This fall, it will have been three years since Minnesota Wild forward J.T. Brown — who was, at the time, with the Tampa Bay Lightning — chose to raise his fist in solidarity with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick during the national anthem.
When he first opted to bring his protest to the ice, Brown was met with death threats on social media. His wife was sent threats, and in the years since the pair have been subjected to horrific comments about their children, their biracial relationship, and Brown’s activism.
Now, in the wake of yet another widely publicized black life taken at the hands of a law enforcement officer, more and more NHL players have been publicly coming out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. On the Colorado Avalanche alone, a handful — including captain Gabriel Landeskog and veterans Ian Cole and Matt Calvert — have made strong statements opposing racism and looking to support social change.
There have been questions as to whether or not protests could spill over onto the ice, particularly given that the 2019-20 season will potentially wrap up in the coming months with the delayed play-in and postseason. So far, the NHL hasn’t come out either in support of or against any potential in-game protesting — and in a strongly-worded interview with TSN’s Rick Westhead, Avalanche centre Nazem Kadri has pointed out that that’s simply not good enough.
Kadri’s full comments to Westhead are worth reading in the TSN article itself, but the gist is clear: Kadri would like to see the NHL openly encourage players to continue protesting and supporting equality, even if it bleeds over into a game-time experience.
“Silent hate has been spread across the world for too many years now and it’s important for us players who believe the same things to stick together. Whatever players want to do to voice their opinions, those are the same opinions that help grow the leagues, and make the NHL, the NBA, the NFL, the leagues they are today,” he said.
It’s a strong statement, miles ahead of the generic (but well-meaning) calls against racism and rally cries that we’re “all in this together” from the majority of players. For Kadri, though, the fact that so many players have been willing to speak out where they would have historically been silent — particularly with so many like Brown, Tyler Seguin, Zdeno Chara, and others attending Black Lives Matter rallies and protests across North America — is a sign that players should be able to carry their voices onto their most widely-viewed platform, as well.
“In years past, leagues were able to prevent players from speaking up about controversial issues,” he said. “Now that everybody is coming together and one voice turns into 10, turns into 100 turns into 1,000, I think we as people and players can use that as leverage.”
Westhead confirmed that the NHL has yet to give their position either way on whether or not players will be allowed to protest during games, particularly since the logistics of hockey make it tough to do anything visible outside of a raised fist or another clear-cut action prior to puck drop. Where NBA players and soccer stars overseas have historically been able to wear t-shirts during warm-ups, NHL players would have to don special jerseys to wear their messages on their chests or backs.
It’s not clear just how many players would take a clear public stance during either warm-ups or the national anthem, and it’s tough to tell how far things will have progressed in terms of social change by the time play starts back up again. At the moment, formal ‘training camp’ style preparation for the play-in is set to start in July, but there’s no formal timeline yet.
Whenever it returns, hockey will be coming back to a changed world. For the first time, the NHL is going to be forced to face the questions of racial inequity within the sport. Whether it be from fans, sponsors or the newly formed Hockey Diversity Alliance. They’ve been silent so far but eventually that silence is going to speak volumes. Without a definitive statement on the issues Kadri, Brown and the HDA are speaking out against, the league is going to look as though they are not taking the fight for a societal sea-change seriously.
Eventually, the NHL is going to have to take a side. Hopefully they make the right choice and stand on the side of Kadri, and the progress he and many others are fighting for. We certainly stand with them.