He stood at the bench, lowered his head and raised his right fist in the air, becoming the first NHL player to engage in a peaceful demonstration during the national anthem in solidarity with athletes who protested in other sports. Brown had consulted military families beforehand about what they thought were appropriate ways to protest during this patriotic moment. He knew there would be “negative backlash” afterward. That eventually arrived in the form of anonymous death threats against him and his family.
“Was it right for J.T. and his family to get death threats? To threaten his life or his kids’ lives? That’s such bulls—,” Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba said last week in a roundtable conversation on TSN. “People come to games to watch us, and your identity is displayed in front of thousands of people. If J.T. wants to make that stand, that’s who he is.”
At the time, Brown hoped the gesture would show that the hockey community wasn’t ignoring issues of racial injustice, “with the understanding that this can’t be solved overnight, nor can I do it alone.” But he didn’t have more than 100 NHL players posting social media statements supporting the black community, which has happened since the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer on May 25 in Minneapolis.
Although the Lightning supported Brown, their public statement in 2017 wasn’t as unequivocal as the ones released by NHL teams during the recent global protests of racial injustice. The statement then didn’t mention Brown by name. It didn’t mention racism or violence against the black community. It said the team has “respect” for “individual choices [players] may make on social and political issues,” but the majority of the statement was spent extolling the sanctity of the pregame anthem.
Almost three years since he found that his fist was the only one in the air wearing a hockey glove, Brown can’t help but notice the contrast in reaction.
“If you look back from three years, five years or far back as you want to go, there haven’t been this many athletes — especially in the NHL — using their platform to raise awareness and say that enough was enough. I know that there wasn’t that three years ago. But going forward, that’s what we need,” Brown said during the TSN roundtable.
This outpouring of player testimonials about civil liberties, race and privilege is a landmark moment for the NHL.
“In our sport, it’s been the practice for our players not to speak up on almost any issue but for sure social justice kinds of issues,” Kim Davis, the NHL executive vice president for social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs, said on Friday. “I’ve had people comment all week that for our league to use ‘race’ and ‘black lives’ in the same sentence is unprecedented, so this is a huge moment for us. I think it’s going to take us to another level of change.”
Perhaps it will. Perhaps it’s just words. Perhaps the outcry from hockey’s players of color for allies will finally be understood. Perhaps that alliance will end at acknowledgement, not action.
It all depends on what comes next for hockey.
How long have you been a hockey fan? During that time, how many times have you heard stories from black players about how society has treated them, despite their theoretically having the status of pro athlete shielding them from harm? How many times have you heard stories about how this sport has treated them, from oppression to ridicule?
“I don’t wish being followed by police because of the color of your skin on anybody. I don’t wish phantom tickets and a phantom legal system or your parents being harassed at an airport on anybody,” former NHL goaltender and current NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes told ESPN. “I don’t wish having a banana thrown at me in my place of work, like it was in Montreal during the playoffs in 2002. Or when it happened to Wayne Simmonds. Or what happened to Devante Smith-Pelly in Chicago, with that clown next to him when he was in the penalty box.”
In the past, we acknowledged their pain. We cheered fans’ being ejected from arenas for racist actions. In the case of former NHL player Akim Aliu, many celebrated the resignation of Bill Peters as Calgary Flames head coach after Aliu said Peters directed racist language at him when they were with the same minor league team.
The bad guys get theirs. The credits roll. On to the next drama.
The support for these athletes is very real, but in the past, it has had a time limit. And there’s a difference between being an ally and taking action.
Goalie Ben Scrivens spent five seasons in the NHL. He remembered one instance when a member of his team’s coaching staff made a racial comment about his teammate. He recalled walking up to that teammate and saying, “Hey, this was bulls—.” He tried to offer support and drew a distinction between his own actions and the actions of their coach.
In retrospect, he thinks he didn’t do enough.
“I said I wasn’t part of that, but really, I was part of that. Because I didn’t call it out in a way that was tangible, other than saying I was on his side if he wanted to do the heavy lifting, instead of saying, ‘This is the heavy lifting I’m going to do,'” Scrivens said.
