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Screen Shots: Where is hockey's Muhammad Ali?

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

I found this column by Washington-based writer Greg Wyshynski fascinating, because it quotes a bona fide NHL star weighing in on a topic considered absolutely radioactive in hockey circles: politics.

That’s right, politics – the ultimate uniting force on the planet today. And a player of Jarome Iginla’s stature actually talked on the record about it.

I’ll give you a moment to return your jaw to its non-slack position.

That said, Iginla’s comments, made while the Flames were in D.C. to play the Capitals Wednesday, could hardly be considered incendiary.

“(Some Flames players) talk about (the coming U.S. election) a little bit,” Iginla told Wyshynski. “We always joke about how some of us would say we'd be Republican and some of us would say we'd be Democrat, and then we argue about it.”

Iginla also spoke of the perceived social progress that can be seen in the final two candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“You watch on TV, and I think it's pretty amazing for a lady (Hillary Clinton) and a black person (Barack Obama) to be, you know, that close to the Democratic nomination. (It's amazing) to hear them speak and stuff.”

That, my friends, is about as forthcoming as you’ll ever see an NHLer get when it comes to politics. But at a time in history when social, economic and moral matters carry more urgency than ever, is that the way it ought to be?

It sure isn’t always that way in other sports. Muhammad Ali bravely stood up for his anti-Vietnam War beliefs, and though he suffered greatly for them at the time, history has exonerated him in the eyes of most rational human beings.

As well, citing his religious beliefs, former NBAer Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the American national anthem in 1996; and baseball star Carlos Delgado, a member of the Toronto Blue Jays at the time, stayed in the dugout during the playing of God Bless America in 2004 as a protest against the Iraq War.

Can you imagine the reaction if an NHLer had the conviction to sit down or be absent during the national anthems? The mushroom cloud where Don Cherry’s head used to be would linger for years. I wouldn’t be surprised if the league handed down a suspension to that brave soul for longer than all of Chris Simon’s banishments combined.

Both Abdul-Rauf and Delgado took huge PR hits for their actions, but, to their credit, neither man backed down. Delgado told the New York Times, “(I)t takes a man to stand up for what he believes.”

Indeed it does – and while I’m not questioning the manhood of hockey players, allow me to illustrate how self-censoring NHLers are with an anecdote from last season.

Back then, I was working on a story about global warming, and contacted one particular team’s media relations person about getting a comment from a star player I knew was deeply interested in environmental issues. After initially agreeing to do the interview, he backed out; the PR official told me the player decided he didn’t want to comment on such a controversial story.

At which point, I said (in my head), “Global Warming is a controversial issue? Other than people who are in the pockets of big oil companies, who exactly believes Global Warming doesn’t exist?”

Now, there’s a school of thought out there that will argue sports and politics should be kept completely separate from one another.

Perhaps that’s a major part of the problem; we compartmentalize so many different aspects of our day-to-day lives, few ever have the inclination to take the larger, more important view.

As well, Cherry shows his support for the troops Saturday night after Saturday night, and politicians have no qualms whatsoever about attaching themselves to winning teams and star athlete endorsements.

When it’s the establishment that needs its message put across, everyone in the sports world is supposed to nod along in agreement.

Yet when the question is subversive or adversarial to the establishment, those who ask it find their character and/or judgment becomes fodder for debate.

That fact – along with the sport’s well-known penchant for demanding its players smother any trace of individualism fully and completely – makes it only too easy for NHLers to sit back silently and operate in a vacuum-sealed bubble.

Certainly, some progress has been made in this regard. The fantastic Right To Play charity has enjoyed all kinds of support from hockey stars, and the NHLPA announced this week more than 500 players are joining with noted Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki to promote awareness about climate change and environmental responsibility.

That’s a good start, but a start is all it is. I doubt you’ll see hockey’s version of Muhammad Ali follow up on it.

Adam Proteau is The Hockey News' online columnist and a regular contributor to His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his Ask Adam feature appears Tuesdays and Fridays, and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.

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