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NHL players empowered to speak out like never before

Brad Marchand is the NHL’s reigning king of trash talk, a title bestowed on the Boston Bruins forward by his peers the past two years in the annual players’ association poll.

His comments, which also have been voted worst in the league in the same poll, are almost always aimed at opponents. But this a unique moment in sports history, and Marchand set his sights elsewhere Friday.

Marchand was asked during a videoconference call how he feels about the “stick to sports” crowd and fans who believe NHL players should provide a diversion from social issues, rather than discuss them.

“That’s too bad,” he said. “We have bigger things that we care about and that we want to do and improve upon and the people that we want to support, and that’s what matters.”

Marchand’s words are emblematic of a new era in sports that has seen athletes empowered to speak out like never before.

NHL players joined athletes from other leagues by choosing not to participate Thursday and Friday to protest against racism and police brutality. The league supported its players’ decision in a statement and announced the playoffs would resume Saturday.

The Golden Knights are scheduled to play the Vancouver Canucks in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday in Edmonton, Alberta.

Athletes from the NBA, WNBA, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and other pro sports also refused to play this week following the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

But for the NHL, a league that consists of more than 95 percent white players, the strike was powerful in its symbolism.

“I think that’s one thing that people continually mix up is they bring politics into these situations and that’s not what this is about,” Marchand said. “We’re not being political. That’s not the goal, and that’s not what we’re here for. There needs to be changes made throughout society and it’s bigger than hockey right now, and it’s bigger than sports.”

Standing in solidarity

Prior to this summer, hockey players rarely spoke out on social issues.

Boston goaltender Tim Thomas refused to join his teammates when then-President Barack Obama invited the Bruins to the White House in 2012.

Lightning forward J.T. Brown, who is bi-racial, raised his right fist to protest policy brutality and racism during the national anthem of a game in 2017.

But there seemed to be an awakening starting this summer, after the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.

According to Kim Davis, the NHL’s executive vice president for social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs, more than 200 players have spoken out on social media.

The conversation was furthered when Minnesota defenseman Matt Dumba took a knee prior during the national anthems after he gave a speech prior to the Chicago-Edmonton game on Aug. 1. He raised his fist during the anthems the following day when the Wild played.

Ryan Reaves and Robin Lehner of the Golden Knights took a knee during the anthems Aug. 3 along with Dallas’ Jason Dickinson and Tyler Seguin.

That set the stage for Thursday, when players participating in Edmonton and Toronto united to take a stand against social injustice and racial inequality.

The sight of nearly 100 white players standing in solidarity next to and behind Black players during a videoconference call will be the enduring image of this postseason.

“As leaders, up here, with the NHL, I think we have a unique opportunity to try and create sustainable change,” said Colorado’s Nazem Kadri, who is of Lebanese descent. “That’s what this is all about. It’s not just one or two guys. It’s every single player being on the same page and sticking together. Morally and ethically, this is the right thing to do.”

Several Eastern Conference players said the wheels of action were put in motion after they played Wednesday, and members of several teams reached out to Reaves the following morning.

The Canucks, who play home games in one of the league’s most diverse cities, also met with Reaves and Knights players Thursday morning to discuss options.

After a conference call with players from the eight remaining teams, the recently formed Hockey Diversity Alliance made a formal request to the NHL to suspend all playoff games Thursday.

A joint announcement came from the league and NHL Players’ Association that afternoon, but make no mistake, this was a player-driven movement.

‘My dignity is not for sale’

“I think athletes are realizing they don’t have to be a pawn in the system. And I think they’re realizing that they do have power,” said Dr. Ketra Armstrong, a University of Michigan professor of sport management and the director of the Center for Race & Ethnicity in Sport in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Armstrong believes social media has become a powerful platform for athletes to speak out without it being filtered through the media.

“There was a time that they were muted because of the financial implications and sports teams were muted because of the potential loss of sponsors,” she said. “But now, they’re willing to lose that. It’s just that important that they’re willing to say ‘My dignity is not for sale. This is what I stand for.’ ”

The players chose to focus on the fight for equality rather than hockey Friday. Tampa Bay defenseman Brayden Coburn politely declined to answer a question related to the Lightning’s game Saturday.

But if further proof is needed of what players hope to change, Florida Hockey Now reported Friday the NHL is investigating whether former Panthers general manager Dale Tallon used “racially-charged” language during the postseason. Tallon denied the accusation.

“Things aren’t going to change overnight. That’s not how it works,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s years of ingraining your kids the proper values. … And when you get through to the youth, we may not see it tomorrow, but as years go on, I’m pretty confident that if we all do the right thing as parents, the world will be a better place.”

Contact David Schoen at dschoen@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203. Follow @DavidSchoenLVRJ on Twitter.

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