That is because hockey culture inherently discourages individualism, and individualism is what makes someone speak on behalf of a teammate facing racist taunts. To illustrate that point, Scrivens recalled the time he was called into a member of team management’s office and was asked:
“Do you think we, as hockey players, are more like soldiers or more like entertainers?”
Scrivens knew the answer was obvious: Hockey players are entertainers. But he also knew which answer the manager wanted to hear.
“So I said we were more like soldiers, and he said, ‘Yes, absolutely,'” Scrivens recalled, “and went into all of this machismo, pro-military, get rid of any individuality and conform to the group … basically a pep talk about that. I left the office thinking that this man is an idiot, but he’s in charge of my career. Imagine what this is like for someone else who has even one [part of their] identity that goes against the norm?”
Over the past two weeks, the soldiers broke ranks.
San Jose Sharks winger Evander Kane joins First Take to discuss the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and athletes voicing their opinions on racial injustice.
It started with San Jose Sharks star Evander Kane, who signed a petition to demand that the “four police officers involved in murdering George Floyd be arrested and charged immediately” and encouraged his 225,000 Twitter followers to do the same. Then he went on ESPN’s “First Take” and threw down the gauntlet to his white peers.
“We need so many more athletes that don’t look like me speaking out about this with the same amount of outrage I have inside and using that to voice their opinion, to voice their frustration, because that’s the only way things are going to change. We’ve been outraged for hundreds of years, and nothing’s changed,” he said. “It’s time for guys like Tom Brady and Sidney Crosby and those type of figures to speak up about what is right and what, in this case, is unbelievably wrong. That’s the only way we’re going to create that unified anger to create that necessary change, especially when you talk about systematic racism.”
Sharks owner Hasso Plattner posted a statement on social media that said “there is no room for racism” and said “we applaud Evander” for standing up in opposition to police brutality against the black community.
(What a difference three years make.)
“When Evander said his piece, and then he was affirmed by the ownership from the Sharks, that was a tipping point, in my view,” Davis said. “Players started seeing that the system was supportive, that Evander’s leadership got behind him. And that created a tidal wave.”
Kane’s teammate, Sharks captain Logan Couture, was one of the first players to answer the call on Friday. In the next six days, more than 50 NHL players rallied to the cause. By the end of the week, Davis said, 110 players had made some comment on or acknowledgement of racial injustice through their social media platforms.
The progression of these player statements has been staggering to watch. Couture felt the need to write “sorry if this offends anyone” when he was the first player to dip his toe in the water. By Wednesday, seemingly everyone was in the pool: Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby discussing the pain of D.C.’s black community in having to traverse the Woodrow Wilson Bridge each day; Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins acknowledging the “cry for help” from the black community, proclaiming that he won’t be quiet anymore and donating $25,000 to the Boston branch of the NAACP; Chicago Blackhawks star Jonathan Toews asking white people to “open our eyes and our hearts [because] that’s the only choice we have”; New Jersey Devils defenseman P.K. Subban getting Gary Bettman to match his $50,000 donation to the GoFundMe for Gianna Floyd, George Floyd’s 6-year-old daughter; and, after Kane mentioned him by name, Sidney Crosby releasing a statement through the Penguins that mentioned Floyd and participating in a video put out by former NHL player Anson Carter:
I’m so PROUD to be a part of the NHL community. Leaders came together WITHOUT hesitation lending their incredibly powerful voices to an important issue that impacts players and our fans! #BlackLivesMatter#StrongerTogether pic.twitter.com/jfJ4eXJBth
— Anson Carter (@AnsonCarterLA) June 5, 2020
No other white NHL star put himself out there the way Blake Wheeler did, however. The Winnipeg Jets captain did a 38-minute interview on police brutality and racial discrimination — to the point that he labeled a question about the Stanley Cup postseason tournament “trivial.”
