J.T. Brown knew he had to do something.
It was 2017, more than a year since Colin Kaepernick famously sat down on his team’s bench for the American national anthem in protest against racial inequality and police brutality in the United States. As a compromise, following a conversation with teammate and former Green Beret Nate Boyer, Kaepernick decided to begin kneeling instead of sitting. His methods of protest drew differing opinions from across the world of sports, including the NHL. Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella, who at the time was preparing to lead Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey, was the most vocal opponent, saying he’d bench anyone who kneeled during the anthem, prompting Brown to respond on Twitter.
“There had been a lot of things boiling over with Kaepernick and everything that had been going on in our country at the time. It took me a while to think, to make the right decision to come up with a plan,” Brown told Yahoo Sports Canada from Sweden, where the 30-year-old is currently playing with IF Björklöven in HockeyAllsvenskan, the country's second-highest pro hockey league.
Brown discussed potential ideas with his family, his wife and his agent before he made his way to his team’s bench on Oct. 7, 2017. His team at the time, the Tampa Bay Lightning, were set to face off against the Florida Panthers. During the Star Spangled Banner, Brown, flanked by his teammates on the bench, raised his right fist and rocked from side to side as the anthem played.
“It was a hard decision, I guess to a degree. But also, once I got it in my mind, I knew what I needed to do and that was it," Brown said. "I wasn’t really looking for the support in the locker room because I knew what I needed to do. Regardless whether someone did it with me or I did it by myself. What I needed to do was going to be done.”
Following the protest, Brown said he received death threats and racist remarks. Other players, including teammates like Ryan Callahan, came to his defence. Devante Smith-Pelly, then with the Washington Capitals, had also considered a protest of his own. It was enough to inch a predominantly white league further into the growing conversation around protests at sporting events, and a larger discussion about race, diversity and inclusivity.
Four years later, the National Hockey League is showing some signs of wanting to address these topics seriously — even if they have more genuine steps to take.
The NHL and its teams spent much of this past February acknowledging Black History Month, dedicated to celebrating the achievements and milestones accomplished by Black people.
The Pittsburgh Penguins offered virtual conversations and panels that included guests such as Trevor Daley, Pierre-Olivier Joseph and NHL executive vice-president Kim Davis. The Dallas Stars chose to celebrate Black players who’ve donned their uniform. The Montreal Canadiens wore blacked out warmup jerseys in tribute to Willie O’Ree, who in 1958 became the league's first Black player. The team later auctioned off the jerseys and said they would donate funds towards a pilot project in Montreal-North, a borough home to one of Canada’s largest Haitian communities.
“I have played quite a few seasons in the NHL and that wasn’t done at this level,” Brown said. “At least what they’re doing right now. That to me is an improvement. You can see that the league is doing a lot of things that they haven’t been doing in the years when I was there.”
“Acknowledging Black History Month and talking about the contributions that Black folks have had through hockey, I think that’s a wonderful place to start,” Renee Hess of Black Girl Hockey Club said. Through the BGHC, Hess has enticed NHL teams like the Los Angeles Kings and Toronto Maple Leafs to take the "Get Uncomfortable" pledge to denounce racism. “When you want to infiltrate the hearts and minds of hockey fans, knowing the connection to the Black community that hockey has, the intricate connection that it has, it’s a wonderful place to start.”
Recent efforts don't mask NHL's shortcomings
The league only began celebrating the month in 2019, unveiling a mobile museum dedicated to the history of minorities in the sport just a few months after O’Ree’s induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. In 2021, the NHL teamed up with the producers of Willie, an award-winning documentary on O’Ree’s life, and nonprofit Classroom Champions to facilitate conversations about social justice and racism through the experiences of the NHL trailblazer. They also commemorated some of the sport’s best Black players like Grant Fuhr, Angela James, Jarome Iginla, Tony McKegney and more through a series of videos and first-person essays. All of this was part of the NHL's "Hockey Is For Everyone" initiative that serves as the league’s way of promoting more inclusion and diversity in the sport.
Player agent Eustace King, currently the NHL’s lone Black agent, has taken notice of the league’s efforts to highlight its Black players and executives. He hopes the league will continue these efforts beyond February.
“The goal is not to have a Black History Month. The goal is to have Black History, people of colour history, Indigenous, women, woven into the fabric of the game at all levels whether it’s on the ice or off the ice," he said. "And now it’s not something that is thought of as a monthly thing, it’s fully integrated into the fabric of the game and it’s celebrated all year.”
