Matt Dumba wasn’t scheduled to play Aug. 1 in the first game of the National Hockey League’s restarted season. That day, the Minnesota Wild defenseman, clad in everyday clothes and shoes, stepped up to the center circle of players on the ice for a different reason.
“For those unaffected by systematic racism, or unaware, I’m sure that some of you believe that this topic has garnered too much attention during the last couple months,” the Filipino Canadian said through the loudspeakers at Rogers Place arena in Edmonton, Canada. But, he added, “Black Lives Matter. Breona Taylor’s life matters. Hockey is a great game, but it could be a whole lot greater, and it starts with all of us.”
Other players hit the ice with their hockey sticks in support. Then, as the American national anthem began, Dumba knelt, becoming the first player in the NHL to do so — four years after Colin Kapernick started kneeling in the National Football League to protest racial injustice. When Canada’s anthem started, Dumba stood. Later, speaking to reporters, he said he wished he’d thought to keep kneeling.
“There is a lot of light that needs to be shed on what is happening in Canada and the oppression First Nations people have felt for hundreds of years. Just — in the moment — it happened like that.”
“There is a lot of light that needs to be shed on what is happening in Canada and the oppression First Nations people have felt for hundreds of years,” Dumba said. “Just — in the moment — it happened like that.”
Since then, several other players have followed his lead. Some fans and observers hope that activism will help put pressure on the NHL to take concrete steps to address its internal racial issues.
The NHL is overwhelmingly white and has long been criticized for its lack of diversity. Earlier this summer, Dumba launched the Hockey Diversity Alliance with other players of color, including Canadian Wayne Simmonds, who said they were taking action because many hockey fans are in denial about racism.
“Every time I say something, people — they fail to believe,” Simmonds said in a video released by the alliance.
Another Black player, Evander Kane, said in the video that he’d been discriminated against in hockey since childhood.
“You have to be 10 times better than that white kid just to get the same opportunity he gets,” he said.
“When the racists think that your sport is kind of the patriotic sport to be following, then you're doing something wrong. Eric Trump's tweet is exactly that kind of acknowledgment.”
“When the racists think that your sport is kind of the patriotic sport to be following, then you're doing something wrong,” said Courtney Szto, a Queen’s University professor who studies racism in hockey, “and Eric Trump's tweet is exactly that kind of acknowledgment.”
Some NHL fans reacted angrily to Eric Trump’s tweet, posting photos of themselves kneeling at home. Dumba said during those few days, the NHL hastily reached out to him about speaking before Saturday’s game.
“I think that they [the NHL] know that they have to react now,” Szto said. “But the reactions have been just kind of skirting issues around anti-Blackness.”
She said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman should have been the one to declare Black Lives Matter, like NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did. And Szto said there hasn’t been enough white allyship. When Dumba knelt, he was alone. Everyone else stood.
“It just seemed like a very lonely experience, unfortunately,” Szto said.
But Szto was heartened by the game on Monday, also at Rogers Place. Four players knelt, including two white players.
“I think that was obviously a ripple effect from Matt Dumba’s expression,” Szto said.
And those players kept kneeling for the Canadian anthem.
“It is a very real belief that hockey is a white person’s sport. So, to say that we don't have issues of racism is a huge mistake.”
“It is a very real belief that hockey is a white person’s sport,” Szto said. “So, to say that we don't have issues of racism is a huge mistake.”
Addressing racism is a long-term process, she said, that needs to play out on both sides of the border.