June 19th, 2020 marked day 100 of the NHL pause. It also marked Juneteenth, commemorating the day in 1865 that slaves in Texas learned that they were free, two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
The focus on the significance of the day this year comes in the wake of the spotlight that has been placed on the systemic racism and social injustice that still occurs in America, first by COVID-19’s disproportionate toll on people of color and then by the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police officers. They are not the first to die by the use of excessive force, and they would not turn out to be the last.
The NHL chose to commemorate Juneteenth by launching its “Committing to Change” site. It is chock-full of resources and education designed to support its three tenets of awareness, allyship, and advocacy. It’s another plank put in place by the league to help fight racism and inequality.
For the NHL and hockey in general, its reckoning with racism began bubbling up before February but came truly to the forefront this season. In the wake of Mike Babcock’s firing, Akim Aliu spoke up about the racism he faced from members and staff of his own team while trying to make his way to the NHL. The revelations led to Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters, called out by Aliu for directing racial slurs at him while in the minors, resigning.
Then in April, New York Rangers prospect K’Andre Miller was attacked with an endless barrage of racial slurs during a Zoom call with fans. Seeing what happened to Miller in real-time while trying to do something fun with fans was simultaneously stomach-turning and heartbreaking.
Aliu’s revelations led to the NHL requiring all team officials to report any incidents of racism or bullying to the league. A small step, relying on the honor system that someone would break the “what happens in the room, stays in the room” mentality that permeates the sport.
The killing of Floyd and the days of protest across America and the world brought about something not seen before in the NHL. Dozens of players, who normally do not speak out on social issues, found their voices. More importantly, it was not just Black players speaking out. White players issued tweets and statements on how they could educate themselves and be better allies in the fight against racism and social injustice. Players, such as Zdeno Chara and Tyler Seguin, partook in protests in Boston and Dallas, respectively. All 32 teams eventually made some sort of statement, with Miller’s own team putting out the final and tepid statement after owner James Dolan finally capitulated.
The outcry led to the announcement on June 8th of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, co-headed by Aliu and Evander Kane, and featuring an executive committee of current and former players. Among them are Matt Dumba, Trevor Daley, and Joel Ward. Independent of the NHL, it hopes to work with the league and all levels of hockey to help educate on racism and inequality.
All of these steps that the NHL and its current and former players are taking are steps in the right direction so that the claim that “Hockey is for Everyone” doesn’t ring as hollow as it does now. Much like with player statements, they are just words and lip service until they are put into action.
Featured at the very top of the “Committing to Change” site is the following excerpt from a letter written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. while in a Birmingham, Alabama jail:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
It’s true in real life, and it’s true on the ice. Aliu, Miller, Wayne Simmonds, Kevin Weekes, P.K. Subban, and Devante Smith-Pelly, just to name a few, were not the first nor the only ones who have had to come face-to-face with racism in hockey. Hopefully, with awareness, education, and a true commitment to change, they will be the last.