NHL gets pulled into politics, whether it wants to or not

The hockey world is stepping out of its comfort zone, with NHL teams and players speaking out on hot-button political topics, from the Pittsburgh Penguins’ decision to visit the White House to stories of experiencing racism.

Ever since they announced their intention to accept the invitation to visit the White House as Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been hearing a lot about how they’re on the wrong side of history. Some have lauded their courage to stick to their principles, while others have accused them of having a lack of courage to stand up against U.S. president Donald Trump and support their fellow athletes in the NFL and NBA.

Whether it likes it or not, hockey is getting drawn into this debate. Those who opined that hockey players are people of white privilege who stand on the sidelines and don’t pick sides because that’s what they’re taught to do are learning that some of these guys actually have minds of their own. The Penguins, for example, are exercising their right to accept an honor from an institution – the White House – without endorsing the man occupying it at the moment.

And when responding to reporters on the matter, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan had some very pointed comments, most of them in response to how captain Sidney Crosby has taken a beating for the Penguins’ decision to go to the White House. At one point, the poet laureate of Halifax called Crosby’s decision “an act of moral cowardice,” particularly since he comes from a town and a province that continues to grapple with racial tensions. Some have said the Penguins’ decision reinforces the notion that hockey is only for white people. Crosby has been accused publicly of being either ignorant or not caring when it comes to this issue. Former NHL player Georges Laraque called the Penguins’ decision “an embarrassment that they’re going.” The online attacks against the team and Crosby have been vicious.

“The fact that people seem to think Sid needs to bear the burden of responsibility is unfair,” said Sullivan to reporters in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. “This guy does nothing but come to the rink, help the Penguins win championships and be a good person every day. We have respect for those who choose to express themselves differently. I wish we would receive the same respect in return. I wish our captain would as well.”

Meanwhile, players around the league are wading into the debate. Tampa Bay Lightning winger J.T. Brown said he hasn’t ruled out some form of protest, nor has Joel Ward of the San Jose Sharks. And what is most refreshing about this whole thing is that if Ward does decide to take a knee during the anthem, he’ll have the full support of his teammates, his coach, his GM and his entire organization.

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Philadelphia Flyers star Wayne Simmonds said he fully supports Ward and would consider the possibility of taking a knee when his Flyers and Ward’s Sharks meet in the season opener for both teams Oct. 4 in San Jose. And Simmonds had some pretty impressive words of his own to sum up his feelings about the situation. “Everybody is relating to politics, but for the people who are doing the kneeling and protesting peacefully, I think it has nothing to do with how (other) people are taking it,” Simmonds told Sam Carchidi of on Wednesday. “Some people are saying it’s a disrespect to the flag, a disrespect to the Army. That’s not the thought process behind it, it’s just the vehicle that’s being used to create a conversation about social inequality.”

He then went on to say: “I don’t think it’s black and white. At this point, it’s about what’s wrong and what’s right. It’s not just a black and white thing. It’s the LGBT community, it different ethnicity…black, brown, Asian, all that. It shouldn’t just be black and white.”

So much for the big, dumb, Canadian, unengaged hockey player. P.K. Subban, meanwhile, reportedly told a group in Nashville at an event that he would never take a knee during the national anthem.

Simmonds also said that these conversations “aren’t going to be comfortable. It’s not supposed to be comfortable. The intention is to get a conversation going.”

Yes, the hockey world is definitely stepping out of its comfort zone here. Whether it’s the Penguins and their choice to visit the White House or others and their stories of experiencing racism, the conversation is going. And that’s as it should be. But what we’re seeing for the most part in the NHL is a respect for a person or an organization to be able to express themself, or not express themself, in whatever way they see fit. And that is definitely a good thing.