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If the NHL wants to stick to hockey, it deserves whatever comes next

Not only can the NHL focus on hockey while still pushing for change, it doesn’t have a choice but to do so.

Carolina Hurricanes v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s been weird watching hockey since about 4:00 p.m. last Wednesday, even if we haven’t had as many chances to do so as we thought we would’ve. The Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic striking prior to Game 5 of their first-round series at about that time, in response to (among countless other incidents of law enforcement shooting unarmed Black people) the gross and completely unnecessary shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, set off similar protests and postponements across all of North American sports. And while I never expected the Flyers and Islanders to stop midway through a hockey game because of a protest taking place in another league that no one on the ice or benches knew was happening, it still didn’t feel right watching it all unfold, and the emotions I felt as the Flyers blew a three-goal lead only to win a playoff game in overtime were a very, very small fraction of those that I would have felt in basically any other setting.

The NHL, as you know by now, made the decision mid-day Thursday — after pressure from the players — to call off its games on Thursday and Friday before picking them back up over the weekend. Before that decision was made, Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault was asked the following question by The Athletic and BSH Radio’s Charlie O’Connor to lead off Thursday’s press availability:

Alain, you were asked last night about the NBA players’ decision to sit out last night’s games. You noted that before you said anything, you wanted to fully understand the situation. With the benefit of a night to digest the news, what are your thoughts on the decision of multiple leagues to sit out to make a statement about the Jacob Blake shooting, and should we expect some type of gesture or statement from your group tonight?

Here was his response in full:

Vigneault was asked another question later on in the presser about the movements going on, and spoke a bit about the efforts that the league is trying to put in place to fight for racial equality, but had again circled back to the job at hand as a hockey coach before he’d finished his answer. Here was that, courtesy of NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jordan Hall:

Vigneault was widely panned for his comments about being so insulated in the hockey bubble that he wasn’t able to have a reaction to the events that have led to a protest in the sports world unlike any that many of us have seen in our lifetimes. Perhaps most noteworthy was this criticism from TSN’s Craig Button on Thursday, in which a major personality on one of the league’s most prominent TV rightsholders called Vigneault’s comments “abhorrent” and “indefensible”:

Vigneault, certainly realizing he’d made a mistake with his comments, came out and offered the following prepared statement in his media availability on Saturday afternoon, ending his time at the mic before taking any questions or speaking specifically about the Flyers’ ongoing series:

This statement received mixed reviews, from people who found it a heartfelt response to justified criticism to people who found it a self-serving statement that hardly did the bare minimum to people who didn’t think AV should have had to apologize for anything.

Here’s what I think: AV leading off his statement by saying that the people who know him know he was telling the truth in his comments on Thursday set the tone for a statement that by and large missed the point. Because the problem with a statement where about two-thirds of it is spent reinforcing the fact that he had been focusing on nothing but hockey following the team’s Game 2 win is that few of the people criticizing Vigneault didn’t believe him when he said that he had been focusing on nothing but hockey following the team’s Game 2 win. Vigneault stuck to hockey, and when called on it, his reaction was “I promise, I really was sticking to hockey” first, “I messed up” second, and “I care about this movement” as an afterthought.

And that’s the problem. Of all of the sports that are currently reacting to the social justice movement in this country, hockey is the one where you’re most likely to hear a coach say something like Vigneault did on Thursday.

Now, focusing on hockey as a whole here is not meant to absolve Vigneault. Other coaches still playing have been asked about the movement going on across sports, and none of them have had answers quite like Vigneault’s. His counterpart in this series, Islanders coach Barry Trotz, has said more about the movements than AV has, not to mention had a more thorough response on Thursday afternoon around the same time AV made his initial comments:

And, on the other side of the coin, the goal here isn’t to permanently bury Vigneault for a couple of ill-advised comments and statements. One, because we need to give people a capacity to learn, change, and do better. But two, because I have no doubt that Vigneault is capable of showing compassion and care for others. Look at the way he’s talked about Oskar Lindblom, the words he’s used, the emotion that’s been in his face and his voice, at any point in the nine months since the Flyers’ winger was diagnosed with and ultimately conquered Ewing’s sarcoma. This isn’t an irredeemable guy, and he doesn’t seem like he’s incapable of being on the right side of a social movement.

