Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Five (rare) times that NHL players got political

"Stick to sports." For years, it's been the go-to plea for a certain breed of fan, the type who want their viewing experience kept free of any sort of politicizing – or at least from the kind with which they don't personally agree.

In the Donald Trump era, it seems like it could also become the NHL's motto.

While the NFL and NBA are at the forefront of the battle over recent player protests (with the MLB chiming in, too), the NHL seems to be desperately trying to sit this one out. League commissioner Gary Bettman had already scolded the players about keeping politics away from the rink, and the very nature of the league itself seems to preclude the sort of activism we're seeing elsewhere. Blake Wheeler and some of his Winnipeg Jets teammates had thoughtful remarks on the situation and the San Jose Sharks' Joel Ward is weighing his options, but they've been the exception as other teams struggle with how to handle things.

And so on Sunday, as the rest of the sports world was rising up against the U.S. president's weekend remarks, the Pittsburgh Penguins were quick to confirm that they'd still be visiting the White House as usual. The statement seemed poorly timed, and was disappointing to many fans, but it hardly caught anyone by surprise. Hockey people just don't do politics.

Except that they do, at least sometimes. The league certainly does – just a few weeks ago, they inserted themselves directly into Calgary's mayoral election. And while it's relatively rare, the league's players will occasionally weigh in on a topic with bigger ramifications than just playing the game and getting pucks in deep.

So today, while the league's current players wrestle with what, if anything, they should say or do to make their voices heard, here's a look back at five times that the hockey and political worlds have crossed paths.

Tim Thomas

It was impossible to watch the reaction to the Penguins' decision unfold without thinking of Thomas, the Boston Bruins goalie who made headlines in 2012 when he refused to join his teammates for their White House visit. Thomas made it clear that his decision was based on his personal politics and view that "the federal government has grown out of control."

Thomas was widely criticized for the decision (including, no doubt, by some of the same voices attacking the Penguins for doing the opposite this time around). Some fans even mocked him with Barack Obama photos in that year's playoffs. Thomas didn't back off on his politics, though, posting occasional opinions on his personal Facebook page.

Thomas sat out the 2012-13 season, and a comeback bid the following year didn't amount to much. He's been out of the league since, and has kept a relatively low profile. To this day, many fans remember him as much for his White House snub as for his two Vezina Trophies or his Conn Smythe Trophy-winning performance during Boston's run to the 2011 Stanley Cup.

Sean Avery

It probably wouldn't even be accurate to call Avery a divisive player. By the end of his career, nobody seemed to like the guy, and to this day he tends to top most lists of the most hated pests in hockey history. And for the most part, he earned it.

But that makes it easy to forget that Avery was also one of the first voices in the NHL to speak up in favor of gay rights, lending his voice to ads championing New York's marriage equality act in 2011. While it was only six years ago, this was before the sports world had heard stories like those of Jason Collins or Michael Sam, and championing gay rights was a rare stance for a pro athlete. And unlike many athletes who speak out, Avery didn't stop at just voicing his personal opinion – he made it clear that he hoped the rest of the league (and its leadership) would follow his example.

While it's true that the NHL almost never gets involved in political or social issues, the push for equal treatment of gay athletes has been a notable exception. Names like Brian and Patrick Burke have pushed the sport to be more inclusive, and many prominent players have lent their support. It's been a rare and welcome example of the league leading on an issue, rather than trailing behind or sitting out altogether. And like him or not, Avery played an early part in that.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

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