The initial reaction among many of us Wednesday night, observing the NHL’s “moment of reflection” to pay respect to Jacob Blake, shot seven times by police in Kenosha, Wisc., : disappointment. When NBA teams are boycotting playoff games en masse and MLB teams are walking off the field, a few seconds of silence in an empty arena felt, well, empty.
But when we stop to think about it: should we have been surprised? Sadly, no. Historically, any time the NHL has dipped the very tip of its collective toe in the political waters, it’s been reactive, not proactive. J.T. Brown raised his fist in 2017…alone. Mathew Dumba kneeled for the anthems and, later, raised his fist…alone. Ryan Reaves, Robin Lehner, Tyler Seguin and Jason Dickinson co-ordinated their pre-game kneeling a few weeks back and did so independently of any NHL plans.
It’s the players who wield the individual public influence. When the NHL wheels out halfhearted attempts at social awareness like ‘End Racism,’ it does so in support of stronger, more definitive statements by players like Dumba. When it unveils a code of conduct and announces plans for the Executive Inclusion Council, it’s all the result of a domino first toppled over by Akim Aliu. The brave individual in this context is the one who brings about change. Aliu is living proof that it works.
So if we want to see the NHL do something bold in the wake of the Blake shooting, such as postpone post-season games, it will have to be a reactive decision in response to the players wanting it. The NBA is undoubtedly light years ahead of other major pro sports leagues in its social justice advocacy, but, ultimately, it operated Wednesday in reaction to members of the Milwaukee Bucks announcing they would not play. The league is weighing decisions on next steps right now based on player meetings about whether the season should continue. The players have the power.
Would it be nice to see the leagues themselves at the front of the pack in the social justice movement? Of course. But, to take a cynical perspective, it’s not something we can expect at this point, especially on the NHL’s side, which reacts to these things with the reflexes of a sloth.
To quote a report from TSN’s Darren Dreger Thursday morning, “NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Exec Dir, Don Fehr spoke yesterday and it’s expected there will be a number of discussions between the NHL/NHLPA and players today. Unlikely the NHL changes its position unless driven by players.”
So if we accept that the change won’t start directly from the league side, what can we expect from the player side? The reactions Wednesday were a bit sleepy but did come from players who were only just processing the news of the boycotts.
"This was the first we're hearing about it,” said Flyers center Kevin Hayes following their afternoon tilt with the New York Islanders. “It's a situation I would like to think about before I answer. I don't really know what's going on at the moment."
"We've each got to take responsibility, respecting each other, treating each other equally,” added Flyers center Sean Couturier. “That will make us advance in society, whatever your skin color or sexual orientation or whatsoever. I think it's just important to respect each other and treat each other equally."
Seguin and Dickinson were the obvious ones to ask about their feelings following Dallas’ loss to Colorado Wednesday night. But they, too, expressed some trepidation or at least uncertainty over what to do.
“I think there are different ways to show your actions and what you support,” Seguin said. “(Dickinson) and I did (kneel) our first game, so I fully support what MLB and the NBA is doing. We just had the decision tonight to play the game. We look forward to showing our actions more in the coming days.”
Seguin said there was no serious consideration of not playing.
“I think the hardest thing to realize for this league, for all of us here in this situation, we come from all walks of life,” Dickinson said. “We’ve got guys from all over the country. It’s hard for some guys to have this hit home. I don’t want to say anybody’s blind or ignorant, but we are a league of a lot of Canadians, a lot of Europeans, so it’s hard when something doesn’t hit home. You look at the MLB, you look at the NBA, they’re primarily American players, so it’s easy to hit home for them. It’s easy for them to take a stance against something. ‘Seggy’ and I take a knee, and we get backlash that we’re not Americans, we shouldn’t be speaking out for something like that. But we believe that we’re close enough, as Canadians, that we have a right to say something, and in Canada, we have seen similar things. We try to give our two cents where we can, and tonight just didn’t seem like that was the right call to do.”
So what is the right call? It’s up to the NHL players to decide. Their collective ethnic makeup is obviously much whiter than that of the NBA or MLB – but that means a statement of allyship would carry a lot of weight. It’s not fair that the responsibility is on the players to make the first move toward a significant political gesture, but we know how the NHL operates, so that’s the way it is.