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Racism and the slow uptake of the NHL

Why did it take so long for the NHL to get here?

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at LA Galaxy Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I woke up the day after sports leagues began their protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake wondering how the NHL would finally approach the topic. They had already totally failed the night before by letting their ponderous playoff machinery creak on, and I wondered how they’d make it up to their fans in any meaningful way.

The morning began quietly with news as usual — my site published our recap of the game (we were silent the night before to stand with players from other leagues), and we talked with other SBNation writers and editors about our growing sense of discomfort that the NHL would settle for just a “moment of silence,” to half-assed join a movement that is this powerful and meaningful.

I am part Thai, and I grew up in the heart of a family of loud Asian ladies who wouldn’t know how to shut up about what bothers them if they were paid to. This is where I speak from. I am an unlikely hockey fan, and I’ve spent the past years being extremely aware of the whiteness of the fandom that I was joining. [Site note: I became a hockey fan because of another half-Asian, Paul Kariya.]

Let’s face a few things: the NHL has thus far been a nearly all-white league, and my expectations for the league’s response to matters of race have always been correspondingly low. Nearly every head coach is white (with the exception of Craig Berube and Ted Nolan, of First Nations descent). Nearly every GM is white (with the exception of Bill Guerin, who is part Nicaraguan). The league commissioner is white. The threshold for playing requires so much money and access to rare commodities that the non-white players who make it to the NHL are limited to a handful.

Because the league comes from a culture that has so little to do with the reality of growing up with the threat of violence from people in positions of authority, I guess I comprehend why they would engage in the totally clueless act of hosting playoff games during the profound silence from other leagues. I understand it because the structures that support the creaky, ancient hinges of the NHL machine have long been in danger of falling apart — move too quickly and it’ll come crashing down.

What if the NHL finally grew up and gained a sense of self awareness? What if the league realized that it has so tremendously far to go in pursuit of equality that despite a few token gestures, they basically haven’t begun at all?

On Thursday, the few players that make up the recently created Hockey Diversity Alliance (Akim Aliu, Evander Kane, Trevor Daley, Anthony Duclair, Matt Dumba, Nazem Kadri, Wayne Simmonds, Chris Stewart, and Joel Ward) pushed the league to suspend playoff games so that NHL fans could use their time to reflect on police brutality, the shooting of Jacob Blake, and “send a message that human rights must take priority over sports.”

There were a lot of “better late than never” takes, and I cannot fault the people who are not satisfied with this. I tender my respect to the non-white players that made the creaky machine of the NHL pause in its tracks and realize that they had committed a nearly unpardonable act, playing in the face of a human rights violation.

One of those teams who played was my own team of fandom, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Wednesday night, my site chose to not publish anything about the game. We were embarrassed by our franchise, and hell if we were going to break the poignant silence of sports players who wanted the world to reflect on this one simple fact — that human rights are the most important issue in the world, and we haven’t earned the right to watch sports if we haven’t FIXED OUR SHIT.

It’s not great, but better late than never is how we have to move forward now. Our team, and the league, have the chance to make up for its gaffe by giving the world two nights off (Thursday and Friday) to sit and think about human rights. This time without hockey is important because we also get to think about the fact that so few of the players we admire are not white — why is that? What can we do to fix this issue? Why is the league itself so white?

What else can the league do to promote fans, players, managers, coaches, and journalists across ALL races to take part equally in what it offers? Are we as hockey fans reading non-white takes on the sport? Have you read pieces by BlackGirlHockeyClub, or Jashvina, or Chris, or Hardev, or Omar, or Lauren, or Matt, or Arvind lately, to name a few?

This is nowhere near as important as simply not committing acts of violence against people who aren’t white, but it’s what we can also do to make our sport better.

Now let’s listen to some silence, and think.