King, along with Brown, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Wayne Simmonds, artist Terry Smith and hockey equipment manufacturer Bauer, created a pair of skates in honour of O’Ree that were worn by select NHL players in February. The game-worn skates will be auctioned off with proceeds going towards the Black Girl Hockey Club.
“Willie is the godfather and the centre of everything that’s started with diversity and inclusion in the NHL,” King said. “We wanted to make sure that we recognized and showcased him. In the same token, we wanted to integrate him on a product. It’s the first time in the National Hockey League that a product line has been created (for) diversity and inclusion and then actually used in a regular season game.”
While appreciating Black history isn’t just meant to be treated as a once-a-year awakening, it is notable to see the NHL — a league filled with mostly white players, coaches, executives and media members — acknowledge its existence.
But that's a pretty low bar, especially considering these efforts don’t mask the league’s shortcomings on the front of race and racism in its past and present.
Most hockey fans are up to speed on the Akim Aliu debacle, which ultimately led to head coach Bill Peters’ dismissal from the Calgary Flames last season. There was also the league’s slow response to rising protests against police brutality in the United States last summer, as other Big 4 leagues — even NASCAR — outpaced the NHL in denouncing racial inequality.
Both of those events set the table for the creation of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, who recently told Reuters the league is in denial of race issues. A Sports Illustrated feature published in January also detailed the friction between both parties.
Last fall, the Arizona Coyotes drafted Mitchell Miller, who bullied and used racial slurs toward a Black, disabled classmate for years while in high school. The Coyotes knew of Miller’s history of abuse prior to the draft but only renounced his draft rights after The Arizona Republic broke the story.
And these are just examples over the past 16 months.
Media representation matters
Black people are even more of a minority among those who cover the game, whether it’s on television, radio or in print. But there have been some notable changes in that regard. Everett Fitzhugh was recently named the first Black team broadcaster in league history when he joined the Seattle Kraken.
Former NHL forward Anthony Stewart has earned a bigger role this season on Sportsnet, the league's Canadian rights holder, after making his debut on the Hockey Night in Canada panel during last summer's playoffs. When Sportsnet was unable to fly in analysts due to the COVID-19 border shutdown, the network decided to call on Stewart, who had been plying his trade on Sportsnet 590 The Fan since 2018. He’s been in their rotation ever since.
“I got about, probably, they said three years of experience in two months,” Stewart said.
Stewart is now among a handful of Black faces who have appeared on television as hockey experts, joining Anson Carter, Kevin Weekes, Jean-Luc Grand Pierre and Sarah Nurse. David Amber, also at Sportsnet, is a Hockey Night in Canada host.
Stewart has noticed the growing number of persons of colour in broadcasting, but also in player personnel and executive roles throughout the league.
“Players 10 to 15 years ago, they didn’t see anybody that looked like them in these roles,” Stewart said. “They must have just thought there wasn’t an opportunity, right? Now that there’s more people that are visible minorities in these positions, people think ‘yeah, you know what, maybe it is possible for me to be on Hockey Night in Canada. Or be in player development, or be an assistant coach or head coach.”
Signs of progress
Since Brown’s protest nearly four years ago, police brutality and racism at the expense of Black people hasn’t ceased.
But a slowly growing number of white players have used their platforms to denounce it, even if the majority of them remain hesitant.
A handful of players kneeled on the ice during the anthems in last summer’s postseason, including Dallas Stars forward Tyler Seguin, Vegas Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner and Minnesota Wild defenceman Matt Dumba. Dumba, who is Filipino-Canadian, would later switch his protest from kneeling to raising his fist during the U.S. national anthem.
The NHL initially drew criticism for its inactivity at the onset of protests for Jacob Blake, a Black man shot by police in Wisconsin last August. Brown was among those who tweeted in disapproval. But not long after, NHL playoff games were postponed for a two-day period in solidarity with other leagues. A group of players in the Western Conference bubble in Edmonton banded together and held a press conference to explain their decision.
“If you look around this room, there’s a lot of white athletes in here and I think that’s the statement that’s being made right now. It’s great that the NBA did this, and the MLB and the WNBA, they have a lot of Black players in those leagues,” Vegas Golden Knights forward Ryan Reaves said. “But for all these athletes in here to take a stand and say ‘you know what, we see the problem too. And we stand behind you.’ I go to war with these guys and I hate their guts on the ice. But I couldn’t be more proud of these guys.”
When you combine that with the league’s efforts to promote diversity within its ranks, it could be considered some form of progress. If nothing else, the NHL has included itself in conversations about race.
“By no means does that mean the NHL is perfect or that they’re done because ‘hey, we did Black History Month,’” Brown said. “But the signs are there that we’re moving in the right direction.”
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