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Why is the NHL so afraid of saying Black Lives Matter?

As the NHL kicks off its much-hyped restart in the bubble hubs of Toronto and Edmonton, there are three words that the league has avoided at almost all costs.

Black Lives Matter.

At the start of its Stanley Cup qualifying series between the Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers on Saturday afternoon, the NHL held a special, re-opening day ceremony to acknowledge the drastic shift in circumstances that has unfolded since play stopped in mid March.

First, players gathered in a circle on center ice while the names of front line health care workers and social justice advocates were read out loud. Along the boards and in the stands, the NHL’s new equality hashtag #WeSkateFor lit up screens. Before the Minnesota Wild’s Matt Dumba came out and took a historic knee, the NHL hashtag moved through several different iterations. It said #WeSkateForTheCup, #WeStakeForBetterDays, and finally, #WeSkateForBlackLives. The giant jumbotron screen then flashed the words, END RACISM. While ending racism is a lofty and admirable goal, it is about as specific as wishing for world peace. A nice idea, but one that is very unlikely to happen.

Missing from any inch of the arena was the mention of the movement that has come to define the last several months: Black Lives Matter.  In its signage and marketing campaigns, the NHL has made a very specific and calculated choice by staying away from those words, and choosing instead the more neutral Black Lives.

In a voice over prior to the primetime game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens also on Saturday, NBC aired a brief racial equality promo that said there were “three words we need to get comfortable saying: Black Lives Matter.”

Even if the NHL tacitly cosigned on NBC’s used of Black Lives Matter during their broadcast, it’s clear the league is not comfortable saying those words and why, instead, they’re leaning so heavily on the anodyne “End Racism” and “Black Lives.”

Minnesota Wild's Matt Dumba takes a knee

Minnesota Wild’s Matt Dumba takes a knee.

To be clear, Black Lives Matter is not about eradicating all racism but about addressing racial injustice committed against Black people. It does not encompass the beast of all racism, yet speaks to the Black experience as it relates to systemic and institutional oppression. Specifically, the Black Lives Matter movement has grown into a near-unstoppable force after the deaths of Eric Garner, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and far too many more.

The movement has specific goals, like calling for an end to racial profiling, police brutality and stop-and-frisk practices that disproportionally target Black men. There are real goals to the movement, and they go far beyond the nice but not tangible “End Racism.”

There’s a difference then, when the NHL says #WeSkateForBlack Lives, than if they simply had used the phrase Black Lives Matter. It is a matter of semantics, but in this case, the semantics matter very much. Black Lives Matter is as much a political movement as it is a social movement, and, make no mistake, the league took care that there were no #BLM signs visible on its re-opening day.

Saying Black Lives is a stroke of marketing genius, since it provides cover for the NHL on both sides of the political coin. For those fans who say the league should pay more attention to issues of racial justice, they can point to #WeSkateForBlackLives hashtag. For fans who say they want to keep politics out of sports, the league can accurately claim that there are no Black Lives Matter signs in their arenas.

Black Lives Matter may be more accepted now than when Colin Kaepernick first took a knee, but there are still plenty of people, in the US and Canada, who are offended by BLM and its mission, viewing it as a political and social hazard.  By refusing to boldly use these words and straining for more neutral ground, the NHL has bowed to those voices. The NHL replaced powerful words with amorphous slogans that equate to nothing more than sentiment.

Chicago Blackhawks and the Edmonton Oilers play in the first period during Game One of the Eastern Conference Qualification Round.

Over the summer, as players were able to take an extended break from the sport and pay attention to current events, many of them had no problem using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. That they did was a bold indication that perhaps they, white players specifically, were becoming more comfortable talking about race.  Many wore BLM t-shirts, posted about their intent to be more racially aware and even marched in Black Lives Matter protests.

