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Rangers winger Ryan Reaves: Aug. 27, 2020, was ‘more than a moment for us’

Game postponements were ‘a choice, and a commitment, for the hockey community to step up in the ongoing movement for racial justice’

Standing behind the mic, it was nerve-wracking to think about everyone watching. I knew this news conference would reach a bigger audience than comments about who won, lost and scored.

But, the number of people who watched doesn’t matter anymore.

I only care about one thing: When players in the Western NHL bubble stood together to explain to the media why players in both bubbles weren’t going to play, how many people listened – really listened – to the message of that news conference?

Not assumptions – like the assumption that I’m anti-police, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I grew up in a law enforcement family, the son of a sheriff, with all the respect in the world for heroes who risk their lives on the front lines.

Not expectations – like the strange expectation that I could or should represent everyone who looks like me. We’re not all the same, and my statements and actions can never speak for all.

I can only speak for me … but I can always speak up when something is wrong. And that was the message: What happened to Jacob Blake was wrong. Being shot seven times in front of your children is wrong. The circumstances of every police stop are important, but so are the lives of Black and brown people. There has to be another way.

It was a summer with incident after incident, with too many tragedies involving Black men and women being treated differently from the way white people are treated in the same situation. And for people from all walks of life, it was a wake-up call to get more involved in racial justice, equality and the systemic changes we’ve needed for years.

Changes we still need to this day.

That’s what I hope people remember about the game postponements on Aug. 27, 2020. It was more than a moment for us. It was a choice, and a commitment, for the hockey community to step up in the ongoing movement for racial justice.

I’m really proud of everyone who made that choice.

It’s no secret that hockey is a predominantly white sport. Most players in the bubble didn’t have direct experience with these issues. They may not have made the immediate connection that other leagues made when they decided to postpone their games. But the morning before we held our news conference, a bunch of players in the East and West bubble got on the phone to talk about what was going on and how we might get involved. On that call, I was very clear with the guys: “I’m not going to tell anyone what to do. Everyone can have their own opinion.” If people felt like, “Reavo, listen, I don’t believe in what you’re doing,” then I’d rather they go ahead and play.

(L-R): Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (then a member of the Colorado Avalanche), Ryan Reaves (then a member of the Vegas Golden Knights) and Jason Dickinson (then a member of the Dallas Stars) speak to the media with teammates standing behind after the NHL and NHL Players’ Association’s announcement about the rescheduling of the second-round games of the Western Conference Stanley Cup playoffs at Rogers Place on Aug. 27, 2020, in Edmonton, Alberta.

I wanted everyone to make a decision based on what they thought – not what anybody forced them to think.

So when the decision was made to not play, I knew what it meant. It meant they really recognized the need to come together, reflect and get the message out that it was time for change.

And when you heard white players saying they wanted to listen and learn … well, they were serious.

Right after everything happened, a few teammates came to my room. We sat and talked for a couple of hours about why we chose to postpone the games. We talked about what we were thinking. And we talked about some experiences I’ve gone through as a Black man in society. The way they responded will always stick out to me. A lot of them said, “Look, I’ve never lived this, so I’m not going to pretend like this is my issue. But with everything going on right now, I see the issue more than ever before. And I want to learn so I can help make things better in the world.”

That’s the best thing they could’ve said. I didn’t want a bunch of white hockey players saying, “I know what you’re going through.” Because they don’t. They can’t – and I didn’t expect them to. Instead, they had the courage to say, “I want to educate myself so I can find ways to contribute to change.” And then they used their own news conferences, interviews and social media posts to tell fans to do the same thing: Understand the issues, recognize how important they are, and go advocate for equality.

I know some fans had a problem with that. You know, the people who wanted us to “stick to sports.”

I’ve got something to say to those people: No way.

I don’t see why, because I’m an athlete, I can’t have an opinion on something bigger than my job.

If your opinion is that I should stick to sports, why do you get to have an opinion? Why is it OK for you to tweet and comment, even though your job has nothing to do with the issues or hockey or our lives?

