Mailbag: NHL promises more on social justice, Black Lives Matter

I guess we were starved for hockey. More than four million viewers took in a Leafs-Canadiens exhibition game in July.

Think about that.

Those loud mouths who insisted they wouldn’t care about summer hockey, and shut it all down, and who cares? Well, where are you now.

The NHL has done a terrific job in getting the Stanley Cup tournament this far. From a COVID-19 safety protocol, no positive tests is a very good thing. That they’re in the hear of a city that has very, very few new daily cases – give yourselves a pat on the back, Toronto – suggest they’ll get through this.

What the league is lacking is its social justice moment. When Eric Trump congratulates NHL players for standing through the Star Spangled Banner, then it’s clear the NHL’s social justice messaging so far is either lost, or simply not strong enough.

Opposing players locking arms on the blue line – very “unhockey” — but not the message the world was looking for.
That said, there is more to come on the NHL’s social justice front, in particular with Black Lives Matter.

The league was waiting for Saturday – the first day of the playoffs – to roll out what they’re calling their “We Skate For” initiative (#WeSkateFor) complete with helmet decals in support of Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements.

In addition, each player received a hoodie to personalize with the name of whom or what he skates for.

The league put out a press release with a quote from Steve Mayer, the league’s chief content officer.

“The world has changed significantly in the four months since the NHL played its last game. We therefore will raise awareness for the NHL’s support for the Black community while also celebrating the incredible individuals who have worked tirelessly to ensure positive health for those affected by COVID-19. While we will miss having the fans in the arena, we will use Opening Day and future NHL games to bring people together to celebrate our common humanity.”

And the front line workers who have helped flatten this pandemic curve will also get their moment in the sun.

To the Mailbag: We deal with questions about watching hockey in an empty arena, watching hockey on TV and who might the Leafs lose to the Kraken? As always, direct your questions for the Mailbag to

QUESTION: Hi, Kevin. What’s it like being in the arena during a playoff game with no fans? Once you get into the game, do you forget the lack of an audience? Or do you still feel you’re just watching two teams go at it in an empty arena?

Best, Mike in Jersey

ANSWER: I do miss the rise and fall of the crowd as the play heightens or falls away. I actually missed one of Alex Kerfoot’s goals the other night. The Leafs didn’t celebrate. The goal song didn’t go off on time. The scoring official didn’t change the score on the scoreboard. And the replay didn’t appear on the video screen. I just wondered why everyone was at centre ice all of a sudden. So yeah, the fans matter.

I could also get all cynical here and wonder why it’s as loud. Whenever I need to work pregame, that’s when there are sound-system checks, meaning I gotta get my sound-nullifying headphones out of by backpack. But yes, it’s different for sure. But when I cover a game, I’m watching the ice (plus statistical developments on the web). Oh, and Twitter. The coffee is just as bad. Perhaps even worse, which I didn’t think was possible. It’s colder without fans heating up the place. The media set-up is a bit like an international hockey set up (they put the media in the stands, there’s no press box). So I actually have a better seat.

QUESTION: Hi Kevin. I had trouble focusing on the exhibition game between the Leafs and the Habs. It just felt like I was watching a practice scrimmage with no fans present and tarps over the seats. Has there been any talk of getting mannequins in the lower bowl seats within the camera view? I know it sounds kinda silly but it would feel “more real” and enhance the TV fan experience making it appear very similar to what we are used to.

Please please please, let this resumption of play work…I need sports again in my life!

Thanks as always,

Bill L

PS: I read an article about some Leafs players are eager to set an example, have some fun, and put on a show (because focusing on, like, winning a playoff series is SOOOO boring!) with the outfits they choose to wear to the games…maybe they can play dress up with the mannequins too! ;D

ANSWER: Not a bad idea, but I don’t think the league is changing course at this point. I’m sure they’ll refine things. I’m guessing the TV experience will improve. But what matters is happening on the ice. I have watched in person, and on TV, and I can’t say the lack of fans has lessened my interest.

The biggest challenge is listening to the play-by-play and colour commentators of some teams, calling games off monitors back in places like Boston, or Glendale, Ariz. I think they’re doing a terrific job.

QUESTION: Great article, Bettman acts like a communist dictator (or Trump) by controlling and messaging the information released to the public. Whatever happens with this playoff attempt, there’s little doubt that bettman and his henchman Daly are relics from the cold war and should be put out to pasture. And as a US citizen, I can’t believe the special access to Canada afforded to hockey players! I guess Canada’s government knows what’s important. We’d all like to flee our country but that’s only allowed if you are good at putting a puck in the net. So no question but loved your article.

Richard L

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ANSWER: Well Richard, you were a little harsher on the commissioner than I was. A point I didn’t make is that the NHL is missing an opportunity for “free hype.” We’ll all dutifully report the scores.What’s missing are the stories that give the playoffs colour. Usually, that’s comment the goalie makes to a trusted reporter, or a player making an off-hand comment. In this case it’s the interaction between players at the hotels. Is anyone playing mini-sticks? We’ll get stuff on Instagram, but …

QUESTION: How can we watch the games? TV or stream, how best to maximize the number of games we can watch?
Stephanie G

ANSWER: I’d say streaming is your best bet, flipping back and forth between games. Though it does depend on your cable package, or how you’ve set up your TV watching. Invest in the Stanley Cup package if you’ve cut the cord. I mix it up.

QUESTION: I noticed the ads on the boards have changed during these exhibition games this week. Are the local, semi-local ads going to change for each game once the NHL gets to 2/3 games per day? Or will more national NHL sponsor ads remain – and not be changed each game.


ANSWER: The board ads are for each team’s home market at this point. Basically regional TV broadcasts in the U.S. When NBC takes over, national branding will come in.

QUESTION: Thanks for answering the NHL centre ice question I gave you this week. I was SUPER impressed by Seattle’s name, logo (although I fear the arena will be nicknamed the Krak house by mean-spirited opposing fans, and their fans Krak Heads, but who’s perfect?), building, just everything. Very impressive. My question is, and I know it’s going to happen anyway, is I can’t wait to see a Expansion preview JUST in terms of potential Leaf players to be protected, exposed etc. An analytical article that says why player A can’t be exposed, why player B shouldn’t play next season in December because if he doesn’t play he’s exempt, etc. For example, I read somewhere the Flames Juso Valimaki shouldn’t play this playoff/play in or he can’t be protected. That kind of things.

Lincoln C

ANSWER: The Leafs are pretty simple: They will lose Pierre Engvall, or Justin Holl, maybe Adam Brooks.

One thing they absolutely should not do: sign Zach Hyman or Frederik Andersen to extensions before the expansion draft. They’ll be unrestricted free agents, sure. But that means they won’t need to be protected (only players with at least three years professional experience in North America need to be protected.)

They’ll protect seven forwards: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Alex Kerfoot.

They’ll protect three defencemen: Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin and Travis Dermott.

They’ll protect one goalie: Jack Campbell.

As I said, Hyman and Andersen will be free agents, not requiring protection. (If they sign Hyman, they’d have to expose one of the others. And at this point, I’d argue one of Johnsson or Kerfoot will be peddled in the off-season, more for cap considerations than anything else, so maybe signing Hyman early isn’t a bad idea. Still, the cap might have other ideas.)

Others on the roster not eligible for the draft: Ilya Mikheyev, Nick Robertson, Timothy Liljegren, Rasmus Sandin.

So left exposed: Engvall, Holl, Brooks. (I suppose Frederik Gauthier could be on the list, too, depending on his contract status. Ditto Kyle Clifford, Martin Marincin. I doubt Cody Ceci or Tyson Barrie will be back.)


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