Matt Dumba stood at centre ice in Edmonton and delivered a powerful anti-racism speech, pausing when he needed to, tearing up at times.
He uttered the words “Black lives matter, Breonna Taylor’s life matters” to an international television audience, including “Hockey Night In Canada.”
Then the Minnesota Wild defenceman took a knee through “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“For Matt Dumba today, what he did was incredibly powerful,” Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said. “He should be very proud. As players in this league, we just want to give him support, and the movement support, and just be a part of it.”
Speaking at centre ice prior to puck drop between the Edmonton Oilers and Chicago Blackhawks, Dumba was flanked as he knelt by Chicago backup goalie Malcolm Subban and Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse. They stood, putting their hands on Dumba’s shoulders. The rest of their teammates stood around centre ice.
“During this pandemic, something unexpected but long overdue occurred: The world woke up to the existence of systemic racism, and how deeply rooted it is within our society,” said Dumba, speaking without a teleprompter or any device. “For those unaffected by systemic racism, or unaware, I’m sure some of you believe that this topic has garnered too much attention during the last couple of months. But let me assure you, it has not.”
Dumba, a founding member of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, finished with a powerful statement as well.
“I hope this inspires a new generation of hockey players and hockey fans. Because Black lives matter. Breonna Taylor’s life matters. Hockey is a great game, but it can be a whole lot greater, and it starts with all of us.”
The words, and the moment, reverberated around the league.
“It obviously takes a lot of courage to get up there in front of lots of people and deliver something like that,” Leafs centre Auston Matthews said.
“It took a lot of courage and strength for Matt to go out there in a game he wasn’t even part of and make a statement for the Hockey Diversity Alliance and, more importantly, the Black community and people of colour,” Sharks forward Evander Kane said on “Hockey Night In Canada.”
“Matt identifies as Filipino, and I hope people realize how difficult it was for him to take that lead, to be the first player within our league to take a stance so publicly.”
The NHL officially relaunched itself Saturday in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that shut down the league on March 12. Part of the reopening was a big thank you to front-line workers. The league had been criticized for trying to thread a needle on social issues, with it’s “#WeSkateFor” hashtag, promoting the idea that players can add any name or cause they want, including Black Lives Matter.
“Hockey Night in Canada” set the tone Saturday with an opening that featured a speech about freedom from Nelson Mandela and a video, using Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” that told the stories of some of the game’s Black players.
There was a similar in-arena anti-racism video broadcast for the prime-time game at 8 p.m. between Pittsburgh and Montreal. But no player gave a Dumba-like speech. No player knelt through either anthem.
Dumba’s kneeling moment, though, captured the central message of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Super proud of Matt and what he did,” said Akim Aliu. “Guys are standing tall and trying to make the path smoother for the next generation.”
“It was a very emotional moment,” said former player Anthony Stewart, speaking on “Hockey Night in Canada.” “A year ago, guys were afraid to kneel. Here he is … taking a knee, and it’s socially acceptable.”
Dumba is the only hockey player to have knelt during an anthem. Players in the NBA have been doing it, following the lead of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose habit of kneeling to protest police violence toward Black Americans so infuriated U.S. president Donald Trump. Players in European soccer leagues have done it.
NHL players are reticent. Ryan Reaves of the Vegas Golden Knights, who is the leading voice on the team’s social justice front, said he didn’t want to ask his teammates to kneel.
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“It was discussed,” Reaves said on a conference call Saturday. “We wanted to do something as a team. For a lot of guys, kneeling isn’t the way they would want to show support. If we wanted to do something as a team, my big thing was I didn’t want anybody to feel uncomfortable. I know if I said I wanted to kneel, I know some guys would feel uncomfortable. I didn’t want that.”
The Knights and the Coyotes locked arms during the anthem before their exhibition game this week, in a show of player-to-player support.
The Maple Leafs have been largely supportive, wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts through training camp and using their social media feeds to amplify under-heard voices and causes. All the while, the team of largely white players raised in middle class families understands it has some learning to do.
“We haven’t really ever gone through it ourselves,” Leafs forward Mitch Marner said. “We’ve never been put in those shoes. But really now seeing it, hearing it … it’s been going on for way too long, stuff’s been happening for way too long.
“Our whole team and the whole league stands with HDA. Matt’s speech was unbelievable, was touching and it took a lot of courage to go out there and do it. Now everyone here, we got to really start making a change. Like (Dumba) said, hockey is a beautiful sport but it can be better. We’ve got to start including every culture. It starts now. We’ve got to start doing this and make it really a priority.”
Here is an excerpt from Matt Dumba’s speech:
“During this pandemic, something unexpected but long overdue occurred: The world woke up to the existence of systemic racism, and how deeply rooted it is within our society. For those unaffected by systematic racism, or unaware, I’m sure some of you believe that this topic has garnered too much attention during the last couple of months. But let me assure you, it has not.
“Racism is a man-made creation. All it does is deteriorate from our collective prosperity. Racism is everywhere. Racism is everywhere. And we need to fight against it.
“On behalf of the NHL, and the Hockey Diversity Alliance, we vow and promise to stand up for justice and fight for what is right.
“I know firsthand as a minority playing the great game of hockey the unexplainable and difficult challenges that come with it. The Hockey Diversity Alliance and the NHL want kids to feel safe, comfortable and free-minded to enter an arena.
“I stand in front of you today, on behalf of those groups, and promise you we will fight against injustice and fight for what is right.
“I hope this inspires a new generation of hockey players and hockey fans. Because black lives matter. Breonna Taylor’s life matters. Hockey is a great game, but it can be a whole lot greater, and it starts with all of us.”