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The NHL Did Good, But Now It Needs to do Better

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A few thoughts on the events of the past few days

2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs - Edmonton - Press Conference Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

After the NHL failed to act in solidarity with the WNBA, NBA, MLB, and MLS player strikes on Wednesday night, the staff here at Silver Seven Sens made the decision to not run any new content on Thursday. It didn’t feel right to post recaps for play-off games, to engage in normalcy, with all of the direct action being taken by so many professional athletes in the other professional sports leagues. If the NHL wasn’t going to do the right thing, we felt as a staff that this was the least that we could do. We are just a Sens fan blog, and we hold no delusions that small actions like these will change the world by themselves but that is not an excuse for inaction. Small things eventually add up to big things and this is what we felt we could do to lend our support.

To be honest, I didn’t think the NHL would ever go forward with any kind of delaying, or cancelling, of games. After Wednesday’s contests, virtually all of the players interviewed about the choice to play gave a variant of this answer: “We support anyone fighting against racism but the news of the other leagues’ boycott came too shortly before our games for us to do anything about it.” A moment of silence before Game 3 of the Boston Bruins - Tampa Bay Lightning, and the somewhat embarrassing “End Racism” banner that blared across the jumbo-tron were the only attempts at acknowledgement. It was familiar stuff, and especially in light of what else was going on in professional sports it was frankly depressing. I can imagine that for Black hockey fans it probably felt even worse than that.

During Sportsnet’s broadcast, several members of the on-air crew expressed discomfort with the games continuing. I thought Kelly Hrudey spoke well, and clearly from the heart:

During a later segment, Chris Johnston and Christine Simpson voiced similar concerns. Nonetheless, the games marched on.

I wasn’t hopeful that Thursday would be any different, but as the day started to unfold there were whispers that there had been talks among the players about potentially not playing that night. Then the Hockey Diversity Alliance, of which Sens’ forward Anthony Duclair is a prominent member, were reported to have made a formal ask of the league that Thursday night’s games not be played. Here’s Duclair’s tweet on the subject:

Suddenly all of the insiders were reporting that the games were not going to be played on Thursday or Friday. In the Western Bubble, Ryan Reaves was joined by the other players in an impromptu press conference. His comments were moving, in both a good and a bad way:

The NHL is made up of nearly all white players, and Reaves isn’t ignorant of that fact. He’s also very much aware of how deeply hockey prizes similarity above difference. Don’t rock the boat. In an interview with Gary Lawless, Reaves had a lot to say about the events of the last few days and how he eventually came to the conclusion that this was something that he needed to do. Please forgive the lengthy quote but I feel the entirety of it is necessary here for the full context:

“I have to go back to (Wednesday) night to be honest. We went out for dinner with a couple of the boys and then Brayden McNabb asked if we were going to play (Thursday). I said ‘yeah, why not?’ I then came upstairs and asked myself if we were really going to play. Are we not going to support what’s going on here? We have to, you have to think we are. Honestly I was up all night,” said Reaves.

“I ended up calling Marc-Andre Fleury, I texted him at 12 a.m. to see if he was still up. He called me back and we had a decent conversation. In my head, I was thinking about how there were only a couple players of color in the bubble. How is this going to look? Am I just going to walk out to support my black community? Am I going to be the one or two or three out of the eight teams doing it? Am I not going to support and just go play and act like everything is fine? I was back and forth, but in my head I felt like we shouldn’t play. I felt like this was something that we needed to support.

“Lo and behold, I wake up after an hour or two of sleep and I have a text from Kevin Shattenkirk asking me to call him. I called him and he said he had players from the teams out east and they wanted to hear what I had to say. I said I feel like it’s a strong message and a very powerful message if a sport like hockey, which is predominantly white, can stand up and say I don’t know what you’ve been through and never will, but I see what’s going on in this country and I don’t think it is right. Every single player said they would stand behind it and that we should not play. I got another text that Vancouver wanted to talk. I get outside their locker room and every one of those guys thought we should sit for two days and said they’d stand behind it. It was a big exhale for me because I felt like I was alone in it, but it was the exact opposite. I couldn’t have felt more in a group than I did this morning. It was great because it was such a powerful message to see that people really see what is going on in this country. As white athletes, they don’t want to stand for it anymore. To take that stance, I applaud every single NHL player right now. I really do.”

When I read that, I’m again both heartened and deeply saddened. I’m uplifted by the actions of McNabb, Fleury, and Shattenkirk. It’s encouraging that when Reaves stood in front of the media and delivered his message that all of those players stood behind him. Maybe it’s a low bar to clear but at least they cleared it. Reaves is also right that the actions of all these white players (and people) is a big part of what’s needed to effect real, last change — even if that change won’t happen immediately or all on its own.

Still, I’m saddened that Reaves feared how his teammates might react in the first place. His role on the Golden Knights is to stand up for his teammates. Would they have had any doubts that he would have stood with them in their moment of need? It’s cruel that he wasn’t sure. If you’re looking for evidence of how this could have gone totally differently, here’s a quote from Alain Vigneault’s press availability on Thursday:

Vigneault is probably representative of how a great deal of the players/coaches feel about all of this. What Reaves, and the HDA, did deserves a tonne of credit; it’s just too bad they had to fight so hard to get the eventual support that they did.

So, where does that leave us? There won’t be any games on Friday night, but as of this writing it appears play will resume on Saturday. How will the league proceed now that its players have taken the collective action of halting games, even if only for two days? Because make no mistake, much like the other protests this was a strike. None of the managers of these professional leagues would have agreed to stop without being forced to do so. In some ways, this was a watershed moment in that regard. The NHL has shown that it will change if pressured to do so; let’s hope that the players keep up that pressure.

As for this site in particular, we’ll likely resume our regular coverage tomorrow when “regular” hockey returns. About three months ago, we took a pause to consider our course of action and I don’t see this much differently: as a site we remain committed to covering the Sens, and the NHL, in a smart, fun way that also aims to make hockey a better, more welcoming place. There is a lot of work to be done, and we can’t let the Ryan Reaves of the world do it alone.