The NHL raised the curtain on the restart to its restart with a clear message Saturday.
Black Lives Matter.
“In hockey we often let our effort, determination and passion to win do the talking,” hockey commentator Kevin Weekes said in a video that echoed through a cavernous Scotiabank Arena before the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins resumed the playoffs Saturday following the postponement of four games earlier this week.
“But when an issue is bigger than the game we must speak out, starting with three words we need to get comfortable saying: Black. Lives. Matter.
“Equality is the only way forward. As players, as fans and as active citizens we must confront these issues.”
The video, which featured many of the elements the NHL broadcast ahead of the official resumption of play to its pandemic-delayed season Aug. 1, included comments from Vegas Golden Knights enforcer Ryan Reaves and Colorado Avalanche centre Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who like Weekes are Black, after the player-driven halting of play was announced Thursday. The same video was shown before the puck dropped on both the New York Islanders-Philadelphia Flyers game and the Vancouver Canucks-Vegas Golden Knights contest that night.
“We must be clear about what we skate for,” Weekes continued. “We skate for Black lives. And even in an empty arena we never skate alone. Together, we must be part of the movement to end racism because what we skate for today will bring us a better tomorrow.”
That began in earnest after NBA players kicked off a boycott earlier this week that spread to other sports across North America following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Wisconsin.
The NHL pushed ahead with its schedule Wednesday night as the lights went dark in basketball, MLB, MLS and professional tennis, but the members of the eight teams left standing elected to postpone Thursday and Friday’s schedule to highlight the issues of social injustice, systemic racism and police brutality.
The organic move from within the NHL’s bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton, where clubs are sequestered as the league works to complete a season suspended in mid-March by COVID-19, saw a series of meetings and calls, including conversations with founding members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance.
“As we resume play today, the NHL and our players unite in the fight to end racism,” said the public address announcer inside Scotiabank Arena said Saturday. “We stand together for a common cause that needs action today, tomorrow and well after our Stanley Cup playoffs end.”
While not quick enough in the eyes of some — hockey is predominantly white and has been historically glacial when it comes to change — NHLers have made it clear since Thursday they want to use their platform to help.
“The decision to postpone our games and sit out was viewed as an opportunity to highlight a bigger issue than hockey,” Tampa defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk, a native of New Rochelle, N.Y., said in a taped pre-game video. “We wanted to make sure that every Black player in this league can feel safe and feel like they have a voice. And we want to make sure that we continue this conversation moving forward and make sure that we keep the sport progressing in the right way.”
Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman, whose team beat the Bruins 3-1 to take a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal, said there was a different feeling heading into Saturday.
“The conversations we’ve had within our team and within the whole bubble, interacting with other teams, that’s been anything but hockey,” he said following the victory. “Today was a different day.”
That didn’t mean there wasn’t fierce competition. Boston-Tampa featured big hits, plenty of scrums after the whistle and one fight.
“That goes to show just how close-knit we are off the ice,” Hedman continued. “We can leave what happens on the ice on the ice, and we came together as a big group in these last 48, 72 hours.”
Blake was shot seven times in the back by police, an incident that followed the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor — which led to mass protests across the United States and around the world this spring.
“It was a time of reflection for the league,” Bruins winger Jake DeBrusk said of the postponements. “When it’s real world stuff that affects everything, it definitely hits home.”
Meanwhile, Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault delivered a prepared statement before his team’s game after he was criticized for saying Thursday, “I have really no idea what’s going on in the outside world.”
“I am guilty of not checking up on what was going on in the world and in the NBA,” Vigneault said Saturday. “But I am a good person. I believe in equality. I believe in social justice. I want to be part of the solution. I want to help society in any way I can.”
The Islanders beat Philadelphia 3-1 to take a 2-1 series lead.
In the Western Conference bubble, the Golden Knights and Canucks were scheduled for 9:45 p.m. with that series tied 1-1.
The starting players stood on the bluelines during the video before the game, which was accompanied by pre-taped messages from Reaves and Vancouver captain Bo Horvat.
Horvat, in his message, said the Canucks as a team met and wanted to do something and reached out to Reaves and the Golden Knights.
“We talked to Ryan and he made some amazing points and really got the ball rolling,” said Horvat.
“We agreed with everything, and we wanted to be supportive, and we felt that it was the best course of action to take two days (and) reflect and learn about everything that’s going on in the world.”
The Dallas Stars, who hold a 2-1 edge, and Avalanche resume their matchup Sunday in the Alberta capital.
Boston centre Patrice Bergeron and Bruins winger Brad Marchand also delivered separate pre-taped messages regarding the postponements before their game. Shattenkirk and Bergeron both wore Hockey Diversity Alliance shirts in TV interviews prior to puck drop before all 40 players stood for the national anthems.
Bergeron, who grew up in a suburb of Quebec City, said it was “amazing to see everyone coming together and realizing that this is bigger than sports.”
“It’s about human rights, it’s about supporting our Black players and being there for them, and realizing there needs to be change,” he said. “We want to be a part of that change going forward, so this is just the beginning. Obviously, we know that there needs to be reflection and discussions and conversations, but there also needs to be actions.
“We want to be there for that.”
Marchand said the last few days have had an impact on both NHL players and society.
“We want to continue to use our platform to show that we stand together with all of our players of colour, and to continue to show that we’re going to be better,” said the Halifax product. “We’re going continue to show support … this is only the start.
“This is the beginning of a lot of change.”
— With files from Dean Bennett in Edmonton