Wheeler is a native of the Minneapolis area, where Floyd was killed by a white police officer. Wheeler said his children have watched the video of Floyd’s death, and he said one asked why the police officer wouldn’t get off of Floyd’s neck.
“To explain to a 7-year-old that the police that he feels are out there to protect us, [that it’s] not always the case, is a really hard conversation to have with a 7-year-old,” Wheeler said.
But Wheeler has grown tired of the easy conversations, and he has grown tired of NHL players not being active participants in social justice fights.
“We have to. We have to be as involved in this as black athletes. It can’t just be their fight. When Colin Kaepernick was taking a knee during the national anthem and trying to do it in a peaceful way in 2016 and trying to raise awareness of this in a peaceful manner, unfortunately there wasn’t more,” Wheeler said before pausing. “I want to be real clear here: I look in the mirror about this before I look out at everyone else. I wish that I was more involved sooner than I was. I wish that it didn’t take me this long to get behind it in a meaningful way. But I guess what you can do is try to be better going forward. I want to be part of the change going forward.”
The difference between the reactions of players and those of their teams was glaring.
In the days that followed Kane’s appearance on ESPN, every team except the New York Rangers posted a statement with varying degrees of specificity about the need for solidarity against racial violence.
(ESPN’s Pablo Torre reported that owner James Dolan circulated a memo to Madison Square Garden employees explaining that the Knicks and Rangers wouldn’t comment on the killing of George Floyd because “we are not more qualified than anyone else to offer our opinion on social matters.”)
Nine NHL teams mentioned George Floyd by name in their statements. Two used the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” None called out police violence, and three made sure to express their support for law enforcement.
“This displays how performative it is … these are just words. There’s no action behind it,” said Scrivens, who has worked toward a master’s degree in restorative justice at the University of Denver since leaving the NHL. “Change means a risk to our bottom line. One of the ironies is that the harder they hold on to their revenue streams, they don’t realize how much they’re losing by not embracing change.”
— Ben Scrivens (@ben_scrivens) June 3, 2020
The players were as bold as the teams were timid. For example, the Lightning put out a statement that didn’t mention George Floyd, violence or even the black community, though the team did participate in the social media “blackout” on Tuesday and signal-boosted several players’ messages.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos released a statement that referenced “the senseless killing of George Floyd,” white guilt, complicit silence, the civil unrest rising from “pain and suffering” and how his community helped him find his voice on social justice issues. He ended his statement with “#BlackLivesMatter.”
Tyler Seguin and Zdeno Chara attended protests. Players including Bergeron and the Buffalo Sabres‘ Jimmy Vesey announced donations to the NAACP. Others have contacted Davis behind the scenes, offering more support.
“All of this outreach has been initiated by the players, who have a lot of ideas about how to create stronger player opportunities,” she said. “I think that’s what I’m most encouraged by are the calls from players. Not everybody is going to tweet. Not everybody is comfortable using social media as the way that they express their points of view. But [there are] lots of ideas bubbling up from players.”
But actions, not words, will determine whether this is a sea change moment for the NHL.
“The emotional moment of the words and the tweets and the videos are nice. It makes people feel good. What I care about are the actions that follow,” Davis said. “That’s what I’m going to be focused on and measuring. Whether you say ‘#BlackLivesMatter’ or use George Floyd, that’s great. But two weeks from now, two months from now, two years from now, what are you doing to change how we look and what we do and how we show up as a sport? That’s what’s important, from my perspective.”
Hockey can start by getting its own house in order.
Why hasn’t Bill Peters been suspended by the NHL? Because he resigned in shame and shuffled off to a new job in the KHL in disgrace? Davis said she believes the investigation into his actions and how the Carolina Hurricanes addressed allegations of abuse is “ongoing,” as it has been since early December.
Why did the NHL overlook the racism Aliu faced during his NHL time in its news release following his essay in The Players’ Tribune? As he tweeted after it happened: “To live up to your ideals, you need to listen to what we are actually saying, and not try to erase history.”