The league refrained from taking much of a stand, issuing a performative statement that said they were committed to “a racially just society, and against all those who perpetuate and uphold racism, hatred, bigotry, and violence.” There was no BLM messaging in the press release, no mention even of George Floyd, whose death moved a nation to action. Instead, on social media, the NHL was content to let its players do the talking. They wore out the retweet button, pushing out statements by teams and athletes, while keeping their hands away from the real, messy work.

As the Stanley Cup qualifiers kicked off, the league again let one player alone do much of the talking for them.

Before puck drop for the Blackhawks and Oilers game on NBC, Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba came out and gave an impassioned speech about working towards more diversity and racial acceptance in hockey and in society. Dumba, who is Filipino-Canadian, was the one to utter the words, “Black Lives Matter” before he took a knee during the singing of the American national anthem. Kneeling can feel performative in many spaces where it is readily accepted, but it was a bold and controversial gesture on NHL ice. Unlike the NBA, where entire teams have knelt in unison, Dumba was on his own.

This was a powerful statement but it felt more like the solitary actions of a single player than the unified statement of the league.  Dumba said he spoke on behalf of the NHL and the Hockey Diversity Alliance. In truth, the NHL may have provided him with the stage, but it was Dumba’s political and social commitment on display.

Tellingly, while he knelt, Dumba didn’t wear his Wild jersey — even though Floyd’s death happened in Minneapolis, where Dumba has spent his entire career — nor did he wear any NHL logos. Instead, he wore a Hockey Diversity Alliance sweatshirt, and seemed to speak for himself and his teammates of color, rather than the entire NHL.  It was Dumba who knelt while two other players of color, Darnell Nurse of the Oilers and Malcolm Subban of the Blackhawks, had their hands on his shoulders. Their white teammates meanwhile, stayed standing and apart.

Notably, in their tweet promoting Dumba’s on-ice remarks, the NHL kept to their safe #WeSkateForBlackLives hashtag even though he specifically mentioned Black Lives Matter.  It may seem like a small distinction, but it’s telling none the less. When possible, the NHL has stayed out of the political discourse, even though their players are begging for their support.

As the San Jose Sharks’ Evander Kane said earlier, the NHL hasn’t exactly been forthcoming with help for Black players who are working for change.

“They’re trying to wrap all of these separate issues – including mental health, LGTBQ, women’s rights, everything – into one when our message is about racism. It completely yet again misses the mark and is so out of touch with what we’re talking about,” Kane said.  “The NHL has made no effort to support its own Black players.”

The NHL has used the phrase Black Lives Matter a handful of times since June, but it shows up sparingly, only when it is unavoidable. The hashtag has shown up on their social media feeds rarely, and it’s been said on NHL broadcasts, but, as Kane pointed out, the league has quickly and desperately bundled it into a host of other causes, hoping to bury the message so it doesn’t offend too many people.

Black Lives Matter is not an easy phrase to use. It demands that the words not stand on their own, but be buttressed by tangible actions. Supporting Black Lives Matter would mean supporting police reform, voting reforms, criminal justice reform and more.  By divorcing itself from those words, the NHL has shown it is not fully ready to take that leap.

Right now, the NHL has done little to show its support for Black Lives Matter aside from forming a few committees. According to Kane, the league has yet to commit financial help to the Hockey Diversity Alliance as well. Even the sales of their WeSkateFor merchandise are not earmarked for specific, Black Lives Matter causes, but for the all encompassing NHL Foundation. In a brief interview, Kim Davis, the NHL Executive Vice President of Social Impact only said teams would consider their relationships to law enforcement “artfully and carefully,” but stopped short of stating what that actually means.

Black Lives Matter may seem like a performative phrase or even come across like well-meaning wall paper, until you notice that it’s missing. The NHL has made no bold Black Lives Matter statement, and once again, is letting players who already have an unfair burden carry even more weight. This is not an accidental oversight, but a mindful choice. On Saturday, that burden rested on Dumba’s shoulders, not that of the entire NHL. He said Black Lives Matter, and the league was happy to ride his coattails without having to do the work.



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