Inside the NHL’s decision to postpone two days of playoff games

    Emily Kaplan is ESPN’s national NHL reporter.

    Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.

The NHL postponed all playoff games on Thursday and Friday to stand in solidarity with other sports leagues protesting racial injustice, including the recent police shooting of Jacob Blake. This decision came after the league took some criticism for playing all three playoff games on Wednesday as scheduled, while games in other sports were postponed.

Here is the story of how the NHL arrived here, and what comes next.

Why did the NHL play games on Wednesday?

Greg Wyshynski: The NHL made it clear on Wednesday that any decision not to play games that day would be up to the players. “I don’t expect the league to initiate a game stoppage. Obviously, our players are free to express themselves in any manner they feel is appropriate,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly told Sportsnet.

NHL players who participated in those games said it was a matter of timing. The New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers were in the midst of their afternoon game when the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic opted not to play in their NBA playoff game, which set off a chain reaction of opt-outs in basketball, baseball and soccer. The Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning took the ice in Toronto well after those other sports started to react, but players such as defenseman Zdeno Chara said “it was so close to our game that we were just getting ready” to play when the news was breaking.

“After our pregame meal, we took naps and then we were on the bus, so I don’t think any of us were watching the TV until we got to the rink. And at that point, obviously, it was too close to the game to start any discussions or try to move the games to different dates. We were basically following the schedule the NHL provided to us,” Chara said.

The NHL did have a “moment of reflection” before the Bruins vs. Lightning game, with a graphic that read “END RACISM” and an announcer saying the NHL “wishes Jacob Blake and his family well and call out to our fans and communities to stand up for social justice and the effort to end racism.”

The late game in Edmonton featured the Dallas Stars against the Colorado Avalanche, and again the players said there wasn’t time to determine whether or not to play. “It wasn’t a big serious conversation. Just a couple of us talking. To be honest, I woke up from my nap and I didn’t even realize what the NBA was doing until I got to the rink,” Stars forward Tyler Seguin said. “I support the movement. Hockey needs to do more. But we can all show our actions in different ways.”

Both coaches in the Western Conference said they were not approached by any players asking to reconsider playing on Wednesday night. “If our players, even one player, had come to me and said, ‘Hey, I don’t think we should play,’ then we would have addressed it as a team. But I never got word from anyone in the room,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar said.

The decision to play received backlash from fans and members of the players-founded Hockey Diversity Alliance. “Actually it’s incredibly insulting as a Black man in hockey, the lack of action and acknowledgement from the NHL,” said Evander Kane of the Sharks, co-chair of the HDA. “Just straight up insulting.”

By Thursday, the HDA made a formal request to the NHL to postpone games that night.

What is the Hockey Diversity Alliance?

Emily Kaplan: The Hockey Diversity Alliance was created in June and is co-headed by Kane and Akim Aliu, a former player who made news in November when he came forward saying Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters used a racial slur toward him while they were in the minors a decade ago. (Peters resigned shortly after).

The executive committee of the HDA features prominent minority players in the NHL, including Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba, Avalanche forward Nazem Kadri, Detroit Red Wings defenseman Trevor Daley, Buffalo Sabres forward Wayne Simmonds, Flyers forward Chris Stewart, Ottawa Senators forward Anthony Duclair, and recently retired forward Joel Ward.

“We will strive to be a force for positive change, not only within our game of hockey but within society,” the players said in a letter announcing the formation of the group in June. “Although we will be independent of the NHL, we are hopeful that we will work productively with the league to accomplish these important changes. We believe in the importance of accountability in developing inclusivity and diversity for all involved in our sport, including fans and the league office.”

The HDA is the first of its kind in terms of a players coalition, and it is still getting its feet wet as an organization. They have had several meetings with the NHL and have put forward some hefty requests, many of which have not been met. But the fact they were able to curry influence over their peers — most of whom are white — in a 24-hour span is a significant step forward for them. Expect the HDA to have a big voice in hockey going forward.

Who got the ball rolling on Thursday?

Kaplan, Wyshynski: It really began after the games ended Wednesday night. “We were clearly not as informed as we are today about what was going on in the other leagues,” Islanders captain Anders Lee said.

After players fully digested the landscape, several reached out to members of the HDA for guidance. Flyers players Scott Laughton and James van Riemsdyk, for example, reached out to Stewart, who was their teammate earlier this season before finishing the campaign in the AHL. Several players reached out to Kane and Dumba, as both were vocal on the NHL’s inaction on Wednesday night. Largely the players in the bubble asked the HDA members for guidance. What do you think we should do? What is appropriate?

Those conversations spilled over to Thursday morning. The Vancouver Canucks’ leadership met and decided they wanted to have a conversation with the Vegas Golden Knights, their semifinal opponents, and specifically enforcer Ryan Reaves, one of the few Black players still competing in the playoffs, who earlier in the postseason had taken a knee during the national anthems in a display against racism.

