NHL teams miss the mark on George Floyd protest PR responses

J.T. Brown. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
J.T. Brown. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images) /

The NHL and its teams continue to get it wrong when it comes to their responses to the George Floyd protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.

We are a week removed since the start of worldwide protests in response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police and the responses from the sports world at large are still trickling in. High profile names and organizations have already spoken out in denouncing racism and police brutality — and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole — ranging from Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence to Michael Jordan.

The NHL has also spoken out on this latest racial injustice, posting a lengthy message on social media that the league “stands with all those who are working to achieve a racially just society, and against all those who perpetrate and uphold racism, hatred, bigotry and violence.”

On the surface, the NHL’s statement isn’t anything special. It’s very much in the same vein as many of the carbon copy brand statements that have surfaced on social media these last few days. However, keeping in mind the NHL’s history as a league — which has struggled openly with issues of race and diversity — it’s a disingenuous statement at best unless true action follows.

Much like the NHL, the league’s teams have also posted statements of their own on Twitter. Some, like the Dallas Stars and Florida Panthers, take more of a firm stand against racial injustice and police brutality, while the New York Islanders play both sides in their statement.

Given the NHL’s track record, it’s difficult to accept these statements as nothing more than empty platitudes until the league acts upon their words. In the past year, former Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters came under investigation for — and ultimately resigned thanks to — racist remarks made at Akim Aliu 10 years ago. In April, New York Rangers prospect K’Andre Miller was subjected to racial slurs on a Zoom call with fans.

Both times, the NHL made statements denouncing the racist remarks or incidents, stating these acts are not part of hockey culture, when in fact they have always been.

Over the years, hockey players such as Wayne Simmonds, Evander Kane, J.T. Brown, P.K. Subban and Joel Ward have all endured racial slurs either on the ice or via social media, and that’s not even including the countless other black hockey players across the world in various minor or professional leagues whose incidents go undocumented.

Just last November, longtime Sportsnet hockey analyst Don Cherry stepped down after xenophobic comments were made on air. In 2018, USA Hockey hired — and still employs — John Vanbiesbrouck as an assistant executive director of hockey operations, even though he had resigned as coach of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in 2003 after using a racial slur to describe team captain Trevor Daley.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have openly celebrated Blue Lives Matter in their arena, a countermovement to Black Lives Matter that unfairly equates a job one can choose to join to a racial identity that one cannot change. While the Chicago Blackhawks did make a statement, they once gave away free hats with the Blue Lives Matter logo on them and also have an inherently racist name and logo.

Racism is baked into hockey’s DNA, whether the NHL wants to admit it or not. Denying that fact, and yet still touting the slogan “hockey is for everyone” around when that has not been the case comes off as incredibly hypocritical from the league and its teams.

Hockey players have also been a mixed bag in the reactions and statements department. Over the last week, black hockey players have used their platforms to speak out — and call others out in the process — while the majority of white hockey players have been silent. However, a handful of white hockey players such as Blake Wheeler, Connor Carrick, Alex Ovechkin, Anders Lee and Logan Couture have used their platforms to say something.

These statements are a good step in the right direction, but they aren’t perfect, especially Sidney Crosby’s bare-bones participation in Blackout Tuesday. Jonathan Toews’ comments on Instagram on Monday may be the closest the NHL has come to having one of its biggest stars speak out in such an articulate manner.

On the other hand, players such as Jack Eichel, who reposted a tweet on his Instagram story condemning the protests, leave much to be desired.

The statements made by the NHL, its teams and many of its players on Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests against police brutality feel hollow when looked at through the lens of hockey history. It’s hard to believe the league’s statement that they will “will continue to do better and work diligently toward culture change throughout hockey and endeavor to be mindful of our own shortcomings in this process” when the NHL has given us no reason to believe they will do so.

I want to hope hockey and the NHL are as open to change as they say they are. As someone who has made her life working in hockey, it pains me to know this sport is excluding so many due to the color of their skin or the way they dress or what music they listen to. However, as a white woman, I know I’m speaking from a place of privilege and that my voice isn’t what needs to be heard at this time.

Organizations such as the Black Girl Hockey Club and this list of resources from hockey reporter Jashvina Shah are worth your time to read about and donate to, among others. One can only hope the NHL is truly listening to what this community has to say this time.

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