NHL players use pause to focus on racial injustice concerns

Sports

Players prepare for a skate at the NHL hockey playoffs venue in Edmonton, Alberta, Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara hopes players and fans take a step back to pause and reflect on racial justice issues as the NHL takes a second day off from second-round series action on Friday, before games resume on Saturday. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)

Braydon Coburn was polite but stern in declining to answer the question.

A day after NHL players showed a united front, prompting the league to postpone two nights of playoff games to focus on racial injustice concerns, the veteran Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman wasn’t deviating from the message.

“Thanks for the question. I appreciate that,” Coburn began during the Lightning’s Zoom conference call Friday. “But for the most part, and especially today and yesterday, we kind of want to make sure we keep our attention and the conversation around the issues.”

Questions about lineup changes, power plays and competing on consecutive nights were placed on pause along with Friday’s two scheduled games.

The emphasis was instead on more important societal matters taking place outside the playoff bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, and on the player-driven conversations that led to the NHL joining North America’s other pro sports leagues in stopping play.

“I think the other leagues initiated this,” Coburn said, referring to the NBA and other sports, which postponed games on Wednesday while the NHL continued to play. “I think for us, we’re at the table now, and that’s really the important thing.”

The NHL altered its schedulewith three games each set for Saturday and Sunday.

While players and coaches representing the four Eastern Conference teams spoke on video calls, the four West teams went silent a day after making a powerful statement shortly after games were postponed.

As five players, three of them minorities, stepped in front of an array of microphones, dozens of others — all wearing masks — assembled in rows behind them in a significant show of support in a league predominantly made up of white players.

“It’s great that the NBA did this and MLB and the WNBA, they have a lot of Black players in those leagues. But for all these athletes in here to take a stand and say, `You know what we see the problem, too, and we stand behind you,’” said Vegas forward Ryan Reaves, who is Black. “I go to war with these guys, and I hate their guts on the ice, but I couldn’t be more proud of these guys. The statement they’ve made today is something that’s going to last.”

Reaves was among many in noting a two-day pause isn’t going to solve the issue of racism in the wake of the the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin last weekend. And yet, the chance to spend two days to allow players to hold in-depth conversations on social justice was deemed an important start.

“We all realize nothing is going to be fixed by tomorrow morning,” Tampa Bay defenseman Luke Schenn said. “But this is a situation where everyone needs to learn and ask questions and do what’s right and be a good person in the world.”

The day, however, couldn’t end without a racial concern being raised.: The NHL is i nvestigating whether former Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon made racially insensitive comments before the team was eliminated by the New York Islanders in Toronto earlier this month.

The investigation comes during a seemingly endless season in which Bill Peters resigned as coach of the Calgary Flames after it was disclosed he directed racist slurs at a Nigerian-born player in the minors a decade ago and kicked and punched players while with Carolina.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he wasn’t aware of the allegations made against Tallon when asked how far the NHL still had to go in addressing racial concerns.

“I don’t know. Can we sit here and say is it just hockey?” Cooper said. “To answer your question, is the league behind? No. The league’s just learning like everyone else. The league’s in a better place today than it was a couple of months ago, and definitely than it was a couple of years ago.

“I’m telling you, that the players behind me are all trying to use this forum to be better,” he said. “We’re standing united on this front.”

The one East coach who didn’t speak Friday was Philadelphia’s Alain Vigneault, who became the focus of criticism upon suggesting a day earlier he was solely focused on hockey.

“I really have no idea what’s going on in the outside world,” Vigneault said. “This is the most important time of the year for us. It’s playoff hockey.”

Flyers defenseman Matt Niskanen called Vigneault a “dedicated pro” who’s focused on winning a championship.

“These are not easy times with everything going on. There’s a lot of layers to it. For us as players, we just want to do the right things and as a group we decided to take some action yesterday,” Niskanen said. “I’ll let AV answer questions about how he approaches life in the bubble with everything else going on.”

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