stecher. “It’s heart-wrenching and it’s disgusting and, just like anything in life, as a team you need to come together. We need change and this is direct evidence of that.”
For some, the NHL’s actions are a day late. Wednesday was almost completely barren when it came to sports.
It began with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, whose players voted to boycott their game in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The shooting and the video that circulated online after the shooting led to protests and a resurgence in calls for police reform.
In response, the rest of the NBA stood with the Bucks and cancelled their games, with other leagues quickly following suit. The NHL, however, continued with their scheduled games Wednesday night, pausing only for a "moment of reflection" prior to the early game in Toronto. There was no "moment of reflection" before the later game in Edmonton.
The NHL has been criticized for its handling of the Black Lives Matter movement, notably avoiding use of the phrase “Black lives matter” and choosing to highlight their own slogan: “We skate for…” with the phrase appended with everything from “Black lives” to “frontline workers.”
While players in other sports kneeled together during anthems to show support for Black Lives Matter, few hockey players did the same. Matt Dumba, a member of the HDA, gave a speech prior to a game and took a knee, and also raised his fist during the anthems prior to each Minnesota Wild game, but none of his teammates or opponents joined him. Prior to one exhibition game, Ryan Reaves and Robin Lehner of the Vegas Golden Knights took a knee during the anthem, joined by Jason Dickinson and Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars.
The HDA, however, has pushed for the NHL to do more and this was a clear opportunity for the hockey world to stand in solidarity with their fellow athletes in other sports.
For many fans, sports are a distraction from some of the uglier realities of the world and politics, but for the athletes pushing for these protests, that’s part of the problem. They do not want to distract attention from the more important protests against police brutality. In addition, for athletes that have grown up with the realities of racism as part of their daily lives, it’s an opportunity to use their platform to draw attention to those realities.
Most hockey players, however, have not had to live with those realities. The NHL is predominantly white, with most players growing up in privileged backgrounds simply due to the high cost of equipment and training. There are massive barriers in place, both due to economics and some of the darker aspects of hockey culture, that make it difficult for people of colour to find a place in hockey.
The larger conversations sparked by Black Lives Matter and the shooting of Jacob Blake and extrajudicial killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many other names, have become unavoidable for the NHL and their players.
With the postponement of Thursday’s games, the NHL has finally joined the conversation.
UPDATE: Players from the Western Conference playoff bubble made a powerful statement by standing together for their media availability following the announcement that playoff games would be postponed.
"We needed to do something and make a stand," said Canucks captain Bo Horvat. "We met as a group and went over to Vegas and met as a group there and thought that this was going to be the best form of action to take."
"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." - Ryan Reaves pic.twitter.com/EL6iXMRWJO— TSN (@TSN_Sports) August 27, 2020
According to Reaves, he was considering walking out on Thursday night's game and was worried that he would do so alone, but woke up to texts from Horvat as well as Kevin Shattenkirk of the Tampa Bay Lightning, wanting to discuss the issue. He saw it as a powerful gesture that he did not have to begin the conversation, as people of colour so often have to do, but that it started with white players from other teams reaching out.
"If you look around this room, there's a lot of white athletes here," said Reaves. "I think that's a statement that's being made right now. It's great that the NBA did this, and MLB, and the WNBA, they have a lot of Black players in those leagues, but for all these athletes in here to take a stand and say, 'We see the problem too and we stand behind you.' You know, I go to war with these guys and hate their guts on the ice, but I couldn't be more proud of these guys.
"This statement they've made today is something that's going to last. These two days aren't going to fix anything, but the conversation and the statement that's been made is very powerful, especially coming from this league."
Canucks head coach Travis Green noted how proud he was of his players reaching across the aisle to their opponent in their playoff series.
"There's sports and then there's things that are bigger than sports," said Green. "I wasn't surprised at all this morning when I spoke to our players and they wanted to talk to Ryan [Reaves]. I felt that was the right thing to do. These guys, they're teammates within the league...Our group wanted to make sure that Ryan knew that they were behind him."
"It's hard not to be proud of them," added Green.