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Ryan Reaves, Robin Lehner’s anthem protest a sign of changing NHL

Updated August 5, 2020 - 4:41 pm

Golden Knights players Ryan Reaves and Robin Lehner became the first NHL players to kneel in uniform during the American and Canadian anthems Monday.

Joined by Dallas centers Tyler Seguin and Jason Dickinson, they did so almost three years after then-Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown became the league’s first player to peacefully protest racial injustice during the anthem by raising his fist.

The different reactions to the two events shows how much the NHL has changed.

The Lightning released a statement about Brown’s protest that didn’t mention him by name. The quartet on Monday, on the other hand, had the league amplify their voices to its 6.2 million Twitter followers.

The NHL didn’t just tweet a photo of the four players kneeling. It tweeted out custom graphics featuring quotes from Reaves, Lehner and Seguin on why they decided to do it.

The NHL, and hockey in general, has nowhere near the diversity of other sports. It’s not even close to the most outspoken. And some Knights fans, based on their reaction on social media to Reaves, Lehner, Seguin and Dickinson’s actions, prefer that the league remains silent on social and political issues.

But the gears of change are turning, and Monday was another reflection of that.

“We know there’s much work ahead,” said Kim Davis, the NHL’s executive vice president for social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. “By no means are we taking a victory lap. We stand humbly in this moment and are grateful that this is a moment that people are focused on. But we are also very clear that this is not again about a moment, but it really is about a movement. We have to keep the energy high, because it’s a long game.”

Ugly history

Retired NHL goaltender and current NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes loves hockey, as one would expect.

He reveres the game’s core values. Toughness. Competitive spirit. Creativity. Teamwork. But that doesn’t mean he can overlook its flaws.

Hockey’s past is filled with examples of racism and a lack of diversity at all levels.

Reaves has said he was called a racial slur at a junior hockey game. Brown said in an NHL.com essay he had been, too. A notable incident at the professional level came to light this fall when retired player Akim Aliu said former Carolina Hurricanes and Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters called him a racial slur in the American Hockey League a decade ago.

Peters said in a letter to Flames general manager Brad Treliving that he apologized for his “offensive language,” but his words were not directed at anyone in particular. He resigned as the Flames’ coach in November.

There also are no Black head coaches or general managers in the NHL.

“This is a point of vulnerability within our sport,” Weekes said. “It’s been an ignored blind spot. It’s been an inconvenient truth and an inconvenient reality for certain people. And, quite frankly, it’s something that’s gone unaddressed.”

The reasons hockey looks different from other sports are complex and multifaceted. One key cause is the costs associated with playing. Equipment and ice time aren’t cheap. Representation is part of the problem, too.

Diversity becomes a self-perpetuating problem if kids don’t see players they can relate to on the ice and decide the sport isn’t for them.

“Those kids want to see people that look more like them,” Reaves said in June. “That brings them a little bit closer to the sport.”

Changing winds

The NHL started tackling those problems more head-on in 2017 with its “Hockey Is for Everyone” campaign. Transformational change still didn’t happen overnight.

Meanwhile, other leagues and sports took the lead on peaceful protests for social justice. Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the American anthem in 2016 after consulting with retired Army Green Beret Nate Boyer. Major league baseball catcher Bruce Maxwell knelt in 2017.

NBA, National Women’s Soccer League, Major League Soccer and European soccer teams have knelt before games.

“For a variety of reasons, NHL players have not been as engaged in social justice issues nearly as much as, say, NBA players,” said Daniel Durbin, director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society, in an email to the Review-Journal. “Part of this is due to the powerful influence star players such as LeBron James, who openly pursues social justice issues, have on the NBA. Part is also due to the relative power NBA players wield within the league.”

Davis said she thinks things changed this summer. After the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, hockey players have been more vocal about social justice, police brutality and racial inequality on social media.

Davis said 226 current or former players have spoken up on social justice issues on social media in the past two months. The Hockey Diversity Alliance also was formed to give the sport a prominent independent organization fighting for diversity.

The ground has shifted beyond hockey as well. Kaepernick has not played in the NFL since the season he started kneeling, but more people appear to have come to his side. A 2016 Yahoo News/YouGov poll revealed that only 28 percent of respondents found Kaepernick’s kneeling “appropriate.” A similar poll in June reported that 52 percent of respondents now agree that it is “OK for NFL players to kneel during the national anthem to protest police killings of African Americans.”

That means Reaves, one of the most recognizable Knights players, isn’t likely to be affected in nearly the same way for his actions.

“Will it be overall a net negative for these players? I doubt it,” said Ron Wade, a clinical assistant professor of sports management at the University of Michigan. “There has been growing sentiment to bring attention to these problems.”

Next steps

Hockey is still dipping its toes in the waters of social justice compared to its peers.

Four players knelt Monday; 36 didn’t. Seguin also didn’t commit to kneeling the rest of the postseason.

“If there’s other guys on teams or other Black players that are doing something, we’ll always give our support,” Seguin said. “That was our statement tonight. I guess we’ll see what happens the next few games.”

There are also major diversity inroads that need to be made. The NHL’s Davis does not shy away from saying there’s work to do.

The NHL has created four committees to take on diversity issues facing the sport. There is a player inclusion committee co-led by New Jersey Devils defenseman PK Subban and former NHL forward/NBC analyst Anson Carter that will focus on diversifying the men’s and women’s hockey pipelines. There is a fan inclusion committee that will focus on outreach to underrepresented groups. There’s a youth committee to focus on the lower levels. And there’s an executive inclusion council that will make sure the committees’ ideas are actionable.

There will be pressure to deliver. The NHL’s heightened social awareness also comes with expectations.

There’s no doubt the league is in uncharted territory after Monday. Where it goes from here will be partially up to Davis and her staff, but mostly up to the players and how far they’re willing to go.

“(The last two months) really is the manifestation of so much of what we’ve been doing to educate players on how the social justice movement aligns with the principals and values of our sport,” Davis said. “And what we’re talking about is fairness and equality and treating people with respect. That message has, I think, rang loud and clear for our players and we’re seeing the manifestation of that in their actions.”

Staff reporter David Schoen contributed to this report. Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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