“We talked about it in the room this morning. We realize the impact it’s having on the world and in the sports community, seeing what was going on in basketball and the MLB. We wanted to go over and talk to Ryan and Vegas. We just all thought it was the best course of action,” Canucks center Bo Horvat said. “We have to come together. This stuff can’t stand. We need to educate ourselves and understand what’s going on in the world. There needs to be change. Us, being all together here as one, shows strength in the hockey community and in the world.”

There was no love lost between the Canucks and Reaves in this series — he had even taunted one of their teammates with chicken noises from the bench in Game 1 — but coach Travis Green said that was all put aside for the greater cause.

“There’s sports and then there are things that are bigger than sports. I wasn’t surprised at all this morning when I spoke to our players and they wanted to talk to Ryan. I felt like that was the right thing to do,” Green said. “They’re teammates within the league. A lot of times they play on different teams, they go out on the ice and they compete hard against each other, but they’re family.”

Meanwhile, Kevin Shattenkirk and the Lightning spoke as a team after their victory against Boston on Wednesday night, trying to figure out what their next steps were. He heard that the Golden Knights and Canucks were considering opting out of Thursday’s games, so he texted Reaves and asked to talk. The two are longtime friends, going back to their days with the St. Louis Blues.

Reaves had been contemplating what to do for the Golden Knights’ game that day. “I don’t think he slept a lot last night. I think it weighed heavily on him,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said.

“Last night I struggled with what I wanted to do. Am I really going to walk out on my team and be the only guy? Will there be a couple guys?” Reaves recalled. “But I woke up to a text from Kevin Shattenkirk, and he had a bunch of guys out East said they wanted to talk. Then I got a text saying Vancouver wanted to talk. That, I think, was really more powerful. The conversation started with white players on other teams wanting to talk. And that’s the most powerful thing that happened today.”

At one point, Dumba and Kane got on a call with more than 100 players who were inside the bubble. The Hockey Diversity Alliance was a major force in gathering support from the players to postpone the games.

“I’ve got so much more respect for every single player in this league for doing something like this,” said Colorado center Nazem Kadri, the only HDA board member who is still playing in the postseason. “On systemic racism, we can use these next couple of days to further educate ourselves, for the betterment of society. It’s something that needed to be done. Hockey’s a team sport. Every single guy here is on the same page.”

Said Lee, of the Islanders: “We came to understand and to really have that opportunity to support our fellow Black players in this league. We weren’t comfortable playing. We were right behind them.”

All the while, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had been in contact, with the league reiterating it would take action only if there was a strong push from players. The NHLPA arranged a call for all the players in the bubbles on Thursday afternoon and by then it was apparent: Everyone was on the same page.

“I think the message coming from a predominantly white league has a very strong impact when it’s coming from players like this,” Reaves said. “Most of these guys have never lived through some of this stuff that Black athletes have. They don’t go through those day-to-day things where they’ve seen the racism, or their families have gone through it. But for them to say that they see what’s going on in society and we disagree with it and something has to change right now … that was my message. I said that standing together, here, is more powerful than anything you can do. We’re in a bubble. There’s nothing outside of the bubble you can do right now. We can’t change anything because we’re stuck in here. But together, in here, right now, that’s what we can do.”

When was the decision made to postpone the games both on Thursday and Friday, and why?

Kaplan: On the NHLPA call, all eight teams in the bubble expressed interest in taking a stand in solidarity. That is why they decided to postpone games both Thursday and Friday, so that all eight teams would have the opportunity to sit out. There was also a belief among some players that going dark for just one night wasn’t sufficient. Two consecutive nights sent a stronger message.

Set the table for me on how the resumption will work.

Kaplan: As of Thursday night, the NHL had yet to release an updated schedule. However, games are expected to resume on Saturday, and the NHL will pick up with the series where it left off. Expect three games on Saturday, and possibly Sunday, to make up for the lost time.

This is a pretty momentous (although delayed) step. What else is the league going to do?

Wyshynski: The past eight months have seen the NHL take on systemic racism, in hockey and in society, with a thoroughness that it never had before. Player Akim Aliu’s accusation that then-Calgary coach Bill Peters had used a racial slur toward him, when both were in the minor leagues a decade ago, served as the catalyst.

“Inclusion and diversity are not simply buzz words. They are foundational principles of the NHL,” Bettman said at the board of governors meeting in December 2019, while announcing that the league would create a “multidisciplinary council to suggest initiatives, monitor progress and coordinate efforts with all levels of hockey.”

