Many observers, including President Donald Trump, assumed that the National Hockey League’s demographics would insulate them from the anthem protests that have become the biggest sports story this year. When Trump met the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penquins at the White House he hailed them as “patriots,” and he referenced both the NHL and NASCAR in one of his rants against NFL players, proclaiming them to be examples of real patriotism and support for the military and the flag.
Only it seems that Trump was wrong about that. Just last week the NHL had its first in season example of a player protesting the anthem. The Tampa Bay Lightning’s JT Brown had already protested during the preseason, but apparently that got missed. However when he raised his fist during the playing of the national anthem before a regular season game against the Florida Panthers, EVERYONE saw that. The gesture went viral, and suddently the NHL has found that it cannot ignore or overlook the issue.
The Lighting issued a statement in support of Brown, saying they respect the rights of all their players to express their opinions. But since that time (October 7) Brown has received death threats, though he says he won’t back down and will continue to protest before games. He also told the Tampa Bay Times that he totally rejects the contention made by Trump and others that his actions disrespects either the flag or the military.”Some will tell you that’s disrespecting the military, well I wanted to hear it from someone who is serving, not some person on Twitter,” Brown said. “Some thought (kneeling) it was disrespecting, but most felt that we have a right to do it, regardless of whether they agree with you or not, I would stand next to you.”
Because the NHL only has 30 Black players at present (the most in their history incidentally), and is only 28 percent American, there is an assumption that such things as racial issues don’t exist. But that has never been the case. Such prominent figures as the Nashville Predators’ P.K. Subban or the Philadelphia Flyers Wayne Simmonds have each been subjected to racial abuse both online and on the ice during their time in the league. The same has been true for San Jose’s Joel Ward (also a former Predator).
Subban was recently quoted saying he wouldn’t be participating in any protests, although he certainly understood the issues. Ward has also said he considered doing it, but thus far hasn’t participated. The NHL’s fan base is certainly predominantly white, but then so is the NFL’s, at least in terms of who buys tickets. Thus far, only one MLB player has joined the protests, but the bottom line is that the issue has become so volatile that this week at the NFL owners meeting it is expected that they are going to unilaterally put in some new rules governing player conduct.
That notion is already generating a lot of controversy and response from players. The Titans’ Rishard Matthews, who now is staying in the locker room until after the anthem is played, has said he will retire if anyone tries to force him to stand at attention during the anthem. A labor union in Dallas has filed suit against Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones for his statements that he would bench any player who didn’t stand at attention during the anthem. Newspaper and website columnists, even the NFL commissioner have also weighed in with suggestions, one of which is simply to play the anthem before the players come back on the field after warmups.
But whatever suggestion is made, it is clear that this issue isn’t going away, and that no sports league is exempt from it. Despite what the President thinks, even the National Hockey League cannot escape the specter of protests, nor run away from the issues of police misconduct and social injustice that spurred them. The days ahead will be quite interesting with the NBA season beginning this week, and its commissioner already on record saying he expects his players to stand at attention during the anthem.
Whether they comply will provide the next chapter in this ongoing controversy.