EDMONTON – It looked less like a protest than an awakening.
Nearly 100 National Hockey League players from four Western Conference teams who tried to beat each other to get to the Stanley Cup, players from many countries and ethnic groups, stood shoulder to shoulder on Thursday to support a two-day shutdown that was to come back into the spotlight on systemic racism after the shooting of another unarmed black man by a white policeman.
At the head and center of the group, huddled in a press conference room in the Edmonton Bubble towards the end of a historic day, was Ryan Reaves, literally the greatest black man in hockey.
This was a moment of empowerment – the manifestation of the players’ realization that on issues that matter most to them and their communities beyond ice hockey, they don’t have to wait for their teams and league to tell them how they are doing should feel and act.
“I think if you look around this room there are a lot of white athletes here and I think that’s the statement that is being made,” responded Reaves, the Vegas Golden Knights battering ram who was planned to terrorize Vancouver Canucks on Thursday evening, told reporters.
“It’s great that the NBA has done this, and MLB and the WNBA. You have a lot of black players in these leagues. But for all of these athletes to take a stand and say, “You know what? We also see the problem. And we stand behind you. ‘
“I’m going to war with these guys and I hate their guts on the ice, but I couldn’t be more proud of these guys. The statement you made today will last. “
Racism is not a minority problem. It belongs to all of us. It’s ridiculous to think that only the victims can fix the problem. Or should.
When the NHL allowed playoff games on Wednesday night despite players from the NBA and other leagues refusing to perform after a Wisconsin police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back while his three young children were watching, Reaves wondered how he could possibly play Thursday.
When he sat outside, he wondered if he would be the only one – and what would that look like? Instead, 200 players went out with him and none will play again until Saturday as all eight teams left in the Stanley Cup tournament will postpone a game.
Reaves said he woke up Thursday to a text from former St. Louis Blues teammate Kevin Shattenkirk, who is still playing with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and asked Reaves to join some players in the Toronto Bubble to speak.
Then he received a text from a player in the Canucks who was 1-1 against the Knights in the second round and asked for a meeting.
Canucks players, who represented one of the most culturally and racially diverse cities in North America, had spoken early Thursday and were uncomfortable playing. They reached out for Reaves and then met with players of the Golden Knights.
The group later invited Evander Kane and Matt Dumba of the Hockey Diversity Alliance to speak to players, and more than 100 of them listened and asked questions. Canucks, Knights, Colorado Avalanche, and Dallas Stars players decided not to play and notified the NHL and its Players’ Association.
The players decided.
“We were 100 percent behind it from the moment the players brought it up,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said at a coach press conference that followed the players’ video call. “Yes, it’s player-controlled, but it’s team-supported.”
“There are sports and then there are things that are bigger than sports,” said Canuck coach Travis Green. “I wasn’t at all surprised this morning when I spoke to our players and they wanted to speak to Ryan. These guys are teammates in the league. They all care about each other, but when they get on the ice they still face each other tough. Still, they’re a family. I got a feeling our group wanted to make sure the Vegas team knew, or Ryan knew they were behind him. I was behind them all the way, 100 percent supporting them in every decision they made. It’s hard not to be proud of her. “
Reaves was joined by Canucks captain Bo Horvat, Colorado Avalanche players Nazem Kadri and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Dallas Stars Center Jason Dickinson.
The sight of all these players standing together and surrounded by teammates made for a powerful and lasting image. This defiance in the name of social awareness felt like a turning point for a league where conformity and compliance are hallmarks of their culture.
“We have to get together,” said Horvat. “Obviously things like that cannot stand. We need to educate ourselves and understand what is going on in the world. I think (Reaves) hit the nail on the head: there has to be change, and we’re all here together as you definitely show the strength of the hockey community. “
Kadri said: “Some things are bigger than sports and at some point you have to start acting on your word. You can put up signs and have all that stuff, but at the end of the day what are you really doing to make a difference? It is time to act. “