Vegas forward Ryan Reaves was struggling with the decision of whether to sit out the Golden Knights’ playoff game to protest racial injustice, when he discovered the players around the NHL had his back.
Reaves woke up Thursday to find a text from Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, prompting a conversation that helped lead the NHL to postpone four playoff games over two days.
“That, I think, was more powerful that the conversation started with white players on other teams wanting to talk,” said Reaves, who is Black. “And I think that’s the most powerful thing that happened today. You see us all coming together here.”
The NHL is back on pause a month into its playoffs, which followed a 4-1/2-month break caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The decision to postpone two sets of second-round games Thursday and Friday was prompted by the threat of members of the Golden Knights and Vancouver Canucks preparing to sit out Game 3 of their series, and in the face of withering criticism from Black players accusing the league of being slow to acknowledge the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin.
“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,” a joint statement released by the league and the NHL Players’ Association 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, with Vegas and Vancouver to face off in Edmonton Alberta, later on Thursday.
The other postponed games were Game 4s on Friday: Boston against Tampa in Toronto, and Dallas against Colorado in Edmonton.
The NHL is pushing back its schedule to have the four games played Saturday.
Blake, who is Black, was shot in the back seven times Sunday by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The shooting sparked protests, and led to the NHL being questioned for allowing its playoffs to proceed Wednesday, when numerous other leagues – starting with the NBA – postponed games.
“We needed to make a stand, and I think this is the appropriate form of action,” Canucks captain Bo Horvat said. “I couldn’t be prouder of our group of guys to come up with this solution.”
Shattenkirk texted Reaves upon learning the Golden Knights were preparing to not play, and was struck by the tough guy’s message.
“When we got with them to 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 was impressed by the support, especially coming from a league predominantly made up of white players.
“Most of these guys have never lived through some of the stuff that Black athletes have,” he said.
“But for them to say, `Look, we see what’s going on in society and we disagree with it and something has to change now,’ that was my message,” Reaves said. “Standing together here is more powerful than anything you can do.”
The newly formed Hockey Diversity Alliance pressed the issue Thursday in publicly asking the NHL to postpone play 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.
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.”
The NHL’s decision caught several coaches off guard after spending the morning and early afternoon preparing to play.
Islanders coach Barry Trotz 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.”