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'It can't just be their fight'

Jets captain Blake Wheeler discusses his statements against racial injustice

by Mitchell Clinton @MitchellClinton / WinnipegJets.com

They were some of the hardest words Blake Wheeler has ever put together, but they were also some of the most important.

In a tweet posted on May 30, the Winnipeg Jets captain called for the need to "stand with the black community and fundamentally change how the leadership in this country has dealt with racism."

This was in response to not only the George Floyd's killing at the hands of a police officer in Wheeler's hometown of Minneapolis, but also the issue of racial injustice as a whole.

Tweet from @BiggieFunke: I needed to say something in my own words. pic.twitter.com/VpkidaMjbX

On Tuesday, Wheeler elaborated on those comments in a video call, saying white athletes need to be as involved in the conversation as black athletes.

"It can't just be their fight," he said, referencing Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem during the 2016 NFL season.

"I want to be real clear, here. I look in the mirror about this before I look out at everyone else. I wish that I was more involved sooner than I was. I wish that it didn't take me this long to get behind it in a meaningful way."

As a way to back up that last statement, Wheeler posted on Instagram the names of a few foundations he and his family have supported over the past week.

In addition, he's also trying to educate his three kids as much as possible.

"They watched George Floyd die on TV," he said, adding that his oldest son, seven-year-old Louie, is the one with the most questions.

"He's asking 'why isn't he getting off his neck? Why won't be get off his neck?' To try to explain to him that to a seven-year-old, that police, that he feels are out there to protect us and look out for us, that isn't always the case. That's a hard conversation to have."

But just because they're difficult conversations, it doesn't mean they should be avoided.

"Over time, it's something we need to be more comfortable doing," Wheeler said. "We need to be okay voicing our opinion on this."

Tweet from @NHLJets: pic.twitter.com/V6jQGORHCv

Wheeler can point to a specific moment in minor hockey when he witnessed racism for the first time.

"Some things happened from the opposing team in handshake lines. I just remember the pain, crying, and being upset and mad and seeing how hurt that made him," said Wheeler. "That forever was burned into my brain. I was so sad for him that someone could say something to him to make him feel like that."

The 33-year-old acknowledges that his experience in the NHL may be different than what has been experienced by former teammates Evander Kane - whose work Wheeler applauds on this very subject - and Dustin Byfuglien.

"They'd have to speak on that," he said. "I've always felt the teams I've been on, it hasn't been a thing. It's been 'we respect what you do as a player, we respect what you are as an individual.'

"I'm hopeful they agree with that, that our environment has always been accepting of people's differences and having it be an inviting environment to be part of."

Wheeler has spent part of the NHL season pause in Florida, adding it has been five or six years since he and his family have spent the off-season in his hometown, about 20 minutes outside of Minneapolis.

The photos he's received from family of businesses being boarded up and the destruction of some small business that took years to get off the ground hurt him to see.

"Never did I envision that Minneapolis-St. Paul, my hometown, would be the epicentre of these things happening," he said. "If you watch the news and you see tons of peaceful protests and people clearly upset, clearly sick and tired of the same conversation, but doing it in a way that is promoting real change. Unfortunately, that's not the case with everyone. Unfortunately, there are people that are taking advantage of those situations… So that's been really heartbreaking."

The lines of communication between Wheeler and his wife, Sam, have been as open as ever as they try to navigate teaching their children about racism in addition to handling a pandemic.

Something they both wished they could have done was be part of the peaceful protests in Minneapolis in some way.

"We would have loved to take our family out to the protest to show them how powerful it can be - and really what a beautiful thing it was - all the people coming together in our hometown," Wheeler said. "We've talked about it a lot and showed them as much as we can to try and continue that education and try to show them, and really have it be imprinted in their mind, that this is what it should look like."

If Wheeler has a regret, it's that he didn't make his thoughts known earlier. He described putting those thoughts on the topic into words as a difficult process, especially given the magnitude of the subject.

"You really get one chance to do it the first time," he said. "You want to be sure it's being portrayed how you actually feel."

He wants to be part of the solution going forward and said a text from his father a couple days ago has really stuck with him.

"He grew up in Detroit and was telling me about the race riots in the late 1960s," Wheeler said. "He said 'my generation didn't get it right. Hopefully yours does.' I'm hopeful my generation and my kid's generation fix this and get this country so there are brighter days ahead."

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