NHL, Hurricanes try to find voice amid calls for social justice

An End Racism sign is displayed before Game 3 of the second-round playoff series between the Colorado Avalanche and the Dallas Stars on Wednesday in Edmonton. (Jason Franson / The Canadian Press via AP)

In the aftermath of the police shooting Sunday of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the arrest of a 17-year-old in the shooting of three protesters on Tuesday night, the sports world has again joined the cause of social justice.

Five of the NBA’s six teams set to play Wednesday in the league’s Florida bubble — led by the Milwaukee Bucks — decided to sit out their scheduled games, leading to NBA postponing all games for the day.

Protests from Major League Baseball players led to the postponement of three games. Major League Soccer and the WNBA called off games. And two-time Grand Slam tennis champion Naomi Osaka’s decision not to play in her Thursday semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open led to the tournament pausing play for the day. These were just some of the athlete-led protests that have again inserted sports into the center of a worldwide discussion about race relations and police brutality in the United States.

The NHL, meanwhile, offered a 27-second “moment of reflection” and “ End Racism” signage on video boards before Wednesday’s Bruins-Lightning game in its Toronto bubble.

Then on Thursday afternoon, hours after the recently formed Hockey Diversity Alliance — a group of current and former black hockey players committed to battling systemic racism inside and outside the sport — called for the day’s games to be suspended, the NHL and NHLPA announced the games scheduled for Thursday and Friday would be postponed.

The league — made up of predominantly white team ownership, executives, coaches and staff, and players — has struggled to find its place in the social justice landscape, and the sport’s “don’t rock the boat” culture has further complicated its reaction to off-the-ice issues.

“I think everyone is just trying to make our way through this. Just trying to learn,” Hurricanes alternate captain Jordan Martinook said Thursday morning, prior to the postponements, in a Zoom call with the media. “Six months ago, I probably wasn’t fully aware of it. I’m sure most of us weren’t. It’s terrible the way we had to learn about it.”

At the start of the NHL’s return, most teams — including the Hurricanes — stood for the national anthems with interlocked arms, a gesture of solidarity that some viewed as half-hearted in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police that sparked nationwide protests. A handful of players — led by Minnesota Wild defenseman and Hockey Diversity Alliance member Matt Dumba, who made an impassioned speech about racism in hockey and beyond — knelt during anthems.

“I know first-hand, as a minority playing the great game of hockey, the unexplainable and difficult challenges that come with it,” Dumba, who is black, said. “Black Lives Matter. Breonna Taylor’s life matters. Hockey is a great game, but it could be a whole lot greater, and it starts with all of us.”

Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin — who, along with his wife, Kylie, was the subject of an Aug. 5 article on The Athletic about the couple’s adoption of a black child and how it further opened their eyes to racism — said on Aug. 6 that the Hurricanes collectively decided against any other form of protest when they opened the NHL’s return Aug. 1 against the Rangers.

“I think we came to a conclusion as a team that we didn’t want to do anything more,” Slavin said. “And that, I think, Jonathan Isaac, the basketball player, said it really well, where kneeling  and supporting black lives don’t really go hand in hand, I think.

“If you look back at why [Colin] Kaepernick knelt the first place (it was) to get the conversation started about police brutality and racism that’s still ongoing in our country, and that conversation is being had now. And so, the awareness is there, and there’s other ways outside of the camera that we can be supporting black lives. And I think those are the action steps that need to be taken right now.”

Isaac, an ordained minister, said his decision not to kneel came down to his faith and his belief that others accepting Christianity into their lives would cure all of the world’s problems, including racism. Slavin is also a devout Christian.

Now the league, pushed by a group of players, is back to where it started on Aug. 1, but it’s a discussion the Hurricanes — eliminated from the postseason — won’t have to have on a public stage.

“Yeah, it’d be very hard,” captain Jordan Staal said Thursday morning of having to choose between playing or protesting. “I don’t really know what I would feel if I was in a situation and what those players went through … but my focus is on the game when I’m walking in a room. That’s number one. So who knows what happened, but, it’s obviously a very hard situation.”