NHL players keeping focus on social justice, not hockey

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Braydon Coburn wanted to talk about the push for social justice on Friday, not slap shots and shift changes.

The Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman wasn’t alone.

In a sign of the unity NHL players are showing in the fight against racism, Coburn opted not to answer questions about hockey, specifically Tampa Bay’s Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Boston Bruins on Saturday (12 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVAS).

“I think today, for the most part, especially yesterday and today, we want to make sure we keep the attention and conversations around the issue,” Coburn said. “I think that’s where our heads are at right now.”

 

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The Lightning-Bruins game will be the first since Wednesday after players from all eight remaining teams decided not to play on Thursday and Friday as a form of protest against systemic racism and police brutality.

During the past two days, players for Tampa Bay and Boston have been mingling inside the bubble in Toronto, the East hub city, as were members of the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders, who are playing in the other series in the Eastern Conference Second Round.

Lightning defenseman Luke Schenn said the topic of conversation was always the same, and that as many as 30-40 players from the four teams got together to discuss what they could do to enact change.

One of those players was Bruins forward Brad Marchand, who had a message for critics who feel the players should stick to sports.

“Listen, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion,” he said. “But it’s very evident and clear that this is bigger than sports. People need to put that aside.

“Sports is a luxury. It’s a luxury to watch this game, to play this game. But when it becomes about people’s safety and people’s lives and people feeling comfortable to be in their own skin, it’s much more important than that. I understand people want to watch the games. I understand people want to see this, but that’s too bad. We have bigger things that we care about and that we want to do and improve upon and people that we want to support and that’s what matters.”

Video: NHL Players Stand United to Fight Racism, Injustice

Days earlier, Schenn and Marchand fought for the puck on several occasions during Tampa Bay’s 7-1 victory in Game 3 on Wednesday that gave them a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series. But those battles seemed moot, Schenn said, when the Lightning came off the ice to discover NBA players had boycotted their playoff games to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Sunday.

“In light of what happened, after you get a win, everybody’s high fiving and celebrating,” he said. “After the last game it wasn’t like that at all. We came into the room and were made aware of what was going on, and the conversation quickly shifted. I think, obviously, you’re in the middle of a playoff series, but there’s more that happened outside of the game itself.”

By Thursday, foes had become friends for a united cause.

“Before we did anything we were talking to four or five Bruins,” Schenn said. “So you play literally, what, 10 hours before, and the next day it’s nothing to do with hockey. It’s all based on what’s going on in the world right now and how it affects all of us on different levels. You’re having these conversations and, well, personally I almost forgot we’d played them the night before and we’re about to play them again. It’s strictly based on racial issues and how we can continue to grow and educate ourselves.

“On top of that, we were talking to four or five Bruins and then another guy on our team says ‘Let’s make sure the Flyers and Islanders are aware.’ Next thing you know 30 or 40 of us are having a meeting.”

For some players, the conversations during the past two days have already had a profound effect.

“For me, it’s about action,” Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield said. “I’ve already reached out to our community relations director, just about setting up things outside the rink, what we can do, start brainstorming ideas, going to minority communities, stuff like that.”

It’s all part of the push by the players for much-needed change at all levels of the sport.

“Just hearing stories of young players that don’t feel safe, that don’t feel included, that’s something that just needs to stop,” Mayfield said. “That just makes me sick because hockey’s a place for everyone.”

NHL.com staff writers Amalie Benjamin and Brian Compton contributed to this report

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