“Stick to sports.” For years, it’s been the go-to plea for a certain breed of fan, the type who want their viewing experience kept free of any sort of politicizing – or at least from the kind with which they don’t personally agree.
In the Donald Trump era, it seems like it could also become the NHL’s motto.
While the NFL and NBA are at the forefront of the battle over recent player protests (with the MLB chiming in, too), the NHL seems to be desperately trying to sit this one out. League commissioner Gary Bettman had already scolded the players about keeping politics away from the rink, and the very nature of the league itself seems to preclude the sort of activism we’re seeing elsewhere. Blake Wheeler and some of his Winnipeg Jets teammates had thoughtful remarks on the situation and the San Jose Sharks’ Joel Ward is weighing his options, but they’ve been the exception as other teams struggle with how to handle things.
And so on Sunday, as the rest of the sports world was rising up against the U.S. president’s weekend remarks, the Pittsburgh Penguins were quick to confirm that they’d still be visiting the White House as usual. The statement seemed poorly timed, and was disappointing to many fans, but it hardly caught anyone by surprise. Hockey people just don’t do politics.
Except that they do, at least sometimes. The league certainly does – just a few weeks ago, they inserted themselves directly into Calgary’s mayoral election. And while it’s relatively rare, the league’s players will occasionally weigh in on a topic with bigger ramifications than just playing the game and getting pucks in deep.
So today, while the league’s current players wrestle with what, if anything, they should say or do to make their voices heard, here’s a look back at five times that the hockey and political worlds have crossed paths.
It was impossible to watch the reaction to the Penguins’ decision unfold without thinking of Thomas, the Boston Bruins goalie who made headlines in 2012 when he refused to join his teammates for their White House visit. Thomas made it clear that his decision was based on his personal politics and view that “the federal government has grown out of control.”
Thomas was widely criticized for the decision (including, no doubt, by some of the same voices attacking the Penguins for doing the opposite this time around). Some fans even mocked him with Barack Obama photos in that year’s playoffs. Thomas didn’t back off on his politics, though, posting occasional opinions on his personal Facebook page.
Thomas sat out the 2012-13 season, and a comeback bid the following year didn’t amount to much. He’s been out of the league since, and has kept a relatively low profile. To this day, many fans remember him as much for his White House snub as for his two Vezina Trophies or his Conn Smythe Trophy-winning performance during Boston’s run to the 2011 Stanley Cup.
It probably wouldn’t even be accurate to call Avery a divisive player. By the end of his career, nobody seemed to like the guy, and to this day he tends to top most lists of the most hated pests in hockey history. And for the most part, he earned it.
But that makes it easy to forget that Avery was also one of the first voices in the NHL to speak up in favor of gay rights, lending his voice to ads championing New York’s marriage equality act in 2011. While it was only six years ago, this was before the sports world had heard stories like those of Jason Collins or Michael Sam, and championing gay rights was a rare stance for a pro athlete. And unlike many athletes who speak out, Avery didn’t stop at just voicing his personal opinion – he made it clear that he hoped the rest of the league (and its leadership) would follow his example.
While it’s true that the NHL almost never gets involved in political or social issues, the push for equal treatment of gay athletes has been a notable exception. Names like Brian and Patrick Burke have pushed the sport to be more inclusive, and many prominent players have lent their support. It’s been a rare and welcome example of the league leading on an issue, rather than trailing behind or sitting out altogether. And like him or not, Avery played an early part in that.
When Cherry was at the height of his popularity in the ’80s and ’90s, it wasn’t unusual to see fans at NHL rinks holding “Don Cherry for Prime Minister” signs.
That never came close to happening, of course, because handing the reins of government over to a controversial TV star best known for saying outrageous things would clearly be disastrous. But Cherry hasn’t shied away from real-world topics over the years, including his support for police and military members. And in 2010, he got directly involved in Toronto politics by supporting controversial mayor Rob Ford.
In an appearance at city hall, Cherry took aim at “left-wing pinkos” and “left-wing kooks” while praising the new mayor’s honesty. He assured council that Ford was “going to be the greatest mayor this city has ever seen.” This, of course, was before the infamous crack video and everything that followed, and it’s fair to say that Cherry’s support of Ford doesn’t hold up all that well in hindsight. Sometimes, the impulse to stay out of politics might be the wise one.
Cherry never did make that run for prime minister, but plenty of hockey names have gone on to political office after their careers were over. Frank Mahovlich was a longtime Canadian senator. Syl Apps was elected to office in Ontario, as was Red Kelly at the federal level. And Jean Beliveau was offered the role of Canada’s Governor General in 1994, but declined.
And then there’s Dryden, who at one point seemed to be headed to an even higher office. The former Canadiens star and Maple Leafs president made the transition to politics in 2004, when he was elected to Canadian parliament as part of the Liberal government. He was named to the cabinet, and re-elected two years later. By April 2006, he was throwing his hat into a crowded ring for the party leadership, and initially seemed like a decent bet to win it. If he had, there’s a good chance he could’ve gone on to become the country’s prime minister someday.
Dryden’s campaign eventually stalled, and he was eliminated on the second ballot. He’d go on to hold his federal seat until 2011.
Richard’s place in Canada’s political history is complicated. He was a hero in Quebec, especially among the province’s francophone population. As a French-Canadian star on a French-Canadian team in an otherwise English league, he came to symbolize an entire culture’s hopes and grievances.
Whether he actually wanted all that is a matter of some debate. Later in life, Richard himself pushed back on the idea that he was a political icon, and he rarely spoke out publicly on the issues of the day. No doubt, at least some of the Rocket’s political reputation was based on fans projecting their own views onto him.
However, there’s little question that he was at the center of one of Canada’s more important political moments of the 1950s. When Richard was suspended by league president Clarence Campbell late in the 1954-55 season, many Montreal fans saw it as yet another example of a French star being unfairly singled out by the league’s English leadership. When Campbell insisted on attending the Canadiens’ next home game, the resulting riot raged until Richard himself went on the radio the next day to ask for calm.
Far beyond a mere hockey incident, many view the Richard riots as a precursor to Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s. It may also serve as a reminder for today’s stars: sometimes, your stature means that political influence finds you whether you want that role or not.