USA Hockey can put out a statement about how it is “committed to being better” on racial issues. “You have USA Hockey putting out a statement while they still have John Vanbiesbrouck as someone they’re paying money to,” Scrivens said in reference to the organization’s assistant executive director, who was fired from the OHL in 2003 for directing a racial slur at Trevor Daley.
Why did the Detroit Red Wings release a 30-word statement that didn’t mention the black community or the killing of George Floyd while at the same time allowing Little Caesars Arena to be used as a processing area for protesters the Detroit police arrested? (Hint: public funding!)
The intersection between professional hockey teams and law enforcement is an undeniable part of this conversation. The Red Wings, Penguins, Capitals, Hurricanes, Blackhawks and others have had annual “Law Enforcement Appreciation” nights. Police officers are de facto members of game night staffing, as they patrol arenas. When the Colorado Avalanche honored the life of Kendrick Castillo, the STEM School Highlands Ranch student who was killed in May 2019 when he lunged at a gunman at his school, they projected a rink-length “Blue Lives Matter” flag onto the ice. As the Mile High Sticking blog wrote: “I’d like to think whomever organized the pregame ceremony was simply ignorant to what the Blue Lives Matter flag symbolizes, and thought it was to support law enforcement.”
While the current protests are about a variety of racial and social justice issues, the catalyst remains police brutality. How does the NHL move forward with this close relationship with law enforcement, now that 31 teams have, directly or indirectly, acknowledged this root problem?
“Artfully and carefully, to answer your question,” Davis said. “I think at this moment, we have to be highly sensitized to the fact that people are feeling a great deal of tension in communities [regarding] the police. This is an institutional and systemic matter, not an individual matter, right? This is not about individual people. This is not about good or bad. This is about systems. As we look to resumption of play and ultimately being back in stadiums, we will all have to interrogate and investigate how we ensure that those relationships can continue to be perceived as positive, and how we illuminate them is perceived as positive, relative to these fans who are feeling compromised by police brutality.”
These are all challenging questions facing the NHL, and Davis hopes that four new work groups the NHL has created will address them and others.
The Executive Inclusion Council is made up of five NHL owners, five presidents and two general managers. The Player Inclusion Committee is made up of current and former NHL players and a group of women’s players from the U.S. and Canada. The Fan Inclusion Committee is made up of marketing CMOs from NHL teams, as well as partners the league has worked with in the multicultural space. The Youth Inclusion Committee will be made up of leaders from USA Hockey and Hockey Canada, parents and those who run youth hockey organizations in communities.
Also in the works is a task force to recruit minority coaches and develop the ones who are already in the game.
“The Rooney Rule isn’t working for the NFL. So I don’t know if we want to use that model,” Davis said. “But as a practical matter in our sport, we don’t have a pipeline of black and brown coaches to call on, so our issues are going to be more fundamental. How do we partner with the youth ecosystem and the NCAA and the AHL and the ECHL and identify candidates and develop development programs and mentorship programs?”
Weekes told ESPN that getting more diversity in management is essential.
“I want to see people be real. You’re real about other things. Say, ‘Hey, this is a problem. We have qualified women and transgendered people and people of color … and let’s put the best people in positions,'” Weekes said. “What would it take to be able to see someone of color in that role or a woman or someone from the LGBTQ community? It takes open-mindedness. It takes advocacy and support. It will take them and more people like them continuing to advocate. Because as a pro sport, I think people need to see that, that broader spectrum of representation — not by way of corporate social responsibility but by way of acknowledging that we’re part of the best of the best and expanding that pool.”
Scrivens believes that getting hockey’s house in order requires having as diverse a group as possible cleaning it up.
“To incorporate any meaningful change in the way that they operate, [leagues] have to bring in voices that know what they’re talking about, that have felt the injustice that these teams perpetuate. Does that mean indigenous hockey players who have been kept out of these pipelines of drafting and scouting? Are those voices going to be included in the room?” Scrivens said.