But it’s for that reason — that we know he’s capable of better — that it’s important he understands why he’s coming up short. And hockey is probably more ill-equipped to make sure that happens than any other sport out there.

Think about the other team sports that are going on right now in North America. The NBA playoffs. MLB. MLS. WNBA. NFL training camp. It is difficult, in 2020, to envision a coach having a pair of press conferences in any of those leagues like the ones Vigneault had on Thursday and Saturday. The NHL was the last of those leagues to really in any meaningful way acknowledge the movement, postponing games on Thursday and Friday after all of those other leagues had reacted to at least some degree.

And that’s not surprising. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Of the four teams playing in the Toronto bubble, only one of them has a Black player on their active roster, and that player (Tampa forward Mathieu Joseph) hasn’t even played a game in the playoffs. The league played two games on Wednesday night, after the NBA made clear it wouldn’t be playing again for a bit. It took some Flyers reaching out to Chris Stewart (who’s been in the minors since January and isn’t on the active roster) for the team to really gather movement towards not playing on Thursday, and by all accounts it looks like it took a statement from the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) urging the league not to play to really push that decision over the finish line for the NHL as a whole.

The teams had representatives speak to the media on Thursday night — an assembly of the player reps from each of the four teams in Toronto, and a large group led by Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Ryan Reaves, and Nazem Kadri, three players of color, in Edmonton — and two days later, they were back on the ice.

Is that what this is going to be? There have been comments from nearly everyone involved here about how it’s time to act, not time to speak. But from the surface, it seems like what’s happened has mostly been ... speaking about the reflection that’s taken place, with very little in terms of concrete action taken.

Contrast that with what happened in the NBA. I am certainly under no delusion that the NHL, at least at this point in time, is going to be as forward about responding to the fight against racial injustice in this country as the NBA, but the blueprint laid out here is one that the NHL should pay attention to. NBA players were reportedly hesitant to go into the Orlando bubble at all, in large part because they were wary of taking away attention and momentum from the movements across the country. When they agreed to do so, they got a commitment from the NBA to put “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on the courts, and the league allowed players to use the back of their jerseys to make social statements.

Following Wednesday’s walk-out, reports suggested that the playoffs as a whole were in jeopardy. When the players finally agreed to come back, they did so with a concession from the owners: that a majority of NBA arenas will be converted into voting sites in this coming November’s election, and that the league will work with players to create public service announcements about voting.

Is that everything that the NBA’s players wanted? Almost certainly not. But it’s a significant commitment nonetheless. And now that they’ve shown they’re willing to stop play over this, it would not be surprising to see more commitments from owners in the future as the players continue the fight to use their platforms and resources to create real, honest change.

(Side note: The Philadelphia 76ers do not own the Wells Fargo Center, and as such cannot commit to converting the building into a voting site in November. However, the Philadelphia Flyers do, and should.)

We’ve heard very, very little from the NHL on similar commitments. The HDA released a list of eight asks of the NHL back in July, and re-stated them again on Saturday noting that they’re looking for a commitment from the league to meet these asks by the end of the playoffs:

There is nothing revolutionary or controversial in the list they’ve given, and if the NHL has difficulty meeting any of those asks, it’s because of the already far-too-high barriers of entry to a sport that’s overwhelmingly for the white and the well-off — something for which the league should not be forgiven. Yet the NHL has not even committed to meeting those goals, and the players did not make their return to the ice contingent upon the NHL pledging to meet those goals. Or, as far as we can tell, upon much of anything.

Then what was the point? What is the point? The NHL, its teams, and its players said they were reflecting on all of this back in June, when protests over the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis swept the country. The conversations happening now sound too much like the ones that were happening then, when everyone was promising it was time to learn, and not enough like the ones the NBA is having now, when the players didn’t just declare that it was time to act, but did, in fact, do something.

