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Photo Credit: Minnesota Wild Twitter

Take a Knee: The NHL and Fan Response to Black Lives Matter

Hockey is back. As of today, all 24 teams participating in the qualifier and round robin games have played an official, yes it counts, hockey game. During the week leading up to the official restart of NHL hockey, teams participated in “exhibition” style games. Many fans wondered how, if at all, the league and the players would acknowledge the Black Lives Matter movement. After watching players walk into training camp practices in Black Lives Matter t-shirts, there was some hope for more robust support for the movement once the games were underway. Specifically, fans were hopeful that some players would take a knee or raise a fist during the anthems, as this is the most universally recognized physical demonstration of support for BLM.

Unsurprisingly, those fans were disappointed, as the only acknowledgement most teams gave at all was to stand “together” on the blue line, or in a circle. 

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The Toronto Maple Leafs were one of the few teams to use the words Black Lives Matter in their tweet, but the actual “demonstration” was the same across the league: the two teams playing each other stood together, rather than separately as they typically do. Most of the teams used vague language to imply why they were “standing together,” and not one knee or raised fist was seen. 

The one standout event during the exhibition games came during the Colorado Avalanche/Minnesota Wild matchup, where the four BIPOC players from those two teams (Nazem Kadri, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Jordan Greenway, and Matt Dumba) stood together in the centre with their hands on each other’s shoulders, on an island separate from their white teammates. 

Nazem Kadri spoke to the media about this after, and called the league out pretty directly for not doing enough to support BIPOC players: 

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The lack of acknowledgment during the exhibition games, aside from the four players during the Avs/Wild game, was not unnoticed by fans, and in fact the league itself responded to Kadri’s callout by noting that they had more planned for Saturday’s official opening of the postseason:

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In the aftermath of that disappointing statement, Hemal Jhaveri explored why the NHL is so reticent to say Black Lives Matter in an incredibly in depth piece that I recommend everyone reads.

Fans were so disheartened by the lack of acknowledgment of BLM that they took to kneeling themselves, and posting the pictures on twitter. TLN’s own Michael was the first to do so:

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Black Girls Hockey Club took notice, and suggested that others join in and post pictures of themselves kneeling with the hashtag Kneel4Hockey. The movement took off, and thousands of fans participated. Some added pledges or donations to BLM or BGHC as part of their kneeling, to show their commitment to the cause. 

When the official games began, fans were again disappointed but not surprised that players did not show up during the anthems in support of BLM. While the league had promised action, it at least appears that action by the players during the anthem has been strongly discouraged. Ryan Clark noted what the league IS doing, which includes helmet decals and digital messages on TV screens.

As a Leafs fan, I too was disappointed but not surprised that not one player took a knee or raised a fist during the anthems of the opening game against Columbus. 

But then, later Sunday evening during the opening game of the Wild/Canucks series, Matt Dumba became the first NHL player this season to raise his fist during the anthem, while wearing his NHL jersey.

Dumba is, of course, a BIPOC hockey player. He stood silently, with his fist raised, visibly nervous. And he did it alone. 

Not one of his white teammates joined him in demonstration. Not one other player has joined him in demonstration to date. Despite words of praise and support in interviews not one white player has shown their support on the ice, during the anthem. BIPOC players, like we saw with the Avs/Wild game and with Dumba’s raised fist on opening night, are on an island, alone.

Ryan Reaves was asked whether he considered kneeling during the Golden Knights’ exhibition game, and his response is very telling.

Reaves didn’t want to make his white teammates uncomfortable. It is important to note, as well, that not one of his white teammates was asked whether they considered kneeling. None of this is okay – that Reaves needed to consider his white teammates’s comfort level with anti-racist demonstration, and that only he was asked about it. 

As I was drafting this piece, I came across the tweet below:

This reply is ludicrous and meaningless, and demonstrates precisely why white fans and white media need to continue to push the players and coaches on exactly how they plan to combat racism and support their BIPOC teammates and fans.

The onus is firmly on us now. The white fans, the white players, the white members of hockey media, the league. What can we do? What should we be doing? 

The first step in being an ally is always to listen, and to amplify the voices of BIPOC. But when you’ve listened, and you’ve heard the calls for more visible support, it is then time to act. When People of Colour put in the work to educate white allies on what needs to be done, it is on us to heed their lessons. In the very wise words of TLN’s Marsha, “Allyship is not just a title or something you can claim for yourself. It’s very much a verb and has to constantly be worked for.” 

Social media can be a powerful tool. The Kneel4Hockey movement provided a way for some fans to show their support. But more needs to be done. As fans, our biggest tool is our voice. Use it. Email your team’s PR people. Email the league. Tweet at them. Tweet at the reporters asking the questions. Let them know that we want them to ask the white players why they aren’t joining the demonstrations. Many members of hockey media were loudly outraged that they were being kept out of the bubble. Now is their chance to show that they actually do use their access to ask important questions. 

It’s time to make other white people uncomfortable. It’s time for the players and the teams and the league to acknowledge their privilege and that their silence in important moments is complicity. And it’s time for white hockey fans to tell them. It is simply unacceptable that Nazem Kadri, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Jordan Greenway, Matt Dumba, and all BIPOC hockey fans have been left on an island, alone, and isolated, in their demonstration. 

The league can keep preaching that hockey is for everyone as much as they want. But until they put visible action behind the words, we’ll all know it’s a lie. It’s time to join in, as white hockey fans, white members of the media, and white players, who claim to be allies, to do something about it. To show up. Words of support are no longer enough. Ask the tough questions, make noise, and if you have the chance to do so, take a knee. Black Lives Matter.

 

 

UPDATE: During the anthems that opened tonight’s Dallas Stars vs. Vegas Golden Knights game, Ryan Reaves was joined by Robin Lehner, Tyler Seguin, and Jason Dickinson in kneeling in support of Black Lives Matter.

It’s heartening to see that Reaves did not have to kneel alone. I hope this is the beginning of these displays and not the only example we see.