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On Hockey

On Wednesday, the NHL had a chance to take a stand against systemic racism. Instead, it stood down

There was a "moment of reflection" prior to the Bruins-Lightning game in Toronto, but the game went on as scheduled.
There was a "moment of reflection" prior to the Bruins-Lightning game in Toronto, but the game went on as scheduled.Frank Gunn/Associated Press

The NHL had a chance to be a real player in the ongoing social justice discussion Wednesday night and join teams in the NBA, MLB, WNBA, and MLS in saying, “Enough!”

Instead, the Stanley Cup games went on as usual — as usual as hockey can be in the dog days of August — the NHL steadfastly keeping to its three-game playoff schedule, including Tampa Bay’s 7-1 blowout of the Bruins that had Boston fans screaming, “Enough!” in a far different, disconsolate sense.

The NHL really looked like it was living life in a bubble.

It was Concordite Henry David Thoreau, who died the year (1862) of the Emancipation Proclamation, who famously wrote about surrendering mainstream thought and action and following one’s conviction:

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“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

For certain teams in the NBA, WNBA, MLB, and MLS, the drum meant taking the night off, boycotting in order to shine a bright spotlight on America’s centuries-old racial biases and inequities, following the shootings this week in Kenosha, Wis., including the one that left Jacob Blake, a Black man, with seven slugs in his back and possibly a lifetime of paralysis in his future.

For its part, the NHL went with the same old song and dance.

Everybody in the NHL played. The Flyers vs. the Islanders in a matinee in Toronto, followed by the Lightning and Bruins in the evening game. In the Edmonton bubble, Game 3 of the series between Dallas and Colorado faced off at 10:30 pm Eastern.

Three games, no drums, at least none other than the sound of an industry churning away to appease its broadcast partners.

“I don’t know if there was discussion among the players, to be perfectly honest with you,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, when asked after the game if the team considered taking the night off, similar to other teams and leagues. “We, as the NHL, have voiced our opinion. We support the NBA and their players and their decision tonight. We’ll continue to fight for social justice and [being against] racism. I think the Bruins have been quite clear with their position on that, and the players, for that matter.”

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Whether the game was played, mused Cassidy, “I think that goes to a higher authority than me … so probably a better question to the players, if that was something they discussed.”

According to team captain Zdeno Chara, the Bruins players did not discuss a possible boycott prior to the game.

“It was so close to our game,” he said. “After our pregame meal, we took naps and then we were on the bus [from the hotel to the rink]. So, I don’t think any of us was watching the TV, until we got to the rink, and then at that point obviously it was too close to the game to start any discussions, or trying to move the games to different dates. [The NHL] had the afternoon game and we were just basically following the schedule that the NHL provided to us.”

Patrice Bergeron and Chara were clear in recent weeks about their stances against racism. Both insisted postgame their feelings haven’t changed.

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“We stand against any kind of racism,” said Bergeron. “My stance and our stance doesn’t change. Again, any form of injustice … I made a statement earlier, a few months ago … [Chara] did as well … and I stand behind that statement. I want to be part of the solution. Obviously, there needs to be change. That’s where I’m at. Obviously, it is about human rights and that’s it — all I have to say for that.”

Amid the national tumult of the afternoon, as the other leagues were shifting gears and scrapping games, the NHL crafted a message that was read over the public address system at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto prior to the 8:10 p.m. puck drop between the Bruins and Lightning.

“Racism has been embedded in our society for far too long,” said PA announcer Mike Ross, reading the NHL script. “Today and every day, the NHL and the hockey community are committed in the mission to combat racial injustice and achieve a fair society for all. The NHL would like to take this moment to wish Jacob Blake and his family well and call out to our fans and communities to stand up for social justice and the effort to end racism.”

Well written. No argument with the sentiment. Proof that even a league turned tone-deaf at a critical hour at least can posit the proper sentiment.

As for action meeting words, well … the games played on.

Oppressed people of color in the United States, now 158 years after first reading the words of the Emancipation Proclamation, know when words are only words. They’re looking for more.

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As a team, the Bruins acknowledged these realities in the hours leading up to their start of postseason play in Toronto. They proudly announced they would lock arms prior to faceoff as a show of solidarity with those facing racial oppression.

Like the NHL on Wednesday, they, too, crafted a statement:

“Over the past several months, we have been trying to educate ourselves and learn more about racial injustice in our country and around the world,” was the team statement posted on Twitter late last month. “As a team, we have decided to lock arms during the playing of the United States and Canadian anthems as a sign of solidarity with the Black community. The action is solely intended to be a positive sign of support for the Black community, and a way for us to use our platform to help end racism.”

There are no easy answers. We can all agree on that.

But the NHL will have to remember that on Wednesday, Aug., 26, 2020, it took the path of least resistance. While other leagues had enough, heard a different drum, and acted on it, the NHL stayed the course. That’s not effecting change. That’s continuing to live life inside a bubble that won’t change until someone in the league is brave enough to put a stick through it.


Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.