The crux of what Alain Vigneault said in his comments on Thursday is that he’s a hockey coach, who right now is focused on hockey, hockey, and hockey. I get that. And I understand that this tournament is out of the ordinary for everyone, and that maybe in slightly more normal times the Flyers’ public relations team (who is not in the bubble) would have had him better prepared to answer Charlie’s question on Thursday.

But while AV is able to focus on hockey, hockey, hockey, there are far too many Black men and women at all levels and areas of the game — on the ice, behind the benches, in the training rooms, at the arenas, in so many other places — who can’t. And hockey can’t be For Everyone until the league knows that and does everything in its power to make it no longer the case.

If it takes special preparation for a coach to be prepared to answer a question that isn’t about hockey while the playoffs are happening, then the NHL is going to have to decide if it’s OK with that. Because even if Vigneault’s the only coach remaining in the playoffs who actually said that, I’d be surprised if he’s the only person across the league who would’ve reacted to that question with that kind of answer in his situation. And even if others would have answered it differently or more compassionately, those words really don’t mean that much more if they aren’t pushing concrete action.

The NHL needs to normalize speaking out about these issues. So far, the responsibility here to speak out and create change — as it quite often tends to — has fallen disproportionately on the people affected by the injustices themselves: Black players, and other players of color. The powerful words and meaningful suggestions from guys like Stewart, or his brother Anthony, or Matt Dumba, or Evander Kane, or Nazem Kadri, or former NHLer Akim Aliu, have been featured. But things aren’t really going to move until people like the Flyers’ white, 59-year-old coach, and the white players that overwhelmingly make up NHL locker rooms, are as outspoken about it as their Black counterparts are (I would say “their Black coaching and playing counterparts”, but there are no Black coaches currently in the NHL, a fact which captures the essence of this situation about as well as anything else).

It won’t be easy. And there will be challenges and pushback:

There will be more reports like this one. But the implication of those losses only underscores how important it is to fight for equality. It makes sense from a strategic perspective — the more diversity there is in the game, the wider the pool of hockey players across the country (and world) will be, and the more the game will grow as a result. It makes sense for the league from a financial perspective — for every racist dipshit that the league loses over the fight for equality, another viewer that can fall in love with the game just like so many of us have will show up and support the game. And, most importantly, it makes sense from a moral perspective. To be afraid of the moral arc bending towards equality because some people with views that should be considered societally unacceptable would be just that — unacceptable.

And the Flyers know this. Deep down, they know this. Look at the truly great work that Snider Hockey has done in and for the city of Philadelphia and the game of hockey. Ed Snider wasn’t perfect, and he certainly wasn’t perfect in this particular area during his time leading the Flyers, but he knew the importance of growing the game. The task in front of the Flyers is to make a mission like Snider Hockey’s its mission all the time. The task in front of the NHL is to not just be a hockey league, but to be a vehicle for what is right, at all times, for everyone. If it’s not going to do that, it deserves every fan it loses or misses out on to leagues and sports that are more open and successful in their fight for equality.

Since we are here in Philadelphia, I’ll leave it with this. Four years ago, when Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality and really brought this conversation to the sports world, Eagles coach Doug Pederson was asked about it and said that while he supported his players’ rights to protest, he encouraged his players to stand. Less than three weeks later, he said that he would be a part of any team-wide protest that may take place. None ultimately did at the team level. But several players on the Eagles took part in some kind of gesture during the anthem over the following years, with the support of Pederson, general manager Howie Roseman, and owner Jeffrey Lurie. The team became one of the most socially active teams in the NFL.

And 18 months after that, they had a Super Bowl trophy to show for their efforts on the field.

You can change, learn, understand, and do better. You can support those around you in their efforts. You can push real change in your sport and your community. You can do all of these things and still be good at sports.

Your move, hockey.