The stunning image told its own story.
Stretched across the breadth of their blue line, a solid line of University of North Dakota players in white and green uniforms stood as one for the pre-game U.S. national anthem, except for two: kneeling side by side were Ottawa Senators prospect Jacob Bernard-Docker and forward Jasper Weatherby, each wearing an ‘A’ on his sweater as an alternate captain.
Their faces — solemn, resolute, belying pre-game nerves — wore a look of respect but also determination, having already stated publicly prior to this Dec. 2 season-opening game against Miami of Ohio that they were taking a knee in solidarity with the fight for racial justice.
“We wanted to make a statement that first game,” Bernard-Docker said over the phone from inside the UND hockey bubble in Omaha, Neb., where the Fighting Hawks are playing 10 games in a span of 19 days. JBD, as he is known, was a first-round draft pick of the Senators, 26th overall, in 2018. He is 20, and — like Weatherby — a UND junior.
Neither player meant any disrespect to the flag or anthem.
“I had two grandpas who fought in the World Wars,” said Bernard-Docker, who grew up in Canmore, Alta, and represented Canada at the world juniors. “I have so much respect for people who served, people that fought for the rights of Americans and Canadians to express their right to peaceful protest.
“That’s what me and Jasper are trying to do. Just bring light to an issue that is all over society.”
“We want to spark conversations,” added Weatherby, 22, who hails from Ashland, Ore., and whose family has a rich history of civil rights activism, “and show people that we’re not OK with the way minorities are treated in this country and around the world. We stand — and kneel — in support of them.”
Not surprisingly, in a deeply divided United States, reaction on social media has been mixed to the UND players taking a knee — which has been a rarity in hockey, especially at the college level. Bernard-Docker and Weatherby are believed to be the first Div. I men’s hockey players to kneel during an anthem, a gesture started by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016 in protest of racial inequality.
But Bernard-Docker and Weatherby say they have received more positive messages than negative, and have tried to avoid the rabbit hole of online commentary.
“Social media has been pretty hot, but we haven’t tried to delve into that too much,” Weatherby said. “There’s been both sides, but I received a message from a Black hockey player who said: ‘Thank you for what you’re doing. As a Black player in hockey, sometimes I don’t feel as included as I should, and for you guys to make a statement like that means the world to me.’
“That’s all I needed to hear,” Weatherby continued. “If I can change one person’s view on hockey or try to help someone there, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Bernard-Docker and Weatherby, roommates and close friends, are both members of the UND Student-Athlete Inclusion and Diversity Group. In June, they attended a Black Lives Matter march in Grand Forks, N.D., in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Weatherby made a cardboard sign to bring to the rally that read: “I don’t want to walk around without fear until everyone can. #BLM”.
Before the Fighting Hawks left Grand Forks for their three-week stay in Omaha for this pod of games, the pair called a team meeting to discuss their proposed action in the first game. Though no other teammates chose to join in the demonstration, Bernard-Docker said the discussion was generally productive.
“Obviously there are a lot of different beliefs in a hockey locker room,” Bernard-Docker said. “We’ve been raised differently, have different backgrounds, but everyone was really respectful of the different opinions. Jasper and I chose to kneel, and the guys were super good about it.
“We’re the same with them — we respect their right to stand, their decision. It was a healthy conversation.”
Weatherby comes by his civil rights activism naturally, as he explained to Grand Forks Herald reporter Brad Elliott Schlossman in September.
Weatherby’s grandfather, Ralph Temple, fled Nazi persecution in Europe at age seven and grew up to be a civil rights lawyer in America, working alongside the likes of Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr.
Temple’s wife (and Weatherby’s grandmother), Ann Macrory, was a lawyer who championed civil rights and took part in the celebrated Selma to Montgomery freedom march. Macrory was among the crowd in the National Mall on the day King delivered his “I have a dream” speech.
Weatherby’s mother, Lucinda, took up the cause in Washington, D.C., protesting at the South African embassy against apartheid.
And if Weatherby himself needed any reminders of what it was like growing up Black in America, he could turn to his adopted brother, Kevin, who came to the U.S. from Costa Rica at eight years old. The family eventually determined that Kevin was descended from an African slave who was transported to Jamaica.
When he was younger, Jasper didn’t think much about the fact his brother was Black. Together they laughed, rough-housed — the usual sibling stuff. Over time, Jasper came to appreciate their very different life experiences.
“I learned through him some of the things he had to go through. I had to educate myself. It opened my eyes,” Weatherby said from the Omaha bubble.
Growing up white in Canmore, Bernard-Docker was even further removed from racial discussions, but he, too, has had his eyes opened. Partly through Weatherby.
“As a white male, I’ve never been racially discriminated against,” Bernard-Docker said. “But I think our message is, although we may not understand how racial minorities feel exactly … we’re acknowledging that there is a problem that needs to be fixed.”
When Weatherby first started speaking out for the cause, he was deeply moved by a note he received from a woman on campus, a member of a minority group who didn’t feel included in campus activities. Until she attended a Fighting Hawks game as a junior student.
“It didn’t matter what colour I was or where I was from,” the young woman told Weatherby. “Or if my language was different. We were all cheering for the same team and we were one cohesive unit in the stands.”
“I thought that was awesome,” Weatherby said. “As a society we should grab that and say, ‘This is what sports should be about.’”
Both players believe the game can be more inclusive, and that it owns a unique place in sport because it is so special.
“This game of hockey is unbelievable,” Weatherby added. “We have the opportunity to bring people together. And for me hearing just yesterday that a Black player wasn’t as comfortable in the locker room as he could be — shows me there is room for growth.
“And with growth comes people feeling more included and more people experiencing the game we love so much.”