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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

NHL's decision to postpone games good for a variety of reasons

An End Racism sign is displayed before Game

An End Racism sign is displayed before Game 3 of an NHL second-round playoff series between the Colorado Avalanche and the Dallas Stars, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, in Edmonton, Alberta. Credit: AP/JASON FRANSON

This is no time to be keeping score on social justice leadership, so let’s not dwell on the obvious: That the NBA and WNBA have longer, stronger histories of political action than the NHL, up to and including this week.

Rather, consider the import of NHL players’ push to delay the already drastically delayed playoffs, beginning with the postponement of Thursday night’s Game 3 of the Islanders’ second-round series against the Flyers.

Why does it matter? It matters because it illustrates the breadth of athletes’ desire to be heard on an issue that traditionally has fallen by default to Black players.

First, there is the obvious fact that the vast majority of professional hockey players are white, and support from white America means a stronger, bigger cause.

But about that “white America” thing, do not forget that only about a quarter of NHL players are from the United States. The NHL’s voice carries across North America and Europe, including deep into Russia.

So the name of Jacob Blake, shot multiple times in the back by a policeman in Kenosha, Wisconsin, now is being spoken in homes across a wide swath of the Western world, including places with racial problems of their own.

Did the NHL and its players act in part to avoid being left behind as other sports took action on Wednesday night? It is not too cynical to say so.

But act they did, led depending on what report you believe by the Canucks or the Flyers or the Hockey Diversity Alliance – especially Evander Kane and Matt Dumba – or outspoken media members or all of the above.

he Golden Knights’ Ryan Reaves, who is Black, summed matters up during a video news conference with players from the Western Conference when he said this:

“I think if you look around this room, there’s a lot of white athletes in there, 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 WNBA. They have a lot of Black players in those leagues. 

“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.’ . . . The statement that’s been made is very powerful, especially coming from this league.”

Kevin Shattenkirk of the Lightning added, “Today I think unified us as a group to realize any Black player in this league, any Black player who is a kid coming up playing hockey, can feel like they have a voice, can feel like the NHL and the sport itself is a safe place.”

There was concern until early Thursday that NBA players would put an end to the playoffs altogether by leaving their bubble in Orlando. But for now they plan to carry on, as will hockey players in Toronto and Edmonton.

That is a good thing for a variety of reasons, including that they now have established the leverage they have over a business in which they are partners with the owners and television networks.

Every sport is different, and I am not advocating a cross-league union of sorts in which if one goes on strike the rest join in.

But informally, that is exactly what happened with the NHL on Thursday, and the decision involved not only Americans but a few hundred Canadians, Swedes, Russians, Finns, Czechs, Slovaks and more. That is real power.

Many hockey fans will not be pleased, just as many fans of basketball and other sports would rather politics and social action be limited to the players’ own time, preferably in the offseason.

That is OK. Vigorous debate beats violence, and everyone has a right to a respectful opinion.

But for many of us who are fans of a sport that for decades has been defined by Canadian politeness, it was good to see a little acting out for a change.

New York Sports