On Aug. 1, Matt Dumba walked onto the ice at Rogers Place wearing a black Hockey Diversity Alliance sweatshirt. Standing beneath a sign that said We Skate for Black Lives, the Minnesota Wild defenceman delivered an impassioned speech on racial injustice and inequality before the the Oilers played the Chicago Blackhawks in the first game of the NHL postseason in Edmonton.
When he was finished, Dumba took a knee during The Star-Spangled Banner as a means to protest against systemic racism. He became the first player in hockey to do what Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, did four years ago before an NFL game. Nobody else kneeled with Dumba in his lonely protest.
Much had happened since hockey was furloughed on March 12 because of the threat of COVID-19. In three-plus months, civil-rights protests and violence had spread across the United States after Black men and women died at the hands of white police officers.
In June, nine former and current NHL players came together to form the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) to eradicate racism and intolerance within the sport. Seven of the inaugural members are Black, one is Muslim, and Dumba is of Filipino, Romanian and German descent.
“As I grew up in Calgary, I was a victim of racism on the basis of how I looked,” Dumba, 26, says. “Kids are pretty vicious when they are young. They threw the works at me without knowing my story. It’s hard to keep defending yourself.”
The group appointed San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane and former NHL player Akim Aliu as co-heads of the organization. Dumba, Detroit Red Wings defenceman Trevor Daley, Ottawa forward Anthony Duclair, Colorado Avalanche centre Nazem Kadri, Buffalo Sabres forward Wayne Simmonds, Philadelphia Flyers forward Chris Stewart and former NHL forward Joel Ward were all chosen for the executive committee.
A five-person advisory board was also established, with Chris George, a former OHL player who has spent the past 18 years as an investment adviser on Bay Street, chosen to be the leader.
At 20, as George pursued an economics degree and played hockey at the University of Western Ontario, he was jumped by a biker gang and beaten with brass knuckles at the end of his street in London, Ont.
“As intense and evil as that moment was, when I look back my biggest concern was that I was worried about being seen as a misbehaving Black kid,” George says. “Guys get painted with a troubled brush and never recover. I don’t think that is right.
“That didn’t sink in with me until I was a father 20 years later.”
Hockey is steeped in conformity and it is unusual for players to exhibit a social conscience similar to their counterparts in other sports. It happened last week, though, when NHL players followed their NBA brethren in refusing to participate in playoff games after a Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot in the back seven times, in front of his three children, by a white police officer in Wisconsin.
“Hockey players are hesitant to fall out of line depending on how immersed they are in team culture,” Dumba says. “For some guys, it’s a tough battle. That’s why I am glad they took the time, followed their moral compass and took a stance.
“I never thought I’d see anything like this in hockey. I am very proud.”
Kevin Shattenkirk, a defenceman for the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Ryan Reaves of the Vegas Golden Knights reached out to Stewart, a friend and former teammate whose wedding party they were in. That began the discussions that led to a boycott of games for two days.
Stewart grew up in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough in a family with seven kids. He and his older sibling Anthony are the only two Black brothers to each be drafted in the first round in the NHL.
“To say that we grew up underprivileged would be an understatement,” Chris Stewart says.
Anthony Stewart, who last played in the NHL in 2012 for the Carolina Hurricanes, is now a hockey analyst for Rogers Sportsnet and the FAN590 in Toronto. He recalls the family of nine living in a hotel and getting by on $2,000 a month.
“I felt hopeless as a kid, that there wasn’t a way out,” Anthony Stewart says. “I got out through sports. That’s the tragedy now. The costs of playing sports, especially hockey, is prohibitive.
“If prices were then what they are now, I never would have played.”
He has been upset by racial violence in the United States.
“When I’m on Twitter, I try to keep it in the context of hockey,” Anthony Stewart says. “But I’m also a Black man and it’s chilling seeing a Black man shot in the back. It’s a situation in North America that needs to change.
“The burden of oppression should be on the oppressor.”
Dumba and George find comfort in the fact that the boycott was driven by players on teams within the Western Conference hub site in Edmonton. They reached out to the HDA, first to ask members to explain their life experiences and how it had affected them, and then for information on the Black Lives Matter movement.
Ninety-six per cent of the league’s players are white.
“I feel very optimistic because white players reached out to us as their brothers,” George says. “Empathy is a very important emotion here. That is why we have something different this time.
“A lot of people are having conversations that they have never had before. It is a beautiful thing.”
Last Saturday, the HDA asked the NHL to commit to a series of measures to combat racism and accelerate inclusion efforts. In a major development, the NHL responded on Thursday and said it had agreed.
“We applaud players for recognizing the importance of this moment and for coming together as part of a genuine movement for change,” commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “We look forward to working with all voices of change to fight for equality and broaden access to the game we all love.
“For nearly three decades, the NHL has funded organizations and instituted programs designed to make our game more diverse. We are proud of those efforts but we know we can and must do more. And we will.”
Bettman said the NHL and NHL Players’ Association will work jointly with the HDA to establish and administer a grassroots skills program for Black, Indigenous and other marginalized children in the Greater Toronto Area. A similar pilot program will also be created in the United States.
The league and the NHLPA also agreed to mandatory inclusion- and diversity-education for players during training camp and the first part of the 2020-21 season. Additionally, the league has formed an Executive Inclusion Council comprising owners, former players and club and league executives, and three other committees, including one co-chaired by P.K. Subban and Anson Carter that seeks to improve access and opportunity for under-represented groups.
“We are not going to let up the pressure,” Chris Stewart says.
Last week, Dumba watched protests a half-block away from his apartment window in Minneapolis.
False reports of a police shooting that night sparked looting and vandalism across the city.
“I got to witness the demonstrations from my apartment,” Dumba says. “I heard gunshots and saw people scatter like ants on the street. I saw smoke, the National Guard, and helicopters.
“People here are pretty shook up. The city is on tilt. There need to be some changes, and hopefully the HDA can contribute to that.”
On Aug. 1, when he stepped into the spotlight in Edmonton, spoke so earnestly and bent to one knee, it legitimized the movement.
“I was pretty nervous walking out, and it was weird with no fans in the arena,” Dumba says. “I could hear my words echoing and playing back to me. It was difficult. A lot of emotions went with it.”