Before No. 1-ranked North Dakota's 2-0 win over Miami (Ohio) on Wednesday, history was made.
Two UND players —Jasper Weatherby and Jacob Bernard-Docker — followed through with their plan to kneel during the playing of the national anthem as a means of protesting racial injustice.
Per a lengthy story in the Grand Forks Herald, they are believed to be the first Division I men's college hockey players to kneel during the anthem.
"I think change is uncomfortable for a lot of people," Weatherby told the Herald before the game. "If this (demonstration) is uncomfortable for you, it's a great opportunity to educate yourself and look inside and ask yourself, 'Why does that upset me?' and 'Why is someone from my hometown doing this?' We hope the hockey community knows that we stand with people of color and we are not OK with the way people are being treated in this country."
In the midst of a year that has seen a remarkable rise in athletes speaking out against racial injustice and matching their words with actions, the words and deeds of these two North Dakota hockey players strikes me as particularly notable for a few reasons.
*In addition to the historical college hockey element noted in the story, there is a sense that in general hockey — far less racially diverse than sports like basketball, football or even baseball — has lagged behind its peer sports when it comes to addressing these issues.
The Wild's Matt Dumba became the first NHL player to kneel during the anthem in August when the league resumed play. Dumba, who is Filipino-Canadian, has become a large presence and in some ways the face of the NHL's social justice movement.
Both UND players are white — the types of allies needed to advance social justice reform. Weatherby in particular has a fascinating back story that has made him an outspoken advocate for reform.
"At the end of the day, we want UND to be a safe place," Weatherby said. "As athletes who do have a platform, we stand with our brothers and sisters of color."
*This comes at a time when it feels — at least to me — like the momentum of social justice activism among athletes that was building for a lot of the summer and into the fall is starting to fade. The increasing impact of the pandemic has occupied a lot of the off-field stories on the NFL and other major college sports. The NBA, which was front-and-center with social justice messaging on its courts during its bubbled return to play earlier this year, will not have "Black Lives Matter" on courts when the 2020-21 season starts in a few weeks.
In general, pandemic news and the fallout from last month's election have dominated news cycles. It's convenient to lapse back into old habits and avoid the uncomfortable changes Weatherby referenced. But that's not the path forward to progress.
*As the article notes, UND has not been immune to racial problems. As a Grand Forks native myself, having lived all but one of my first 18 years there, I saw plenty of the problems of my hometown and its major university close up.
But I also saw and participated in a lot of activism growing up as well, so I don't want to lapse into the narrative that small- and medium-sized communities are the only places that lag behind on social justice issues.
That said: The significance of two players kneeling during the anthem for a school that for decades refused to change its racist nickname and in an arena named for a man who hosted parties celebrating Adolf Hitler's birthday, should not be overlooked.
Nor should we overlook that the two players have attended protests and spearheaded other initiatives — such as hosting a movie night for teammates to watch a documentary on the killing of George Floyd.
"For me and Jasper, it was an opportunity to educate our team," Bernard-Docker said of the movie night. "We're trying to learn more every day as well. We're not perfect. We still have a ton to learn. With our team being mostly white males, we've never had to deal with racial injustices. Just to open some of our guys' eyes and show them the history of the past hundreds of years in America, and around the world, how minorities have been treated is important. It makes you realize how well we have it."