August 27, 2020

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Ed Willes: Players call timeout on playoffs after NHL 'turtles' in proving BLM support

Matt Dumba of the Minnesota Wild raises his fist during the national anthem before facing the Vancouver Canucks in their Aug. 7 qualification round game at Rogers Place in Edmonton. Photo by Jeff Vinnick /Getty Images Files

Matt Dumba of the Minnesota Wild raises his fist during the national anthem before facing the Vancouver Canucks in their Aug. 7 qualification round game at Rogers Place in Edmonton. Photo by Jeff Vinnick /Getty Images Files

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EDMONTON — When the NHL reconvened in Edmonton almost one month ago, its first official public act was a powerful speech given by Minnesota Wild defenceman Matt Dumba.

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Think about that for a second.

Think about what that said about the NHL’s priorities and where it was aligned. The league could have gone 100 different ways at that moment to celebrate the return of the game after its COVID-19 pause and what it means to so many people.

Instead, it turned the stage over to a young player who spoke about social justice. It was a raw, powerful moment and Dumba, a man of colour and one of the founders of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, stepped up and spoke from his heart.

“For those unaffected by systemic racism, or unaware, I’m sure that some of you believe this topic has garnered too much attention during the last couple of months,” Dumba said. “But let me assure you it has not.

“Racism is a man-made creation and all it does is deteriorate from our collective prosperity. Racism is everywhere and we need to fight against it. On behalf of the NHL and the Hockey Diversity Alliance we vow to stand up for injustice and fight for what is right.”

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It was a powerful, moving speech that sent a clear signal and should be remembered. At least it should have been remembered for longer than four weeks.

On Thursday, the NHL bowed to pressure from the players and cancelled the two playoff games set for that night, including Game 3 of the Vancouver Canucks-Vegas Golden Knights’ series, as well as Friday night’s games.

Predictably, it was followed by a self-serving statement in which the league — along with the NHLPA in a joint statement — pledged unwavering support to the fight against racism. But it also came a day late and a dollar short.

On Wednesday, players from the Milwaukee Bucks announced they wouldn’t take part in an NBA playoff game with the Orlando Magic to protest violence against the Black community. Among other things the Bucks’ players called for justice for Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot in the back seven times by police officers in Kenosha, setting off riots in the Wisconsin city that led to two additional shooting deaths.

After the stand taken by Bucks’ players, the two remaining NBA playoff games were postponed, along with three WNBA games, five MLS games and three MLB games.

As for the NHL, the league that sent such a clear signal on where it stood on this issue four weeks ago, there was, literally, silence. Before its three playoff games on Wednesday there was a “moment of reflection,” then the games were played.

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On Thursday, the NHL apparently had its own moment of reflection after players met through the day. True, they got there in the end and maybe that’s the point to remember here. But it was also perfectly in keeping with the league that it sat on the sidelines for 24 hours and let the players take responsibility when it should have been leading the way.

That’s, at least, the message the NHL sent a month ago when Dumba walked out on the ice at Rogers Place in Edmonton. But when they had an opportunity to support Dumba’s words with actions, the league turtled, leaving the distinct impression the Dumba speech and its other initiatives were little more than props in a marketing strategy.

Look, we understand there are several layers to this. At the risk of stating the obvious, the makeup of the NHL is vastly different from the NBA. The soul of the game resides in Canada. The vast majority of its players and fans are white.

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Minnesota Wild’s Matt Dumba takes a knee during the national anthem, flanked by Edmonton Oilers’ Darnell Nurse and Chicago Blackhawks’ Malcolm Subban before a game in Edmonton on Aug. 1.

That doesn’t mean racism doesn’t exist in hockey and anyone who visits this space regularly knows our feelings on this subject.

But the point is the NHL made this their fight back on Aug. 1. From that moment, there should have been no turning back. Instead it took the players — those young men former NBA star Chris Webber spoke so eloquently about on Wednesday — to basically shame the league into honouring its word.

It’s also worth noting this wouldn’t have happened without the HDA which is emerging as the conscience of the game. When it was formed in June, the NHL immediately threw its support behind the new group.

“We are hopeful that this alliance will collaborate with our NHL structured council and committees … to bring ideas for change,” said Kim Davis, the NHL’s vice-president of social impact and a woman of colour.

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But the league quickly learned the HDA were serious men who were serious about their mandate. Vancouver’s Evander Kane, its co-head, was the HDA’s strongest voice. In an interview with TSN’s Frank Seravalli, Kane said: “The NHL can put: Black Lives Matters all over the rink, shout Black Lives Matter from the mountains. No matter what they do or say it’s going to fall on deaf ears with me and every other person in the HDA because the league has made no effort to support its own Black players.”

On Thursday, Kane called for the NHL to postpone playoff games. On Wednesday, when the full slate of playoff games went off as scheduled, Dumba said: “The NHL, we’re always late to the party, especially on these topics, so it’s sort of sad and disheartening to me and other members of the HDA and I’m sure other guys across the league.”

But those other guys spoke and their voices were heard. Remember who the leaders were here and remember the actions of those who were supposed to lead.

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