When J.T. Brown raised his fist during the national anthem in 2017, tumbleweeds ensued around the NHL. He protested alone. No teammates participated. The NHL didn’t endorse it.
But on Aug. 27, 2020? Dozens and dozens of NHLers stood together to make a stand against racism and demand that the league pause the Stanley Cup playoffs. The NHL complied, just as the NBA did the previous day when its players united to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake.
The NBA will resume games Saturday, as will the NHL. As Colorado Avalanche center Nazem Kadri said during the Western Conference players’ Zoom call Thursday, the players will use the next two days to “further educate ourselves for the betterment of society.” But what happens after that? What will hockey to do ensure the gesture of sitting out games doesn’t fade from everyone’s mind after a few days?
It’s safe to say the Hockey Diversity Alliance will lead the pack in bringing about change to how the sport approaches equality. Its founding members include Evander Kane, Akim Aliu, Matt Dumba, Trevor Daley, Anthony Duclair, Wayne Simmonds, Joel Ward, Chris Stewart and Kadri. The HDA was ahead of the NHL on the idea to suspend games, with Kane tweeting the request that the NHL do so. The HDA has a list of requests or challenges it wants the NHL to consider going forward, too. According to reports Thursday from TSN investigative reporter Rick Westhead, they include:
- Asking the NHL to commit $100 million to fund anti-racism and grassroots initiatives over the next 10 years, which works out to $312,500 per team, less than half the minimum salary of one player
- Temporarily changing the bluelines to black in games
- “Blackout” warmup jerseys to build awareness of the alliance
- Goals for black hirings in the NHL, including 3.5 percent of executives by the end of 2024-25, eight percent of hockey-related personnel by the end of 2022-23 and 10 percent of non-hockey related personnel by end of 2022-23
“Being a member of the HDA, we have certain initiatives and policies that we would like the NHL to act on,” Kadri said Thursday. “We feel it’s very reasonable. Unfortunately I can’t dive too much into specifics, but there is a plan, and moving forward we want the NHL to understand that this is a partnership, a collaborative effort to create sustainable change. And moving forward, it’s going have to be the whole league. It’s going to have to be collectively, not just one or two guys. Strength in numbers is key.”
The Hockey News spoke Friday to Kwame Mason, Soul on Ice director and the NHL’s co-curator of the Black Hockey History Tour, and he offered some ideas for future change, too. He’d like to see NHL teams work with black employees in low-level jobs like concessions and security, find out if they’re trying to pay their way through school and offer them scholarships to help them on the path to climb the ladder and get opportunities for jobs with NHL franchises in higher-up roles.
But it can’t always be up to leaders in the black hockey community like Mason or the HDA to bring about change. We can't always put the burden on them. Every time a race-related tragedy or injustice comes up, the responsibility seems to fall on minority leaders in the game to be the ones speaking out. It was Ryan Reaves making the decision to kneel before the Vegas Golden Knights’ round-robin game earlier this month, and white players Robin Lehner, Tyler Seguin and Jason Dickinson followed. The natural inclination when asking, “What do we do next?” is to look to black athletes for the answer, but white people also have to put the work in and educate themselves on their own to be true allies.
“What’s your part? Everybody has a part to play in this,” Mason said. This is not all on black people. It’s not all on white people. It’s on everybody. It’s not all on the players. It’s not all on the league. Everybody has to do their part, which is so frustrating, because everybody has this opinion as if one group of people is supposed to solve the problem. You do your part, I do my part, another person will do their part, and when we put our parts together, we will form like Voltron. You have to have all the five pieces.”
Reaves was particularly moved by the initiative taken by white NHLers such as Kevin Shattenkirk, reaching out to him Thursday morning to try and organize the boycotts.
“That, I think, was more powerful that the conversation started with white players on other teams wanting to talk,” Reaves said. “I think that’s the most powerful thing that happened today. I see us all coming together, all opponents here. I hope after this…I don’t expect every one of these guys to go out and be advocates for this movement, but I’m sure a lot of us are. And that’s the biggest thing. You can’t just talk about it in the bubble and go home and live your life. You’ve got to start being part of it, and I expect lots of us (will)."
That’s where players like Dallas Stars centers Dickinson and Tyler Seguin have become leaders. Seguin marched in protests for George Floyd in June, and Dickinson has been active representing Dallas in community work already.
“We can keep using our words and keep trying to get it out into the media, but it’s going to come down to our action once we’re out of here,” Dickinson said Thursday. “We’ve got to start doing more. I know Dallas, our organization has done good work in St. Phillips (School and Community Center) in particular, and we need to grow off that stuff, we need to keep doing more, we need to keep finding more ways that we can give back to these communities and these situations to really right the wrongs that have been going on, try to balance out what we’ve been witnessing.”
Now it’s on NHLers, both minorities and whites, to keep the conversations going. Play will resume Saturday, and the focus will shift back to competition. But what happens in the weeks and months following the tournament will say a lot. It’s clear the HDA will continue to have a strong voice speaking out against racial injustice. But there needs to be initiative on the white side, too.
That can mean being active in the community like Dickinson. On the media side, Mason says, white allyship is about asking black people the right questions.
“The stupidest question people ask right now is, ‘How do you feel?’ ” he said. “How do you think I’m going to feel? I just saw a man shot seven times. Don’t ask me what I’m feeling right now. Ask me what are you planning to do, have you started thinking about that, have you started working toward a certain plan.”