Ryan Reaves never has been afraid to make a stand.
As one of the NHL’s most feared enforcers, the 35-year-old Rangers winger has gone toe-to-toe with more than his fair share of opponents.
Reaves, however, concedes that he was nervous about stepping up two seasons ago in the bubble when he was playing for the Vegas Golden Knights.
He had just watched the NBA, WNBA and some MLB teams walk out in protest after Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot seven times in the back by a white police officer on Aug. 23, 2020, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Reaves — one of less than two dozen Black players in the NHL and the only Black player on the Golden Knights — knew when he went to bed on Aug. 27 that he was going to refuse to take the ice the next day in a playoff game against the Vancouver Canucks. What he didn’t know was how many of his fellow hockey players would join him.
"I saw other sports stepping up and taking a stance," Reaves told Newsday. "Hockey is predominantly a white sport. I thought it was important that we showed that it’s just not Black athletes who need to take a stance. As one of the few Black athletes in hockey, I felt like it was my duty to start that conversation."
And so he did. That morning, after he got a text from Kevin Shattenkirk, a white former teammate who was scheduled to participate in a playoff game in the Eastern bubble in Toronto, Reaves told him how he felt. Soon Reaves was fielding calls from other players, including those on the Canucks.
That night, instead of taking the ice, Reaves was front and center in a news conference in the Western bubble in Edmonton, talking about how important it was for the league to stand together in protest of systemic racism. NHL play was stopped in both bubbles for two days.
No one was prouder watching that news conference than Willard Reaves, Ryan’s father, who is a former Canadian Football League star and a sergeant in the Manitoba Sheriff Services.
Reaves comes from a family of trailblazing enforcers, which — given his style of play — makes perfect sense. He is the great-great-great grandson of Bass Reeves, an escaped slave who became the first Black deputy marshall west of the Mississippi and is thought by some to be the inspiration for the Lone Ranger.
Reeves, whose descendants later changed the spelling of the last name, killed 14 outlaws and brought more than 3,000 into custody, according to the book "Black Gun, Silver Star: Life and Legend of Frontier Marshall Bass Reeves," written by historian Art T. Burton.
"My dad did some ancestry research and took one of those [DNA genetic testing] ‘23andMe’ things," Ryan said. "It was pretty cool to find all that out."
Given his family’s involvement in law enforcement, Willard Reaves said Ryan has experienced some internal conflict at a polarizing time when it seems everyone is being forced to pick a side. The elder Reaves said he was particularly proud of the way his son stood up and handled himself in the bubble.
"My son has definitely graduated," he said, ‘because that’s exactly what his dad would have done. You can protest in very simple ways. You don’t have to break windows and throw rocks and turn over cars."
It’s hard to think of a sport less diverse than hockey. In the league’s 104-year existence, there has never been a Black general manager. Dirk Graham, who coached 59 games for Chicago in 1998-99, has been the only Black coach. On-ice representation isn’t much better. Though the NHL does not keep statistics on race, according to an article in Sports Illustrated, only 18 Black players appeared in more than five games in 2019-20.
Ryan’s mother, Brenda, is white, and he said he grew up in a multi-cultural area of Manitoba. Though he often was the only Black player on the hockey teams he played on, he said he rarely encountered incidents of outright racism.
The elder Reaves remembers it a little differently, saying that he sometimes shielded Ryan and his brother Jordan, now a defensive lineman for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, from the details of "a lot of stuff."
"There were racist remarks when they were growing up," Willard said. "They were the biggest kids on the ice and when they hit, they laid people out. We had some fathers who were calling names at my sons. I would go to them and deal with it."
The elder Reaves recalled one incident in which a coach used a racial slur to refer to his son during a game. Reaves gave the coach a chance to apologize, and when the coach refused to do so, he made the incident public. The coach had to resign.
"I wanted my kids to learn how to react," the elder Reaves said. "I taught them when they heard things to say that’s not acceptable and tell them not to do it again. You have to treat people with respect, and racism hurts everyone if it’s not dealt with at the time."
In the wake of the Blake incident, a number of players have tried to push the league to become more diverse. The most outspoken is the Hockey Diversity Alliance, an independent group of current and former players led by Akim Aliu. Rather than join the HDA, Reaves is one of several Black hockey players, including P.K. Subban and J.T. Brown, who have decided to work with the NHL on a series of inclusion committees.
Still, hockey continues to have its ugly moments.
Last month — in the same week that the Boston Bruins held a banner-raising ceremony to honor Willie O’Ree, 86, who broke the sport’s color line in January 1958 — there were two incidents in the minor leagues that led to the suspension of two white players for making what were seen as racial remarks and gestures.
One of the incidents involved Subban’s younger brother.
"It’s hard to see that those things are happening on the ice and in the sport of hockey in general," Reaves said. "You take two steps forward and then you take three steps back. You try to get rid of it and I think we’re working toward it. It’s definitely sad to see that it’s still going on . . . I think that’s just where society is."
Reaves said the racism he has faced since coming to the NHL has come mostly from social media.
"There’s been games where you would fight somebody and then you look at your feed that night and there’s a lot of racial slurs and remarks and threats," he said. "I think my whole life, I’ve had the mentality of if you are going to say something like that, you have to live with the fact you are a racist and have hate in your heart.
"I’m not going to let someone sitting in their mom’s basement who is bitter at life and trying to take it out on anyone but themselves bother me. I got too many other things to worry about in life to pay attention to ignorant people. I don’t tweet back. I don’t get into the wars."
Make that, he doesn’t get into wars off the ice. As one of the league’s last remaining heavyweight enforcers, the 6-2, 225-pound Reaves was acquired by the Rangers this season to play on the fourth line and add some much-needed grit and toughness.
"Having him on the bench [allows] everyone to puff their chest out a little more and feel a little safer,’’ defenseman Adam Fox told Newsday earlier in the season. "I think having a guy like him allows everyone to play a little bigger for sure."
Reaves, a popular and outspoken player who has played in a Stanley Cup Final (with Vegas in 2018), has had only two fights this season. Nevertheless, his presence has gone a long way toward changing the culture of a Rangers team that at the All-Star break is tied with the Carolina Panthers for first place in the Metropolitan Division.
No one could be more thrilled to be on a contender than Reaves, who is in his 12th season but has never been on a team that won it all.
"At this point, I just want to win," he said. "I want the Cup. I definitely wouldn’t stop at one. But I’d like to get one for sure. I think our chances are great. I think we have all the tools and it’s going to be a fun ride."
Fun, but also important. Reaves knows there are all kinds of barriers out there that prevent young athletes of color from playing hockey. While the biggest is financial and access to the game, he also believes that it hurts when children from minority communities look at hockey and don’t see themselves.
"They look at basketball and football and say, ‘Those guys look like me. I want to be like them,’ " he said. "They don’t look at hockey in the same way. As a kid, you look for role models who look like you and dress like you and talk like you. For hockey to grow, we have to reach those kids."
And what better way to reach them — and grow the sport he loves — than for Reaves to skate around the ice at the end of the season holding the Stanley Cup.