Editor’s Note: NHL players spoke out against racism and social injustice after the death of George Floyd, a black man, while in custody in Minneapolis on May 25, three years ago. raised his fist during the anthem to draw attention to the same issues. During calls for social justice and the fight against racism that were central to the NHL’s return to the Game, Brown wrote a special piece for the League about his decision to raise his fist:
On October 7, 2017, I had a choice. I could shut up and play hockey, or I could do something so loud that the whole hockey community could hear me. Nothing will ever be achieved if we all keep our heads down and close our mouths. Yes, during the national anthem in Sunrise, Florida, I raised my fist to protest police brutality and racism. The same fist that raised the arenas to my feet when I exchanged blows with overwhelming opponents. The same fist that broke from blocking a shot during the Stanley Cup playoffs. The same fist that gave countless daps to black and Latin American children in the community, teaching them to play hockey. I always sacrificed for my team, for the fans, for my community. In 2017, I had the opportunity to donate something more than hockey, and I knew I needed to do it.
Although everyone was focused on taking the team out of camp or preparing for the start of the season, I was asked by the media if I was going to protest during the national anthem. I already felt the pressure that comes with a contract year, and now I had to decide if I was ready to do something uncomfortable and uncharacteristic of my sport. I’m a guy in the state who has enough grain to stay around the fourth line. I knew I was replaced. I knew that testing could make it harder to get another contract next season. My family and I were ready for this to end our NHL career. I decided that I was as comfortable as I was uncomfortable.
Hockey is played mainly by wealthy white males and conformity to the mental team, which is born from a young age. Throughout my professional career, I was one of the top 30 Black Hockey players in the League. For most of my hockey career, I was the only black or color on my team. It’s an experience that can make you feel like the guy who put the marker. An experience that makes you confident in your blackness calls into question whether you are too black or too white. Understanding where and how you can be lonely, and it fundamentally shapes you as a person. To be honest, most of the time we are all just teammates. We joke, we play video games, we play cards and we bet on a football game. Then there are times when I’m the only player who asks the security arena for my credentials when I’m just trying to get to my locker room. Or when the hotel security guards ask me to leave the hockey players alone and leave the hotel lobby while I just wait with my teammates for our bus. Let’s not forget the classic line that every Black hockey player knows all too well, “go play basketball,” which I heard while playing hockey at the highest level from an opponent. I’ve worked hard all my life to prove that I belong in the NHL, and when I did, I was still reminded that I was a black man who played white.
Before raising my fist during the anthem, I spoke with the team owner, general manager, coach, and teammates. I told them that I intended to raise my fist in solidarity during the national anthem as a symbolic protest against police brutality and racism. They could be invited and talk to me if they wanted to better understand my intentions. When I talked to my coach about my plans to protest, I told him about the time when I shot a gun in the head. I usually tell a story about when I was called an n-word during a youth hockey game, and my coach said that our team would leave the game if he didn’t kick out the kid who said that. The essay would not drive the child away, so my teammates and coach all stood with me when we left the game. These are stories that people like to listen to because they offer solutions and a sense of community. I don’t usually talk about it when I was at a home party in high school, and some kids from school pulled out a gun and aimed it at my head when they called me Russian. People don’t like these stories because they reveal truths they want to ignore. These are the things that shaped me as a man. That’s what caused me to throw my fist in the air.
Video: Predators and stars stand hand in hand for anthems
My dad and I talked at length about how this decision could affect my career, my family, and my life. I turned to him for advice because of his unique experience as not only a former National Football League running back, but also his career after football as a Ramsey County probation officer and juvenile correctional officer. I always went to my dad for life and career advice. As long as he was afraid of me and the consequences I faced, he knew I needed to do it, and he fully supported me.
I decided to raise my fist after a long heart with a friend who is a retired US Air Force sergeant major (E-7) who served during Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. We talked about how I should protest, but I also wanted to remember those who serve and have served our country. Given the logistics of where we stand during the anthem, I would not be able to get on my knees. I felt that a raised fist best represented my intentions, as it symbolized solidarity, support, strength, and even resistance.
My first protest was during a pre-season game of hockey and went unnoticed. However, on October 7, 2017, I was back in the regular game. This protest went viral almost immediately. In the weeks following the game, I had a face-to-face meeting with management and then a meeting at the team owner’s home. They both wanted to know what I needed and how they could help me achieve what I was trying to do. It was a difficult question because I did not know how to solve racism in America, and I still do not know. Even before I protested, I knew I might not be able to make a national impact, but I hoped it would make a positive impact in Tampa.
My team was able to support my initiatives and resources, provided I was able to implement changes that I thought could benefit my community. The action plan included two things. The first worked with the Tampan Police Department. I developed a relationship with the police chief, I rode bicycles, and some of my teammates and I even trained in the police. The second, which unfortunately never succeeded because I found myself in a game in Anaheim, was a program that would bring the police and children together from the community to watch lightning games. For these actions, I received a lot from the Black community. I realized how problematic it was to integrate myself into a situation where the narrative shifted from police brutality to using my actions for something that some saw as pro-police rhetoric. As Black athletes, this year we automatically put ourselves in a unique position. We were the only athletes who kept asking if we would protest. It also put us all in a difficult place. We were forced to choose the side. Am I Black or am I a hockey player? We were all fascinated if we did, and detained if we didn’t.
Video: Penguins, postcards unite for social justice
I asked my wife to stay out of social media before this pre-season game. I knew it would be ugly. I want to make sure that I also mentioned all the incredible support and love I received after the protest. Unfortunately, not everyone understood. I received death threats; people told me they hoped I had an injury that was over; people even called my baby daughter a Russian word. To this day, when I speak out against racism, someone on their Twitter mentions that they want to hang me or calls me a Russian word. The backlash strengthened my belief that I had done the right thing. I know the hockey community, and specifically, the Black community heard me acknowledge their pain and realized that I had taken an oath to play this game to always fight for equality.
Before I raised my fist, I never considered myself an activist. I’ve always focused on being a professional hockey player and figuring out how I could stay in the NHL. That changed in June 2017, when a Falcon Heights, Minnesota police officer who killed Filando Castilla in 2016 was acquitted of murder in court. Castilians were shot dead while sitting in their car in front of a girl and her 4-year-old daughter. A viral video of a girl soothing her mother by handcuffing them both in the back of a police car tore me apart. By this time, my daughter Lily had been born, and I realized that I had a responsibility to fight for a better future for her and other black children.
A quick transition to 2020, when Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. For the first time, I saw a look at the League, which consists of mostly wealthy white males who oppose problems that were once ignored. It promises to see progress in the NHL. The urgency of social change does not cease when the roar of protests fades and disappears from our time frame. So, whether you use your hands to donate, volunteer, hold signs during a protest march, vote online, or raise your fist in solidarity, we are all responsible for the fight for equality. History cannot continue to repeat itself.