Jonathan Toews: Anthem controversy has clouded the protest’s meaning

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A general view of the United Center during the national anthem before the Blackhawks take on the St. Louis Blues during the season-opener last October. (Getty Images)

Jonathan Toews is tired of the endless discussion of who’s kneeling, who might kneel and who has kneeled during the national anthem. Not because he’s offended by the protest, but because the debate has become only about the controversy, not the content.

“The conversation has to get past this whole anthem thing and get to where it needs to go — if there’s actually a difference being made in the end, and what changes are actually taking place,” Toews told the Sun-Times. “That’s what I’m more interested in, rather than constantly hearing people talk about, ‘Oh, is he standing or is he sitting?’ The point’s been made a long time ago. Let’s move on to actually doing something that makes a difference.”

Toews, of course, is Canadian. Americans make up only about a quarter of NHL players, and the league is overwhelmingly white. So Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality and racial injustice hasn’t resonated nearly as deeply in the hockey community as it has in other sports. Further clouding the discussion is the hockey culture, which strongly discourages players from standing out and speaking out as individuals.

But Toews is a rare exception in the hockey world, as he has been vocal about his personal passions, including combatting climate change. He’s disappointed that the original message about Kaepernick’s protests — and those that followed — has been all but lost in the controversy over the acts of protest themselves, fueled by President Donald Trump’s comments at an Alabama rally last week and his ensuing tweets on the topic.

“A lot of the guys starting this whole conversation are probably from these areas that are central to the issue that’s being talked about to begin with,” Toews said. “I feel there’s no doubt that there are some major issues that need to be talked about and dealt with. I just feel like the whole anthem thing has taken on a life of its own. Now it’s become the focal point.”

San Jose Sharks forward Joel Ward, a black Canadian, reportedly was considering kneeling during the anthem. But in a thoughtful and lengthy Twitter post Thursday, Ward said he would stand, expressing similar feelings as Toews.

“As a black man, I have experienced racism both inside and outside of the sporting world,” he wrote. “I have been pulled over by law enforcement for no reason. I have been looked at suspiciously because of the color my skin. I hold an immense amount of respect for the many players — across the sporting world — that have chosen to peacefully bring attention to a couple of big issues in today’s society, which are inequality and the use of excessive force against people of color in the United States of America. Make no mistake that racism exists and that people of color are treated differently on a day-to-day basis.

“I also feel that the original message that was trying to be communicated has been lost. The focus has shifted to the act of the kneeling itself, or to a protest of the flag or the military. What are we really talking about here?”

On the day more than 200 NFL players kneeled during the anthem, and the Golden State Warriors were “disinvited” from the White House by Trump, the Pittsburgh Penguins announced they would go to the White House to celebrate their second straight Stanley Cup, kicking up even more debate.

Toews, like Ward and many others, hope that the focus can shift back to the very real problems that prompted Kaepernick to kneel by himself in the first place.

“I’m sure a lot of players are doing some great work off the field at making that situation better, and educating young kids,” Toews said. “But at the end of the day as players, we all respect the flag, and respect the country, whether it’s Canada or the United States. We respect those who fought for everything we have here. We need to get back to the real conversation and start trying to make a difference.”

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@MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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