One way the NHL has taken a step in that direction is with its “Hockey Is For Everyone” initiative, the goal of which is “to drive positive social change and foster more inclusive communities.” However, as critics have pointed out, the program may not go far enough.
“Akim Aliu’s point about ‘Hockey Is For Everyone’ — if it wasn’t so damaging, it would be laughable what they feel is an appropriate amount of inclusion in hockey. The good news is that they have a foundation and a structure in place that they can modify. But the NHL is also the most risk-averse of all the major sports leagues — to an extent that I didn’t even realize was possible. They need to take risks. They need people who are going to be OK making a mistake but making mistakes on the way to being better.”
Mistakes will be made on the wobbly journey to progress. That much is true. Dumba hopes that those working to create positive change are allowed to fall, dust themselves off and get back on the path.
“This is new territory for a lot of dudes. You shouldn’t feel like you’re going to be crucified for one time saying the wrong thing. It’s uncomfortable. You’re nervous. We gotta get away from that if we want to promote change,” he said.
The hockey community has an impressive olfactory system. It can sniff out phonies, but it can also enjoy the bouquet of a true mea culpa.
Look at Kendall Coyne Schofield, an Olympic hockey champion who now covers the NHL for NBC Sports. In 2016, she was “disgusted” by Kaepernick’s protest during the national anthem. She was called out on it last week. Now, she says, she realizes “it was never about the flag” but instead about protesting police brutality:
From the bottom of my heart… pic.twitter.com/dd9FhrOjB5
— Kendall Coyne Schofield (@KendallCoyne) June 2, 2020
As Coyne’s reversal shows, the aesthetic solidarity of athletes today stands in stark contrast to what happened in 2017, when the protests of athletes such as Kaepernick were viewed as cause for an ideological debate rather than an outcry for human rights.
“People are listening more,” Davis said. “They have the time to listen. So while these things have been happening for a long time, I think the COVID pandemic has brought the racial pandemic to light for many people. For people to be paused and to stop to witness for nine minutes someone’s knee on someone’s neck for nine minutes and their life being taken out of them … your humanity has to tell you there’s something wrong with that.”
Wheeler believes that partisanship is still muddying the waters about police brutality and violence against the black community.
“I don’t find this to be a political issue, even though when it comes to voting, it is,” he said. “Whether you love Donald Trump or you love Bernie Sanders, to use opposite names on the political spectrum, we can all agree that this is a problem. Human rights should apply to everyone. Whether I’m voting Democrat or I’m voting Republican, I think I can find a candidate on either side that this is important to and agree with the fact that this needs to stop.”
In other words: Voting is action, not just words.
The “Hockey Is For Everyone” movement often gets dinged for being just words, but Brown disagrees with that depiction.
“‘Hockey Is For Everyone’ is great. I love them. I love the message,” he said. “As far as the grassroots, that’s awesome, as far as growing the game and getting more minorities in the game. The NHL’s recent statement was great, but they can do more socially. Their focus is on making the game more diverse and inclusive, but I also think there’s more we can do to stand up to issues like this.”
In some ways, the landscape for black players hasn’t changed much the past three years. Brown said he still keeps his car insurance in the part of the car where one might keep a garage door opener, so he doesn’t have to be a black man reaching into his glove compartment during a traffic stop. It’s something his parents used to talk to him about when it came to law enforcement. “About how to react and how I might not be given the benefit of the doubt,” he said.
But in other ways, it seems like the landscape is shifting in this moment. It’s a big step forward when Evander Kane can go on national television and say, “We need so many more athletes that don’t look like me speaking out about this with the same amount of outrage I have inside,” and more than 100 of them do so without the benefit of a template.
“This is a moment of many moments that I’ve seen like this,” Davis said. “I am anxious because I’m eager to capture the emotion of this moment and turn it into action in our sport.”
It can’t be just words, though this outpouring of support deserves recognition.
“I think it’s commendable people are using their platform,” Brown said. “It’s something that takes a lot of courage to do. And I want to make sure everybody knows that I appreciate that.
“Change isn’t supposed to be comfortable.”