On Tuesday, Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler held a 45-minute virtual media availability with upwards of 30 members of the local press, weighing in on the drastic violence and racial tension in and around his hometown in Minnesota.
Although currently situated in his summer home in Florida, the 33-year-old has kept a close eye on news and stories coming to him from friends and family back home. Alongside his wife Sam, Wheeler chose to share some of those stories, images and videos with his children, as troubling as they may have been.
“They watched George Floyd die on TV, so that’s been really challenging,” Wheeler said of watching the graphic video with his eldest son Louie this past weekend. “He’s asking ‘why won’t he get off his neck?’ And to have to explain that to him, that the police – that he feels are out there to protect us and look out for us – that that’s not always the case… that’s a hard conversation to have.”
Although able to show their children some of the scenes back home, Blake and Sam do wish they could be in Minneapolis, providing their children with a first-hand look at the current state of affairs.
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“It’s too bad that we’re not in Minneapolis,” Wheeler said. “And clearly, during a pandemic too, our first responsibility is the safety of our kids. But we would’ve loved to take our family out to the protests to show them how powerful it can be and really what a beautiful thing it was, all the people coming together in our hometown. We talked about it a lot and showed them as much as we can to just try to continue that education and try to show them and really have it be imprinted in their mind that this is what it should look like.”
For Wheeler, the past week has been a long period of reflection. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound playmaker has had experience playing alongside teammates of colour in Dustin Byfuglien and Evander Kane, however, he does admit that he has not been as active in speaking out on injustice as he claims he should have been.
“I want to be real clear here,” he said. “I look in the mirror about this before I look out at everyone else. I wish that I was more involved sooner than I was. I wish that it didn’t take me this long to get behind it in a meaningful way. But I guess what you can do is try to be better going forward. I want to be part of the change going forward. Whether that resonates with everyone, whether that spreads with everyone… I’m only one person, but I do have a small platform to try to promote this and promote change.”
When asked about what he and others can do, he responded candidly that those in positions of authority and those carrying large followings need to speak up.
“As pro athletes, we have a platform,” Wheeler said. “I think that in and of itself is a big step to put yourself out there and talk about it. It’s not an easy thing to do; I think it’s something that over time we need to be more comfortable doing, but we need to be okay voicing our opinion on this…You read about it and you hear about it and you know it’s injustice and you know how horrible it is, but then once you see it, it puts it in a new light. We’re not preparing for a game tomorrow, our minds don’t go elsewhere right now. We’re able to really digest this. You can’t be silent anymore.”
Despite all the negatives surrounding the situation, Wheeler continues to show his support while giving his approval of the work of many of those involved in and around Minneapolis.
“If you watch the news you see tons of peaceful protests and people clearly upset, clearly sick and tired of the same conversation, but doing it in a way that is promoting real change,” Wheeler reflected. “For the most part, I’d say I’m proud of my hometown for the response and for the people standing up and not tolerating this anymore. Helping each other clean up the mess that was made by the unfortunate people that took advantage of the situation.”
Following his conversation with the media, Wheeler logged into another online video forum with TSN’s Rick Westhead alongside a host of fellow NHL stars with ties to state of Minnesota. The crew consisting of J.T. Brown, Mat Dumba and Kurtis Gabriel spoke on various experiences of racism in sport, with occurrences dating back to childhood.
Later in the day, Wheeler posted a plain black image to his Instagram account, along with the following message indicating various local organizations working to combat racism:
“Sam and I have been using this time to educate ourselves and our kids. We’ve been reading, watching, and listening. There are a ton of great organizations out there that could use our help right now. Here are a few that my family has supported over the past week:
The Official George Floyd Memorial Fund through Go Fund Me, Neighbors United Funding Collaborative through Give Minnesota which helps the cleanup and rebuild of the Hamline Midway Neighborhood in Minneapolis, American Civil Liberties Union, Minnesota Freedom Fund and Lake Street which helps in the rebuild and cleanup of Lake St in Minneapolis.
On Friday, Wheeler retweeted 2020 1st overall NFL draft pick Joey Burrow’s tweet: “The black community needs our help. They have been unheard for far too long. Open your ears, listen, and speak. This isn’t politics. This is human rights.” with his own attached message.
Wheeler wrote: “I’ve been trying to find these words for days. This hits the nail on the head.”
The next day, Winnipeg’s captain penned his own public message from the heart following the death of George Floyd. Wheeler wrote grave concern for his native America, while advocating for immediate change.
“I’ve wanted to say something for a while, but it’s been really difficult knowing what to say,” his post read. “My hometown is burning. Businesses where I grew up are being boarded up… I’m heartbroken that we still treat people this way. We need to stand with the black community and fundamentally change how the leadership in this country has dealt with racism. I’m sorry it has taken this long, but I’m hopeful that we can change this NOW.”