Blake Wheeler and other NHLers have a voice…who knew?

I’m not black, I don’t live in the United States and I no longer drive a car, so I cannot relate to being pulled over by a cop pointing a gun at me.

I’ve been pulled over by cops, to be sure. On numerous occasions.

Once it was for a faulty left headlight. On another occasion it was for a broken tail light. An illegal left turn in downtown Toronto earned me a brief lecture from a cop. And a ticket. A heavy foot on the gas pedal while travelling down Gateway Road in Winnipeg got the red lights flashing behind me. And another ticket. And, of course, there have been check stops by cops seeking to get drunk drivers off the roads (two in one night, actually). No tickets there.

Never, however, have I been stopped due to the hue of my skin.

I believe that’s called white privilege.

I never asked for white skin. I never asked to grow up in a white neighborhood populated by Catholics and Protestants. I had no black or Jewish friends. Other than when jazz musician/dancer Delbert Wagner broke bread with us in our home on Melbourne Avenue in Winnipeg, or the family visited Percy and Zena Haynes’ Chicken Shack on Lulu Street, the only black or Jewish people I ever saw were on TV.

Oddly enough, Sandy Koufax, a Jewish man, was my favorite baseball player and the elegant Wilma Rudolph, a black woman, was the athlete I most admired. Floyd Patterson, a black Catholic, was my favorite boxer until Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, a black Muslim. My favorite singers were Barbra Streisand, a Jew, and Frank Sinatra, a mobster.

Talk about a mixed up white Catholic kid.

Wilma Rudolph

At any rate, I was raised in a very white culture that included heavy involvement in hockey, the whitest team sport in North America, if not the world. I never had a black teammate. There was only one black player in the National Hockey League during my youth—Willie O’Ree. He broke in with the Boston Bruins in 1958, playing two games that year and another 43 in 1960-61. Today—depending on opening-night rosters—approximately 30 of the 700-plus NHL players are black. That’s four per cent.

So, anyone thinking hockey players would plunge into the social discussion about racial injustice in the U.S. is quite misguided. I suspect many NHLers don’t see it as their fight because they, like myself and so many others, cannot relate to being pulled over by a cop wielding a handgun due to the color of their skin. But, more to the point, it isn’t the hockey way.

The hockey way is to scrap fiercely for every inch of ice you can claim, even if it means fisticuffs and a trip to the dentist, but once the final whistle blows you must tow the party line. Don’t make waves or noise. You’re part of a team and, always remember men, there’s no ‘i’ in team. Oh, yes, they’ll deliver cliches like they eat them for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a midnight snack, just don’t expect opinion on anything other than the size of goaltender equipment, video replay and Donald S. Cherry’s most recent rant.

Blake Wheeler

That’s what made Blake Wheeler’s comments the other day so shocking. The Winnipeg Jets captain broke ranks, not to mention an unwritten code, when he called out U.S. President Donald Trump for his “son of a bitch” and “He’s fired!” insult to National Football League players who take a knee in protest of racial injustice on the streets of America.

It’s the First Amendment to our Constitution. The First one!!” Wheeler tweeted. “Regardless of how it makes you feel individually, these are literally the principles the US was founded on. Come on, Mr. President.”

Wheeler, an American, later articulated his thoughts for news snoops.

It just felt right, kind of, to take a stance,” he explained. “Some of the language (Trump) used, referencing NFL players, I think that was kind of the last straw for a lot of guys, whichever way they feel about it, to finally voice their opinion. I think that’s kind of the whole point. That’s the thing that makes America a great country. You’re allowed to have different opinions, you’re allowed to voice those different opinions, you’re allowed to stand up for what you believe in. When you take a side, you want to be cognizant of the fact that there’s going to be people who don’t feel the same as you.”

That’s not the hockey way. Or at least it never used to be.

Paul Henderson

The hockey way is what former NHLer Paul Henderson delivered when asked about the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins accepting an invitation for a photo-op with Donald Trump at the White House.

Well, I was a team player,” he said dutifully. “I think if the captain said we were going—it may not be my choice—but if the captain says we’re going, I’d probably go. If the captain said we weren’t going to go, then I probably wouldn’t go.”

Paul Henderson, a very nice man, is famous for scoring a goal. The goal. He very much disliked the communist Soviets in 1972, but in the case of athletes protesting racial/social injustice in 2017, he’s Switzerland. “I’m not going to take sides on either side.”

That is sooooo hockey.

So it’s refreshing and encouraging to know that there are players like Blake Wheeler, teammate Jacob Trouba and numerous others who have an opinion. Imagine that. Hockey players with a voice of their own. Who knew?

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