In June 2020, the league and the players reacted to the police killing of George Floyd, a 43-year-old Black man in Minneapolis, with an outpouring of social media messages. More than 100 NHL players, all 32 teams — including expansion Seattle — and the NHL and NHLPA made strong statements against racial inequality and systemic racism. Some tagged their posts with “Black Lives Matter,” and some turned words into actions with donations to Black causes and appearances at local protests.

Soon after this unprecedented moment of solidarity against racism, the NHL announced the formation of four committees born out of Bettman’s proclamation at the board meeting. They were founded by Kim Davis, NHL executive vice president for social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs.

The working groups include:

  • The executive inclusion council, made up of five NHL owners, five team presidents and two general managers

  • The player inclusion committee, composed of both current and former NHL players, as well as a group of women’s players from the U.S. and Canada

  • The fan inclusion committee, made up of chief marketing officers from NHL teams, as well as different partners the league has worked with in the multicultural space

  • The youth inclusion committee, made up of leaders from USA Hockey and Hockey Canada, parents and those who are running youth hockey organizations in communities

Before the playoffs, only the executive inclusion council had members publicly named: Bettman and Sabres owner and team president Kim Pegula, who are the co-chairs.

Upon arrival at the bubble for the postseason, the NHL followed through on continuing the momentum its teams and players had earlier in the summer. The league put “We Skate For Black Lives” ads around its rinks in Toronto and Edmonton, and held pregame ceremonies before opening games to recognize the fight against racial injustice and violence. Dumba was invited to represent the HDA and give a speech before the first Western Conference qualification round game.

“You know, these days need to be used in the right manner,” the Bruins’ Chara said. “Obviously, we need to step back, reflect a little bit, just to take a little moment to realize what’s going on. Obviously, there is a problem in the States and there is obviously the right reason for why all the major sports are doing what they’re doing right now, to kind of make sure that we all realize that there needs to be change. And obviously it starts with the conversations and acts that are going to be very important to follow.”

As for next steps, the league is relying on its new committees to generate ideas and help plan a path forward. But it’s also working with the HDA on that as well.

What else is the HDA going to do?

Wyshynski: Over the past few months, the HDA has asked the NHL to support and fund a series of proposals.

“We have certain initiatives and policies that we’d like the NHL to act on. We feel that it’s very reasonable. We want the NHL to understand that this is a collaborative effort to create sustainable change,” Kadri said. “Moving forward, it’s going to have to be the whole league. It has to be collectively. Not just one or two guys. Strength in numbers is key. In order to make serious change, that’s what needs to happen.”

Some of them concern what’s on the ice. The HDA asked for a logo on the ice at playoff games. It suggested the blue line be temporarily changed to a black line. It proposed “black out” warm-up jerseys — ones devoid of traditional team colors — that could also be sold to help raise money for grassroots hockey and social justice initiatives.

According to Rick Westhead of TSN, the HDA has asked for the NHL to diversify its supply chain, with 10% of NHL procurement expenditure going to Black-owned supply companies. It also has asked the NHL to reach some hiring targets:

  • That 3.5% of NHL executives are Black, before the end of the 2024-25 season

  • That 8% of hockey-related personnel are Black, before the end of the 2022-23 season

  • That 10% of non-hockey-related personnel are Black, before the end of the 2022-23 season

There hasn’t been any agreement on these proposals, nor on the biggest ask: The HDA wants $100 million in funding from the NHL, to be paid over a 10-year term.

“We’ve been talking with the NHL for just over two months now. We made it very clear in our first statement that we sought to work with the National Hockey League, and we haven’t wavered from that yet. It’s definitely been a little more difficult than anticipated because of the importance of these issues, thinking there’d be a better understanding of these issues,” Kane said on NBCSN Thursday night. “But we’re continuing to work with them to hopefully to create that awareness and have them understand the importance of these issues in growing our game.”

Were there any perspectives out there that were notable?

Kaplan, Wyshynski: The NHL Coaches Association chimed in:

Kurtis Gabriel, a winger with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the AHL, released this impassioned video.

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare of the Avalanche and Jason Dickinson of the Stars were both asked how to sustain this momentum, rather than have white allyship arrive in occasional waves. Dickinson said the HDA will be a key to that.

“They’re getting the ball rolling to bring the white allyship in and to get us on board and help them out. I can’t say we’re got a definitive plan today. We’re working on things and this is why we need a couple of days to figure things out, get organized and hash out a plan. We can talk all we want, but until we do something, it’s all just words,” Dickinson said.

Bellemare agreed.

“These two days, we know that they’re not going to change everything right now. But the main point is that we are all here and we’re aware of what’s going on and it has to stop. And it’s the message that we’re sending to our organization that we want to work together, to take a better step, a different step to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “The HDA has a plan and it’s up to us, after the bubble, every player and organization to make sure we work together with our communities. The reason we’re here right now is because there’s nobody in this room who’s happy about what’s happening.”

Source: Read Full Article