If you want to use your platform to bad-mouth me, I think that’s fine. If you want to use your platform to talk about social issues in a way I don’t agree with … that’s fine, too. It’s your platform and you can use it however you want.

At the same time, I’m going to use my platform however I want. Because, clearly, the people saying “stick to sports” aren’t mad that athletes are talking about issues beyond their profession.

They’re mad that our platforms are bigger, so when we start the conversation, it can no longer be stopped.

Conversations about racial justice have been stopped for way too long. For issues this big, we need platforms as big as possible to make a real difference.

That’s why you heard us talking about equality. That’s why you saw some of us protest and demonstrate … like the day when Robin Lehner, Tyler Seguin, Jason Dickinson and I took a knee during the U.S. and Canadian national anthems.

I remember news articles trying to frame that moment as an act of disrespect against the military. For us, it was the opposite: We were doing it out of deep respect for everything the military represents. For the veterans who put on the uniform, and put their lives on the line, to defend the freedom of their country.

Those men and women serve with everything they have, but they come back home to a country that’s only free for certain people. It’s a country with partial freedom, freedom that’s not equally available to all backgrounds and communities. That is not a free country. It’s not worthy of their sacrifice.

I think the reality we’re living in right now is way more disrespectful to them than taking a knee.

Not everyone is going to agree with me on that. There were veterans and police officers who were really supportive – who reached out and said, “We stand behind you, there are problems in these areas, and the people who cause them are giving us a bad name.” There were also veterans and police officers who were angry, hurt and offended. And that’s fine. I can’t satisfy everybody by explaining my intentions.

But I can keep starting conversations.

Which is one of the main reasons I’m writing this. We need the conversations to continue. Especially now, when it’s not a trending topic. The hashtags and black squares you saw last summer aren’t on your timeline. The headlines are mostly gone.

So, how are we going to make sure the movement doesn’t stop? I’m talking to the entire hockey community: players, fans at home, people who work in the sport. What are we doing to keep these conversations alive?

How are we using our voices and actions to support equality for Black communities and other communities of color?

How are we encouraging family and friends to get involved?

And how are we passing these lessons to the next generation, making sure they grow up in a better world than the one we have?

We can make a big impact if we choose to lead the way. Especially in hockey. Think about what it means for a young Black kid to see hockey players of all backgrounds standing up against injustice. Maybe it makes that kid feel more comfortable bringing his full self to the rink. Maybe he’ll carry that confidence to a bunch of areas in his life where people who look like him haven’t felt empowered in the past. Who knows where he’ll take it.

And he’s not the only one who benefits. The more we normalize conversations about race, the more people connected to our sport will grow up thinking, “Hey, we can talk about this, too. Part of what it means to be a good hockey player is to be a good teammate, and that means caring about my community and my society.” It opens so many new possibilities and cultures in our sport, regardless of what color you are.

I hope our news conference was a good representation of that. If there were families watching at home, I hope kids and parents alike recognized how important it is to promote equality.

I know some kids were too young to understand everything going on. My own kids fall into that category. At the time, my daughter was only a year and a half old. My son was 4.

One day, I’ll have a real conversation with them about what happened last summer. We’ll talk about the tragic videos and images that showed proof of injustices affecting the Black community. We’ll talk about the long history of systemic issues that led up to those moments. We’ll talk about the heartbreaking scenes on TV, when cities and towns across the country started to look like war zones.

Then, we’ll talk about people who responded by standing up and making a commitment to fight against racism. People like educators, activists and politicians … and, yes, athletes. People like their dad.

But their dad was not alone, not even close. Because other players and fans and leaders in hockey made the choice to push the movement forward – even when it wasn’t easy, even when it wasn’t in the news, even when it wasn’t something they had to do. They kept going.

Today and every day, let’s make sure the movement doesn’t stop.

Ryan Reaves is a Canadian-American hockey player for the New York Rangers. Entering his twelfth NHL season, he has previously played for the St. Louis Blues, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Vegas Golden Knights.