The NHL postponed two days of playoff games Thursday after withering criticism from Black players who said the league was slow to acknowledge the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin.
The joint decision to put off games Thursday and Friday was reached by the league and the NHL Players’ Association. It was made after members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance asked the NHL to postpone the playing of games, by saying: “We strongly feel this sends a clear message that human rights take priority over sports.” The alliance is made up of nine current and former minority players.
And the players’ decision was spurred by members of the Vancouver Canucks and Vegas Golden Knights, who were preparing to sit out their games in protest, Tampa Bay defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said.
Nearly a full day after the NBA and MLB saw games postponed over Blake’s shooting last weekend, the NHL and its union made their announcement.
“After much discussion, NHL players believe that the best course of action would be to take a step back and not play tonight’s and tomorrow’s games as scheduled,” the joint statement said. “Black and brown communities continue to face real, painful experiences. The NHL and NHLPA recognize that much work remains to be done before we can play an appropriate role in a discussion centered on diversity, inclusion and social justice.”
The announcement came an hour before the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders were to play Game 3 of their series in Toronto. The other postponed game Thursday had the Vegas Golden Knights facing the Vancouver Canucks in Game 3 in Edmonton, Alberta.
The other postponed games were Game 4s on Friday: Boston against Tampa, and Dallas against Colorado.
“You try to do the right thing and we’re trying to do that today in support of our teammates,” Islanders captain Anders Lee said, during a Zoom conference call featuring representatives of each of the East’s four teams.
The NHL was criticized for being slow to respond in allowing the playoffs to proceed Wednesday night, when numerous leagues, starting with the NBA, postponed games.
Blake, who is Black, was shot in the back seven times Sunday by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The shooting sparked protests, including some that spread to sports.
Alliance co-founder Akim Aliu called the NHL’s initial inaction as being typical and disappointing.
“I thought it was very unfortunate and sad the NHL is always last to the dance in seeing all the other major sports, and what they did yesterday,” Aliu told The Associated Press by phone.
“It looks like the NHL is having a tough time of getting a grasp on things in their thinking and their views,” he added. “All we’re trying to do is work together with them to make our game a better game. And in some cases it’s like pulling teeth.”
Players in the NHL’s hub city of Toronto reached out to their counterparts in Edmonton, Alberta, to discuss their options, with Shattenkirk saying players were particularly influenced by Vegas forward Ryan Reaves, who is Black.
“When we got with them and speak with Ryan Reaves and talk about the issue at hand and how important this is, I think it was something we were fully behind,” Shattenkirk said.
“I think it unified us as a group to realize that any Black player in this league, any Black player who’s a kid coming up playing hockey can feel like that they have a voice, can feel that the NHL and the sport itself is a safe place and a place,” he added. “They have the support of every single one of us, and that’s what we’re trying to achieve here is inclusion.”
Reaves welcomed the support by saying he struggled with the decision of sitting out on his own before receiving a text from Shattenkirk.
“That I think was more powerful that the conversation started with white players on other teams wanting to talk, and I think that’s the most powerful thing that happened today,” Reaves said. “You see us all coming together.”
The NHL’s decision caught several coaches off guard after spending the morning and early afternoon preparing to play.
Islanders coach Barry Trotz said he was preparing to play, while noting his players had numerous discussions on how to raise their voices against racial injustice.
“They understand the importance of the playoffs, but they also understand where the world is right now and what happened yesterday,” he said. “As you digest it, I think what happened last night is a great statement for the athletes.”
Trotz, however, believed the best course forward was to continue playing, because the games provide players a platform.
“By you talking to me about it, to the players about it, it’s giving them a platform, it’s giving them air time,” Trotz said. “You want to keep the issue in the forefront.”
Flyers coach Alain Vigneault said he was focused solely on hockey.
“I really have no idea what’s going on in the outside world. We’re in this bubble right now,” Vigneault said. “I’m invested 24-7 on our team. … I guess I’m a hockey nerd, and that’s what I’m doing right now.”
Vigneault said he is aware of the NHL’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and sees the signage inside the arena.
“We’re all for equality and social justice,” he said.
“But right now, I think what we’re trying to do is play a game. And I think players and management and coaches are really focused on that,” Vigneault added. “This is the most important time of the year for us. It’s playoff hockey.”