Perhaps it’s because they’re not devoting every waking moment to thinking about what it will take to beat the Boston Bruins tomorrow night. Maybe because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re experiencing the same fear and uncertainty as everyone else. Or it could just be that recent events have provided a tipping point. Whatever the reason, there are some NHL players and teams that are most certainly not sticking to sports these days.
It has been one full week since a black man named George Floyd died while he was being arrested outside a business in Minneapolis. Videos show a white police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck while he is pinned to the ground with three others watching. Another video from a convenience store shot just before Floyd was pinned show three of the officers looking as though they’re having a physical confrontation with someone in the backseat of the police car. That incident, combined with the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Brionna Taylor, all of which came at the hands of either active or retired police officers, has sparked outrage and chaos across the United States.
And some NHL players and teams, usually loathe to share anything beyond what happens on the ice in their small, insular world, have joined the chorus of outrage, some using very pointed language on social media. Consider the ever image-conscious Toronto Maple Leafs, who called the Floyd killing a “senseless murder” in a tweet. New Jersey Devils defenseman Connor Carrick asked, “Where have we failed the Black Community?” then went on to say, “Racism is alive and well…Mr. Floyd has his life sucked out of him. Mr. Arbery was blatantly hunted.” Zack Smith of the Chicago Blackhawks even faced head-on some of the stereotypes that surround hockey players, a group seen as largely white, privileged and not terribly socially aware. He started his message by saying, “As a privileged white man playing in the NHL (a predominantly white league)…” then went on to say, “If you think the current way black people and other minorities are treated here is OK…you are a racist.” Teammate Jonathan Toews, one of the most respected players in the NHL, posted the following: "This reaction isn’t coming out of thin air. I’m not condoning or approving the looting, but are we really going to sit here and say that peaceful protesting is the only answer? There has been plenty of time for that, and if it was the answer we would’ve given it our full attention long ago." Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler, a native of Minneapolis, tweeted, “America is not OK…I’m heartbroken that we still treat people this way.” The Los Angeles Kings tweeted, “Enough Racism. Enough Senseless Violence. ENOUGH.” While others, such as Nashville Predators center Kyle Turris, used this as a time for self-appraisal. “I’m going to listen and educate myself,” Turris tweeted.
Some pretty powerful stuff. Many of them were actually retweeted on the NHL’s official Twitter page.
Anyone who has even a passing knowledge of NHL players would acknowledge what a seismic shift in attitude this represents and how much out of their comfort zone some of these players are stepping. Most inquisitors looking for something insightful from NHLers today concerning anything beyond getting pucks in deep usually comes away disappointed. The last thing today’s image conscious player wants is to be a distraction or part of the news cycle, but our world has been turned upside down. A lot of players, with nothing else to do but to be with their families and work out, are more tuned into world events, less singularly focused and more aware. And they’ve done their communicating through social media, an outlet where they have control over the message and no fear of it being taken out of context.
Carrick, who has more than 30,000 Twitter followers, another 50,000 on Instagram and has used the break to establish a podcast, was one of the first to make his voice heard on the issue and said the fact that others are speaking out is due to a confluence of factors.
“You know how it is, we can do a hockey interview in our sleep,” Carrick told TheHockeyNews.com. “You know, ‘Coach wasn’t happy with our energy, we’re not executing, it’s up to the guys in the room…’ But speaking on race and violence and social unrest in the middle of the most chaotic period in all of our lives in terms of the pandemic and the NHL pause…we have the time and the available breathing space and the attention of what’s going on in the world. We have the space now and it’s not right. I think that’s what these guys are trying to communicate, that we’re capable of better and we want better.”
Players ranging from stars/superstars (Auston Matthews, Kopitar, Wheeler) to third- and fourth-liners have spoken out, as have black players such as Evander Kane, P.K. Subban, Anthony Duclair and Mathieu Joseph. And while it’s encouraging to see, the number of players who have spoken out relative to the number of the players in the league is still miniscule. And another thing to remember is that it’s not an NHL players’ obligation to take a stand on any social issue. It’s great to see them use their platforms and status for that purpose, but there really is no duty to do so, even as a role model for young people. (I had a conversation with a prominent NHL player Sunday night and asked if he would like to comment and he politely declined, saying he didn’t want to say anything without knowing all the facts. Fair enough.)
Some players choose to say nothing and others don’t communicate through social media because of the potential backlash they face when they do speak out. Carrick said that when it comes to something like overt racism, the message is too powerful not to share. “When it’s this important and this right…I haven’t spent much time considering the repercussions because I can’t imagine that there’s much (opposition) from people who I would respect," he said. "The people I respect in the hockey community, most of them in my experience are good, strong people with good hearts and haven’t lost touch with the ideals we’re raised with. This stuff is heavy, I mean it’s heavy."
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