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NHL forging ahead in movement toward racial equality, justice

League mission of inclusion for all underscored by webinar panel

by William Douglas @WDouglasNHL / Staff Writer

The NHL is committed to the movement for racial justice and equality and not simply caught up in a moment following the death of George Floyd.

That was the message Kim Davis, NHL senior executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs, delivered Tuesday during a webinar conversation on whether hockey can be for everyone.

"We have to use every moment and every opportunity to showcase and illustrate and illuminate the fact that this is a movement, not a moment, and we're in it for the long haul," she said.

Davis was part of a panel discussion that included J.T. Brown, a forward in the Minnesota Wild organization; former NHL forward Georges Laraque; Los Angeles Kings scout Blake Bolden, who played for Buffalo of the National Women's Hockey League in 2018-19; and Kelsey Koelzer, coach of Arcadia University's NCAA Division III women's team and a former NWHL defenseman. 

The webinar was hosted by the producers of "Willie," the documentary about Willie O'Ree, who was the NHL's first Black player.

The panel applauded NHL players for speaking out after Floyd, a Black man, died May 25 while in police custody in Minneapolis. A white officer has been charged with second-degree murder, and three other officers who were at the scene have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. The incident, captured on video, sparked protests worldwide. 

Brown, who played for the Wild's American Hockey League affiliate in Iowa last season, said it's important for NHL players and the rest of the hockey world to continue to speak out.

"As far as a player's perspective, it's up to us as a collective to make sure it's a high priority for each one of us," said Brown, who scored 22 points (nine goals, 13 assists) in 62 games for Iowa before the rest of the AHL season was canceled due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. "I know we spend a lot of time perfecting our craft, working out skating, but we do have a lot of down time, so there is time for us to continue to educate ourselves and to continue to speak out on these issues. It shouldn't take a movement like Black Lives Matter or to watch somebody die on video to have these conversations."

The players on the panel shared their experiences of what it was like being Black and playing in a predominately white sport and how they coped with racist behavior from opposing players, parents and fans.

"It was so bad that my parents didn't want me to play," Laraque said. "But I didn't care. I loved the game I wanted to prove everyone wrong."

Laraque said he drew inspiration to succeed in hockey from baseball great Jackie Robinson's autobiography, "I Never Had It Made: An Autobiography By Jackie Robinson," to pursue an NHL career that lasted 12 seasons from 1997-2010 with the Edmonton Oilers, Phoenix Coyotes, Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens.

"I wanted to make it to the NHL, not just for me to prove everyone wrong, but I wanted to be a role model like Jackie Robinson was for many African Americans," he said of the player who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947. "So it became my mission, not just to make it to the NHL, but to one day write my own autobiography ("Georges Laraque: The Story of the NHL's Unlikeliest Tough Guy") to inspire other minorities who might want to play hockey. Making it to the NHL showed me how perseverance and hard work, despite any negative energy, how nothing in life is impossible."

The panelists said others in the hockey world must be involved to help eradicate racism in the game and society. Koelzer, the first Black person to lead an NCAA hockey program at any level, said coaches have a role to play.

"One thing on top of making hockey more accessible is really educating coaches," said Koelzer, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NWHL Draft. "I think that they can have a huge impact on the conversations that are had in the locker room and kind of the direction that the culture of a team is heading. Being someone who has to go through training nonstop, I think there is a huge lack of training when it comes to racist language and those microaggressions that are hard to pick up on sometimes."

Bolden, who was the NWHL's first Black player and is the NHL's first Black female scout, said hockey teams, from the NHL down, need to hire more people of color in key positions.

"If we come at it from all different areas, we can tackle this situation together," she said. "I'm very proud to be part of an organization that is forward-thinking and uses their power to influence and help someone myself and change the mindset of everyone."

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