EDMONTON, AB – Before playoff hockey returned to its usual intensity, the NHL and its players took time Saturday to highlight racial injustice and the sport's role in confronting it.
Players pushed to postpone two days worth of games to protest the police shooting of Black man Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which came three months after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. More than 48 hours of reflection culminated with a pregame presentation in Toronto before the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins faced off.
Retired goaltender Kevin Weekes narrated a video montage on the subject that included clips by fellow minority players Matt Dumba of the Minnesota Wild and Ryan Reaves of the Vegas Golden Knights.
“In hockey, we often let our effort, determination and passion to win do the talking,” Weekes said. “But when an issue is bigger than the game, we must speak out, starting with three words we need to get comfortable saying: Black Lives Matter. Equality is the only way forward. As players, as fans and as average citizens, we most confront these issues.”
On the ice, the Lightning and Bruins didn't miss a beat in their hard-fought series. Away from it, players and coaches in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles got an opportunity to weigh in on matters of racism and police brutality that caused games to be postponed in the NBA, Major League Baseball and other pro sports leagues.
“The decision to postpone our games and sit out was viewed as an opportunity to highlight a bigger issue than hockey,” said Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who was at the forefront of player dialogue in the past few days. “We wanted to make sure that every Black player in this league can feel safe and feel like they have a voice. And we want to make sure that we continue this conversation moving forward and make sure that we keep the sport progressing in the right way.”
Conversations went on among opposing players in each of the Canadian cities hosting games. Reaves and Vancouver Canucks captain Bo Horvat are no fans of each other during games, but their discussion about how to protest played a major role in hockey following the NBA's lead.
“What we did was the best thing for not only our two teams but I think for the NHL, and we stand by it,” Horvat said. “We obviously know it’s not going to change what’s going on in the world, but it’s going to get people talking and I think that’s the most important thing.”
Canucks coach Travis Green expressed pride in his players and those around the league for sending a “message that will initiate awareness.”
It was a different, and somewhat conciliatory, message coming from Philadelphia Flyers coach Alain Vigneault on Saturday morning. Vigneault had said in previous days he wasn't aware of anything going on outside the NHL bubble, including racial injustice protests in other sports.
“I never bothered to ask or check with anyone what was going in the world or the NBA. I am guilty of that,” Vigneault said in a prepared statement he read. “I am guilty of not checking up on what was going on in the world and the NBA. But I am a good person. I believe in equality. I believe in social justice. I want to be part of the solution. I want to help society in any way I can.”
Vigneault thanked those who reached out to show support but didn't take any questions.
If there was any question about what the two-day hiatus would do to the quality of the action, the Lightning and Bruins answered it quickly. Big hits, post-whistle scrums and everything about Stanley Cup playoff hockey returned in their afternoon game, the NHL's first since Wednesday night.
“Being on the ice, you want to win hockey games,” Tampa Bay captain Victor Hedman said after his team won to take a 3-1 lead in the second-round series. "But I think that goes to show just how close-knit we are off the ice. We can leave what happens on the ice on the ice, and we came together as a big group in these last 48, 72 hours, and I think that goes a long ways to show the hockey community, it’s a big family. I think it says more that you can leave the emotions on the ice and we can all be part and be together off the ice.”
The Canadian Press contributed to this report.
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