NHL players united Thursday to declare that their Black teammates shouldn’t bear the burden of pushing for change, as the league postponed its playoffs by two days in response to other leagues.
Two second-round games on Thursday and two more on Friday, including Game 4 of the Bruins-Lightning series, will be rescheduled after players decided to support a call from the Hockey Diversity Alliance to “allow players and fans to reflect on what happened and to send a message that human rights must take priority over sport.”
The NHL did not immediately say when the games would resume, but Saturday was the anticipated date.
Thursday’s statements came a day after players watched as their peers in the NBA, WNBA, MLB and MLS chose to sit out games in protest of racial injustice and police brutality, and were widely criticized for their tepid response.
Vegas forward Ryan Reaves, who is Black, said he woke up Thursday to a text from Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who “had a bunch of guys that wanted to talk,” Reaves said. He also received a text saying players from Vancouver, which is involved in a heated playoff series with Vegas, wanted to do the same.
Reaves spoke as he stood next to Colorado’s Nazem Kadri and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, two players of color, and Dallas’ Jason Dickinson and Vancouver’s Bo Horvat. Behind them stood a room full of masked players from the Golden Knights, Stars, Avalanche and Canucks, who are sharing space in the NHL’s Edmonton hub.
“There’s a lot of white athletes in there,” Reaves said. “That’s the statement that’s being made right now. It’s great that the NBA did this, and MLB and WNBA. They have a lot of Black players in those leagues. For all these athletes in here to take a stand and say, ‘We see the problem too, and we stand behind you’ — I go to war with these guys and I hate their guts on the ice, but I couldn’t be more proud of these guys.
“Two days [off] isn’t going to fix anything, but the conversation and the statement that’s been made is very powerful.”
All three NHL games on Wednesday, including Game 3 of the Bruins-Lightning second-round series, were played as scheduled. The first game of the afternoon, between the Flyers and Islanders, was underway when the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic decided to strike.
Milwaukee is about 40 miles north of Kenosha, Wisc., where Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot seven times in the back by police on Sunday. Two white men protesting the Blake shooting were later shot and killed, allegedly by 17-year-old white teenager Kyle Rittenhouse, who traveled from his home in Antioch, Ill., 40 minutes south of Kenosha, armed with a military-style semi-automatic weapon.
Before the Bruins-Lightning game in Toronto, Scotiabank Arena public address announcer Mike Ross read a brief statement, as video boards displayed the words, “End Racism,” and “We Skate for Black Lives.”
Sabres forward Wayne Simmonds, a founding HDA member, called the moment “a futile attempt” to show support. “We were disappointed with how the NHL responded,” Simmonds said on TSN 1050 in Toronto. “We were the only league to not postpone or cancel games yesterday, which I think is a shame. As a black man playing in the NHL, it’s a little bit of a slap in the face.”
Bruins captain Zdeno Chara and alternate captain Patrice Bergeron, who voiced their anti-racist and pro-social justice beliefs after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis in May, reaffirmed those feelings Wednesday. They said there was no pregame discussion of sitting out because it was too close to game time.
On Thursday, Chara said it was “the right thing to do to take a stand,” and hoped everyone inside and outside the game used the two days “in the right manner.”
“We need to step back, reflect a little bit, just to take a little moment to realize what’s going on,” he said. “Obviously there’s a problem in the States . . . We all realize there needs to be change. It started with the conversations. Acts are going to be very important to follow.”
Thursday was a day of education for a league that said was listening and learning in the wake of Floyd’s death.
When asked Thursday morning if he felt it was right that hockey continued on as usual, Lightning coach Jon Cooper said his team was discussing the issue.
“I don’t think anything feels right right now, to be honest,” Cooper said. “These events are happening and it’s just taking some time to digest. So it’s hard for me to answer that right now.”
Also that morning, Philadelphia coach Alain Vigneault said he was too deep in the playoffs to consider social issues.
“I have really no idea what’s going on in the outside world,” Vigneault said. “We’re in this bubble right now, I’m invested 24-7 on our team, working 20 hours a day, going through video, and preparing our group. I don’t do Twitter, I haven’t read a single sports article in I don’t know how long, and I haven’t read any type of article in I don’t know how long.
“I guess I’m a hockey nerd, and that’s what I’m doing right now.”
Vigneault said he supports the NHL’s social justice initiatives.
“Right now what we’re trying to do is play a game,” he said. “This is the most important time of the year for us. It’s playoff hockey.”
That came as no surprise to some.
“The NHL is always late to the party, especially on these topics,” Wild defenseman Mathew Dumba, another founding HDA member and a Canadian of Filipino descent, said Wednesday on Sportsnet 650 in Vancouver. “So it’s sort of sad and disheartening for me and other members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, and I’m sure other guys across the league.”
The NHL, in its statement announcing the postponements, mentioned by name Black victims of police shootings, but did not mention police.
“Black and Brown communities continue to face real, painful experiences,” the statement read. “The NHL and NHLPA recognize that much work remains to be done before we can play an appropriate role in a discussion centered on diversity, inclusion and social justice.
“We understand that the tragedies involving Jacob Blake, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others require us to recognize this moment.”
Ottawa defenseman Mark Borowiecki had a response to fans doubting the players’ actions would have any effect.
“What a sad mindset,” he wrote on Instagram. “Meaningful change is a process, and any proactive step to effect change, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, is meaningful. If we had adopted this ‘Why bother?’ attitude throughout history, would any injustice have been corrected or fought?”