NHL Has Never Seemed More Stuck in a Bubble Than It Did Wednesday

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By WEEI 93.7

On a historic day in the sports world, it was business as usual in the NHL.

As players in the NBA, WNBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer forced postponements of some or all of their league's games Wednesday by refusing to play in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, the NHL's three playoff games, including Bruins-Lightning Game 3, went on as scheduled.

There was a brief moment of reflection and well wishes for Blake and his family before the Bruins' game. The final game of the night, Avalanche vs. Stars, didn't even have that. No kneeling, no other form of protest, and seemingly no real consideration about not playing.

Zdeno Chara said after Boston's 7-1 loss that the team never discussed not playing because everything started happening "so close to our game," but other players in other sports made their decisions to strike with less time to contemplate. Colorado and Dallas had more time to discuss than anyone and still played.

It was all a reminder that the NHL is a league stuck in a bubble, both literally and figuratively.

Players in other leagues have made an effort to put their work to combat systemic racism and police brutality front and center, in this case above even the games themselves, knowing full well that many fans who do not support their efforts or methods will turn on them and turn on their sport.

NHL players for the most part have been unwilling to do that. A bunch of them put out statements of support when social unrest swept across the country after the murder of George Floyd in May. Some marched in protests or donated money to various causes.

But since games resumed a month ago, it has been clear that all that has been moved to the background where it doesn't distract from the game. A few players have kneeled during the national anthem. Matt Dumba, one of the league's few Black players, gave an emotional pregame speech earlier in the playoffs.

Other than that, much of the messaging and gestures have been so muddled and vague that they can be easily ignored by anyone who doesn't want to see or hear them, or even twisted into opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement by the likes of Eric Trump.

It's the difference between staying in your comfort zone and getting outside it, between making some of your fans uncomfortable and allowing them to keep watching without confronting anything they don't want to see or hear.

NHL players will say they are against racism, but very few have discussed the specific problem of police brutality. They will say they are listening and learning, but stop short of acting.

There are plenty of fans who love the NHL right now precisely because players aren't saying or doing anything uncomfortable, and there are plenty of players who want to keep it that way.

NHL players are by and large much whiter than NBA players, from whiter backgrounds, with whiter fans. They have not had the same experiences with racism as their NBA counterparts, and an issue like police brutality does not hit as close to home. It is a lot easier to not rock the boat and just go about your usual daily routine and take your usual afternoon nap, like the Bruins apparently did Wednesday, when something doesn't directly affect you, your family, your friends, teammates or fans.

But real change does not happen if everyone stays in their comfort zone. Players and teams across the NHL have said they support the Black Lives Matter movement and have said they plan to be actively anti-racist. They should be held to those words and called out when they resort to passivity like they did Wednesday.

It is clear that the NHL's few Black players are getting fed up as the league once again lags behind other sports, and as they once again have to be the ones to speak while so many white players remain silent.

J.T. Brown likened the league's "listening and learning" approach to that of his one-year-old, Evander Kane said the league's "lack of action" was "insulting," and Matt Dumba said the league is "always last to the party on these topics" and that white leaders around the league need to step up and do more.

Some notable white ex-players did speak up. On Sportsnet before the Bruins game, both Kelly Hrudey and Craig Simpson said they didn't think the NHL should have been playing Wednesday night and that the league was missing an opportunity.

Asked if he agreed with Dumba's pointed call for white players to do more, Patrice Bergeron said he did.

"I've said that before. It starts with everyone," Bergeron said. "I'm part of that. (Chara's) part of that. We all need to find ways to be, like I said, part of the solution. My statement doesn't change. My stance doesn't change. I want to be a part of it. Yeah, I stand against any type of racism and injustice. I want to be a part of that."

What that "more" is, though, remains the critical question. When asked the possibility of not playing, Tampa Bay's Kevin Shattenkirk said it was "something we'll have to address going forward."

It doesn't necessarily have to be a strike of their own, but after a day when players in other leagues made history and all the NHL could muster was a brief moment of reflection, yes, "more" is required if you want to show you're really serious about this.

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