After winning gold and bronze medals respectively at the 1968 Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the podium with their fists in the air. They were making a statement about racial inequality in the United States at a time when doing so was not only frowned upon, but it was a legitimate danger to their lives. The two men stood in solidarity on the biggest stage in order to stand up against racism and proclaim to the world that Black Lives Matter. They were doing something the NHL is still afraid to do more than 50 years later.
Black athletes have been protesting the racial injustice in the United States for more than half a century, but for the NHL, they still can’t figure out how to properly show their support for their POC players and the movement.
We are nearly four years removed from Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid taking a knee for the first time before an NFL game. The two men made a statement, that was not only condemned by ignorant owners and fans, but also led to the end of Kapernick’s football career as we know it. As the 2016 season progressed, a handful of other NFL players joined the protest of the national anthem but when they did, they were left on an island by both the league and their teammates.
Now, with social change and racial injustice at center stage throughout North American Society, the NHL still seems unwilling to show an understanding of the issue — or make any sort of meaningful statement on the issue.
Minority players in the NHL are still on an island as the league is falling well behind the rest of the sports world and society as a whole.
Prior to their first games back after a nearly five month hiatus, the NHL decided they would “stand in solidarity” by allowing the two teams to line the bluelines together for the national anthems. It was a hollow statement the first time as the players did not “link arms” as the statement said they would, the announcer on the NBCSN broadcast reading the prepared statement by the league made no mention of Black Lives Matter, and the Sportsnet anchor said nothing at all during the moment in the evening game. That hollow statement was made only more so a day later when a few of the league’s visible minorities finally took the ice.
The game between the Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild featured four People of Color — Nazem Kadri, Matt Dumba, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Jordan Greenway. The four men stood together with their hands on each other’s shoulders to show support for one another.
The four of them wanted to show that they were united on the ice, regardless of which team they play for. What made the visual staggering was the fact that not a single white player from either team was willing to join them. They just stood in their own place the way they would do at any other game. It was a moment that was meaningful for them, and the NHL grabbed the visual and used it to act as though everyone else was doing a lot more than they actually are.
It was a show of unity among players who have faced unique circumstances in their life within hockey — but there’s no reason they had to do so alone. It was a perfect encapsulation of the racial issues that exist within hockey. It’s not that the other players are outwardly racist but it shows a fatal flaw in “hockey culture” — that players are unwilling to rock the boat, buck the trend, or take a stand.
The lack of support from the rest of the NHL is not something that has gone unnoticed. When asked about it after the game, Kadri made a point to express his desire for the league to do more to support their players of color:
“It’s an important thing for us to address. As players, we have addressed it but from a league standpoint, we’d like to see a little more acknowledgement and have them address the situation, knowing that they stand with their players”
Kadri's full quote: "From the league standpoint, we’d like to see a little more acknowledgement and having them address the situation and knowing they stand with their players."— Hemal Jhaveri (@hemjhaveri) July 29, 2020
The NHL has shown time and again that whether it be through ignorance or cowardice, they are unwilling to make a strong statement on race or inequality. Something that is making them fall behind nearly every other professional sports league in North America.
Before their first game back this summer, MLS players joined on the pitch — fist in the air — in a show of solidarity with the newly formed Black Players for Change organization. It was a powerful statement and one that shows a unity that had been previously unseen in North American professional sports.
Then just last week, the WNBA took a stand of their own as players from the New York Liberty and Seattle Storm walked off the court before the US national anthem. The players in the league then went on to dedicate the season to both Breonna Taylor and the SayHerName initiative. While showing unity as a group, the players made a statement that was loud and impactful.
Following suit, the NBA has decided to allow their players to put messages of protest on their jersey nameplates, they have also painted Black Lives Matter on their court during their nationally televised playoff games, and broadcast commercials calling for racial justice and Black Lives Matter.
NBA will allow the home teams in Orlando to submit content and graphics incorporating social justice messages to be displayed on the in-game venue video boards, league tells teams in a memo today.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 30, 2020
To go along with the leagues we’ve seen return this summer, we know that Black NFL players have plans for when their season begins in the fall - plans that they are going to force the league and their owners to stand behind.
Even NASCAR has shown more of a willingness to stand behind their one black driver than the NHL has been able to muster. They’ve fully backed Bubba Wallace and gone above and beyond to tell the world that he belongs in their sport.
These statements of protest are ones initiated by the players but supported by their leagues — a support Nazem Kadri has made clear players of color don’t feel from their league.
As a white man writing about a sport that is overwhelmingly white, I need to listen and act. So when someone like Kadri stands up and tells the national media that they want more support and acknowledgment, that is what I am going to do, and that is what we all should do.
We are a team at Mile High Hockey, and so Hardev and I worked together on this article from the top down. Hardev has a unique and extremely important perspective on the situation that he felt comfortable sharing as well:
As a person of color, I know I’m not alone when I feel alone in a hockey rink, or in a press box, or at a scrum. That feeling of having a shared experience of loneliness with my fellow people of color who work in hockey was physically manifested in that picture before the game. It was heartbreaking. Finding your fellow outsiders in a community where no one will stand with you or have your back is the only bit of comfort in our reality of hockey’s culture.
Seeing Kadri, Bellemare, Dumba, and Greenway out there was a moment of celebration for a lot of fans, particularly white fans of the Avs and Wild. A chance to gloat at the rest of the league because “hey look, we did something.” But it wasn’t that at all for the marginalized people this was supposed to be in solidarity with. It was a moment of “hey look, we’re still on our own.” There wasn’t any unity there, there was just people unwilling to acknowledge racism and those unable to ignore it.
The lack of support from the NHL was expected; we knew they were going to create an avenue for players to look like they’re doing something different without knowing what they’re doing it for. Does Nathan MacKinnon stand for Black Lives Matter, or was he standing to acknowledge the frontline workers during this pandemic? We don’t know if it’s one, both, or neither because the NHL has purposefully made it vague so they can say it’s whatever they want. That’s how teams have been tweeting this week.
My larger point is that when we ask for buy-in, we mean full buy-in, because otherwise it can be ignored. All the other leagues and unions have organized significant numbers of their players to perform coordinated, safe, activism together. The NHLPA has had months, and they’ve done nothing to support their players. Right now, I see four NHLers on an island differentiated by their skin colors. I also see the Hockey Diversity Alliance on their own island, separate from the NHL, after a year of Akim Aliu trying to work with them on an initiative.
I thought hockey players were supposed to defend their teammates no matter what. Right now there’s nothing coming from the Avs, Wild, or the 700 or so players in these two bubbles with them. NHL players need to step up and back their teammates. Stand with them, not around them.
Fans need to show the support for these players that the league isn’t giving them. We can help by amplifying the voices of those willing to speak out like Kadri, Evander Kane or Akim Aliu. We can help by calling out the league for their hollow gestures of “support”. We can help by calling out the inaction by the players. Most importantly, we can help by being conscious of our own words and actions as fans while attempting to help push for change alongside those who need it.