Give The NHL A Break

TORONTO (Aug. 29) — I assume that I’m in the overwhelming minority; perhaps even alone on an island. But, I had no problem with the National Hockey League continuing its Stanley Cup schedule on Wednesday night, after players in the National Basketball Association staged their boycott protest over police brutality against black people in the United States. It’s not that Kelly Hrudey was wrong to suggest otherwise on Hockey Night In Canada. Or, that I don’t feel the same abhorrence toward systemic racism as anyone else. That the NHL did postpone activity on Thursday and Friday was fine, but also unnecessary.

In my view, the league has superbly acknowledged and supported diversity and inclusion for more than 20 years, since anointing Willie O’Ree its Diversity Ambassador in 1998. O’Ree, for those unaware, is the Jackie Robinson of hockey — becoming, on Jan. 18, 1958, the first black player in NHL history as a member of the Boston Bruins. Neither do I feel the NHL should have to play nearly as encompassing a role in race relations as the NBA, which possesses the largest proportion of black athletes (81.1% in the 2019–20 season) among all professional sports in North America. Of course basketball should lead the way in this endeavor.


Hockey is doing its part. Brilliantly. And, has done so, as mentioned, for more than two decades. On Jan. 19, 2008, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly led a commemoration, at TD Garden, on the 50th anniversary of O’Ree’s milestone. Eight days later, the league honored O’Ree prior to the All–Star Game in Atlanta. As a result of breaking the color barrier in hockey — and largely because the NHL has so–warmly embraced diversity and inclusion — O’Ree has received the Order of Canada (2008); has been inducted into the Builders’ wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame (2018), and to Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame (May of this year). On June 28, 2011, the Sports Museum at TD Garden honored O’Ree with the Hockey Legacy Award. Other Museum honorees include Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird. Prior to the 2016 Stanley Cup final between Pittsburgh and San Jose, Joel Ward of the Sharks — born in Toronto; of Barbadian descent — told ESPN that O’Ree was his inspiration to play pro hockey. Ward opined that O’Ree’s No. 22 jersey (his last) with the Bruins should be retired across the NHL, as with Robinson’s No. 42 in baseball. Which I suspect will happen. Soon.

None of this would have occurred without the NHL revering the legend of its first black athlete.

As it returned from the COVID–19 hiatus at the start of this month, the league prominently acknowledged the Black Lives Matter movement, in response to the international uproar over the death, May 25, of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba legendarily delivered a powerful message against racism on the opening night of the Western playoffs in Edmonton, while kneeling at center–ice between fellow black players Malcolm Subban of Chicago and Darnell Nurse of the Oilers. The NBA did not stage any form of player protest until this week, after Jacob Blake was shot by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

But, of course, no mention of that while excoriating the NHL for playing on Wednesday night.

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Part 2 of my “Give the NHL a Break” message is a mea culpa. To this point of the Stanley Cup tournament, I could not have been farther off the mark in my criticism of the league for staging a playoff event in the midst of the global pandemic. Though I will not excuse my concern over the health issue, I most–certainly owe the NHL an apology for failing to recognize the effort and money devoted to the “bubble environment” idea that has, so far, been the gold standard among professional leagues in North America. The NBA is also operating in a bubble, but at one location: Disney World in Orlando. Hockey has a pair of secluded environments — Toronto and Edmonton — and has yet to report a single COVID–19 infection. To me, this is a remarkable accomplishment, among the most–notable in league annals. I was very much in favor of the NHL declaring “no winner” for 2019–20, as it did during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918–19. The difference is that one of its players, Joe Hall of the Montreal Canadiens, died of influenza during the 1919 Stanley Cup final against Seattle. After that, there was no choice but to suspend activity. Under Gary Bettman and Daly, the league (and the NHL Players Association) very much wanted to compete for this year’s championship. At the time, I felt the idea was irresponsible and dangerous — all about fulfilling financial obligations. While the latter may be partially true, the NHL has done so with absolute precision as it relates to the coronavirus. Bettman and Daly deserve full credit… and a bow from those, like myself, who felt the idea could never materialize safely.


3 comments on “Give The NHL A Break

  1. It is not often that people issue mea culpas these days. Most do not have the self-confidence to admit they were wrong. I respect those who do. Good on you, Howard.

  2. This is satire, right? The NHL “warmly embracing” diversity and inclusion? “Revering” the legend of its first black player? Like many large institutions in our lifetimes, the NHL instead has revered the practice of paying lip-service to diversity and racial equality while allowing the reality to fall far short of these ideals. Did you consult the likes of Mike Marson, Val James, Andre Deveaux, and Akim Aliu before committing your thoughts on this issue?

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