The NHL is political, whether you like it or notsports Sporting News — firstname.lastname@example.org (Patrick Kearns)
In the immediate aftermath of raising his fist, Lightning forward J.T. Brown received death threats.
Brown, in the eyes of some hockey fans, had broken the cardinal rule of combining sports and the vague concept of politics. For, in the NHL, the best player is a quiet player who keeps his head down, goes to the rink and doesn’t use his platform for anything other than league-sanctioned causes.
The Twitter responses to Brown’s gesture were predictably split.
“Looking at your Stats I would worry more about hockey !! Do your Bull Sh— on your on time not on my Dime,” said a user whose bio proudly referred to themselves as “deplorable."
“Focus on hockey ... good god,” another wrote.
The frenzy around Brown — and Sharks forward Joel Ward for deciding not to kneel — was massive. A bevy of stories were written by just about every major publication.
By and large, the response was in support of Brown, one of the rare players of color in the NHL, using his status as a public figure to draw attention to issues of racial injustice, violence against people of color and police brutality.
Brown’s protest had an immediate positive impact. It opened a dialogue between Brown and the Tampa Bay Police Department, allowing him the opportunity to work with local youth charities. Brown has even gone on ride-alongs with the department's officers.
Throughout the protest, Brown had the support of this teammates, coaches and even owner Jeff Vinik, a prominent Republican fundraiser. Vinik’s unwavering public support, by Brown’s admission, shows that it’s possible the issue doesn’t need to be partisan.
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“I am now using this support, opportunity and platform to call out everyone who agreed or disagreed with me to help by sharing suggestions, continuing respectful conversations and looking for ways they too can help make a difference in their community,” Brown said in a statement when he ended the protest early in the season.
Public fan forums, for the most part, appeared to avoid Brown’s protest entirely. Out of sight, out of mind. There’s not a single post about it on the Tampa Bay Lightning Fans page — which has nearly 15,000 likes — just a smattering of pro-anthem posts that don’t mention the NHL at all. A thread about the protest was locked immediately on HF Boards, one of the most prominent hockey message boards. Comments on posts regarding Brown’s raised fist were closed on fan-run team sites at SB Nation and Fansided.
Brown’s not the only player to wade into controversial political waters this season, but he’s the only one who received serious vitriol for it.
Last month, Alex Ovechkin, a generational Russian superstar, announced his support for the reelection of Vladimir Putin by attempting to start a social movement.
“I’m certain that there are many of us that support Vladimir Putin,” Ovechkin wrote in a Nov. 2 Instagram post, translated by the Washington Post. “Let’s unite and show everyone a strong and united Russia."
Ovechkin's Instagram account features a photo of him embracing the Russian president as his avatar.
"Today, I want to announce a social movement in the name of Putin Team," the post continued. "Be a part of this team — to me it’s a privilege, it’s like the feeling of when you put on the jersey of the Russian team, knowing that the whole country is rooting for you.”
The announcement was met with little noise at first, but in recent weeks, there’s been a growing fervor. The Washington Post has covered it extensively, and numerous other outlets have talked about it. But for the most part, fans don’t seem to care.
The Russian political landscape is a lot for any average hockey fan — or even American political journalist — to comprehend, understandably. But just compare the response to Brown’s well-reasoned, respectful protest.
A world report from the organization Human Rights Watch details Russia under President Putin as a country that “implements discriminatory policies and laws against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people,” and has restrictive laws against free speech. Russia is also accused by the United States Central Intelligence Agency of interfering in the U.S. presidential election last year.
What’s important to note is the notion that Ovechkin’s pro-Kremlin campaign is specifically aimed at winning the support of Americans, according to Slava Malamud, a Russian writer living in America and working as a foreign correspondent at Sport-Express.
It’s not Ovechkin’s first foray into the Russian political scene, either. He expressed explicit support for Putin’s war in the Ukraine in 2014, allegedly calling the Ukrainian government fascists. Nobody cared.
Evgeni Malkin, another Russian hockey superstar, joined Ovechkin this month on #TeamPutin. Neither have publicly expressed they’ve received death threats. There’s not a single comment related to the Ovechkin-Putin relationship on the most popular Capitals fan page on Facebook. HF Boards has scrubbed any mention of the athletes’ support. On the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's story about Malkin, there are a handful of “who cares” and “anti-Hillary” comments, and that’s it.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has asked players to remain apolitical at the rink, but there’s been no public censuring of Ovechkin, likely because his comments weren’t made on league time. Maybe if he wore a Putin sticker on his helmet it would draw a response.
But that gets to the hypocrisy of players not using their platform for political or social change, when the same double standard is not applied to NHL owners and teams.
In their effort to secure public funding for a new arena, the Flames not-so-quietly supported Bill Smith’s run for mayor, which he ultimately lost. Bettman even blamed the re-election of Naheed Nenshi as the reason the Flames won’t receive a new arena.
In Chicago, the Blackhawks are using their official Twitter feed to blast politicians debating a concert amusement tax.
Where’s the condemnation?
NHL owners, all millionaires or billionaires, are also routinely giving money to political campaigns. Rangers owner and chairman of the Madison Square Garden Company James Dolan donated $100,000 to a committee called “Long Islanders for Truth,” which donated $130,000 money to the “House Majority PAC,” which raises money for Republican congressional candidates. He also gave $300,000 to President Donald Trump’s campaign, according to the New York Daily News.
According to FEC filings, the aforementioned Vinik has donated more than $170,000 to Republican candidates over the years. Craig Leipold, the owner of the Wild and former owner of the Predators, has given $200,000 to Republican candidates over the years. Bruins owners Jeremy Jacobs has given to both Republicans and Democrats over the past decade. Flyers owner Brian Roberts has given to dozens of Democratic campaigns over the years. Capitals owner Ted Leonsis gave money to Republican candidates in the past, but has changed to supporting mostly Democrats over the past few years.
Even Bettman himself, while acting as the commissioner of the NHL, has given thousands to the campaign of New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker.
Bill Foley, owner of the Vegas Golden Knights, has said any player who protests during the national anthem wouldn’t be allowed to play for his team, according to Chris Maathuis, sports director of KLAS-TV, a CBS-affiliate in Las Vegas. Foley also donated to the campaigns of Republican senators Pat Toomey and Roy Blunt and senate hopeful Danny Tarkanian last year. Where’s the fan outrage over giving money to owners who, in turn, channel it to donations that support their own political interests?
Each time you buy a T-shirt or a ticket, you could help re-elect a politician with whom you have diametrically opposing views. That’s much more explicit than raising a fist for a social cause.