Schwartz: Already Champions Of Their Community, The Islanders Are Now Focused On Change

When the NHL joined much of the sports world in taking a pause to try and get a handle on social issues that are prevalent in the world, Stanley Cup Playoff games scheduled for this past Thursday and Friday were postponed.  For the Islanders, that meant a change in the schedule for their second round series against the Flyers.  After two days of reflection, listening and discussion in the Toronto bubble, they went back to work winning game three on Saturday night 3-1 and then beat the Flyers again on Sunday night 3-2 putting themselves within one win from a trip to Edmonton and the Eastern Conference Final.

The Islanders have their eyes on the Stanley Cup but they also have their sights set on a new chapter of their strong commitment to the community on Long Island.

What the pause also did was give the Islanders organization a chance to start thinking about how they are going to reach out to the community in the coming weeks and months to help bring change.  Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield is one Islanders player in particular that wants to be a part of the solution in terms of trying to change the problem that is systemic racism and inequality.

“It’s different times right now,” said Mayfield.  “It’s hard to put a finger on it.  There’s a bunch of issues out there.  As professional athletes we have a platform.  The biggest thing is we need to use it in the positive way.”

The eight remaining teams in the playoffs, both in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles, have had discussions within their own clubs and also with other players around the league.  There’s work that can be done by the NHL players while the post-season continues, but the real work will come once the season is over.  The pandemic and current social situations aside, the Islanders spend a great deal of time and effort throughout the year doing work in the community and it will be no surprise when the team comes up with ways to spread the message that inequality and systemic racism will not be tolerated.

And Mayfield is one Islanders player that has already been proactive in the efforts.

“For me, it’s about action,” said Mayfield.  “I’ve already reached out to our community relations director just about setting up things outside the rink what we can do start brainstorming ideas (like) going to minority communities.  The platform in hockey is probably the biggest thing and just hearing stories of young players who don’t feel safe and don’t feel included…that’s something that just needs to stop.  That just makes me sick because hockey is a place for everyone.”

Mayfield was referring to Islanders Director of Community Relations Ann Rina who, along with her team and the whole Islanders organization, does a great job in terms of community outreach including hospital and school visits, helping organizations with fundraising, and anything else that can help the Islanders make a difference in the Long Island community.  But while the Islanders are laser-focused right now on winning a championship, there is going to be a new objective for the franchise when their time in the bubble is over and the off-season begins.

And that is to do what they can to help erase the social issues that have been around for so many years and just won’t go away.

“We have this platform as professional athletes and hockey players to make our communities a better place,” said Islanders Captain Anders Lee whose organization “Jam Kancer In The Kan” raises money to help the fight against pediatric cancer by holding and promoting Kan Jam tournaments.

“All the guys in the league are coming together on something that we think has an opportunity to be better in the outside world.  Anytime you have an opportunity to do that, you have a good chance to…in the position that we’re in to do that.  You try to do the right thing.”

Lee, as well as all of the Islanders players, are constantly out in the community making appearances whether it’s to be a part of an assembly at schools or to brighten the day of a young patient in a hospital.  If there was a Stanley Cup awarded to teams that spend the most time in the community, the Islanders would be contenders for that hardware each and every year and there wouldn’t be enough space in the Nassau Coliseum rafters and even in the rafters of their future home UBS Arena for banners to show off those accomplishments.

Barry Trotz knows what it’s like to win the Stanley Cup having coached the Washington Capitals to Lord Stanley in 2018 and now he’s trying to do the same thing with the Islanders.  During his short time on Long Island, Trotz has seen just how special the connection is between the franchise and the community and it really hits home for him. He appreciates the fact that so many players are passionate about the charities they work closely with because Trotz has a cause that he is passionate about.

“Every person on our team has passion about something,” said Trotz, who won the 2018-19 Jack Adams Trophy as NHL Coach of the Year in his first season as Islanders Head Coach.  “I’m passionate about the special needs community because I have a special needs son so my passion is there and I always get support from the Islanders and our players.  I can guarantee you right now listening to some of the dialogue of the players they are all in on trying to be part of the solution, not only for the issues at hand, but other issues that are maybe not getting as much focus.  I think you’re looking at them trying to do the right thing at the right time in the right place.”

Islanders forward Matt Martin has been a big part of the Long Island community for a long time.  Martin has spent all but two of his NHL seasons with the Islanders and in 2015 he started the “Matt Martin Foundation”, an organization that raises money for various causes like NYPD Widows, the Association for Children with Down Syndrome and the Boomer Esiason Foundation for Cystic Fibrosis.

He’s all in on helping with the social issues, but there is still a lot of discussion that needs to take place to figure out how to do it.

“There’s really no playbook for this kind of thing,” said Martin.  “We’re learning and educating ourselves on the fly here and trying to do what’s right.  I think everybody in this bubble is for equality.  We want everybody to feel welcome not only in the game of hockey but in life and feel safe and comfortable in their environments.”

Understanding these issues is not an easy thing.

My wife Sheryl says all of the time that adults need to look at the world through the eyes of a child because they really don’t see the difference in people unless they’re seeing what some adults are doing and hearing what some adults are saying.  It’s also hard for people who are not part of the problem to understand what others are going through because they haven’t had those types of conversations.

The NHL, just like the world in general, is a melting pot of different cultures.

“You have to understand that people come from all over the world and have different views based on their own situations and the ability for someone to understand how someone feels that they’ve never gone through it,” said Trotz.

“It has to involve a deep understanding a conversation and acceptance of all that. I think that’s what you’ve seen in the whole group. That’s what makes this very important moment in time is carried through not only in this moment but carried forward.  Every generation has had their sort of moments from the World Wars, depressions all those things.  And some of them still apply.  One of them is inequality but the next generation…our generation are going to be tested for sure. We have to make the most of it and make sure that we’re helping our children get to the place where they’re in a better place than where we are right now.”

There have been no fans in the arenas during the return to play in both Edmonton and Toronto, but hopefully that will change when the 2020-21 season is expected to begin in December.  Perhaps by that point, the pandemic will have subsided to the point where there can be mass gatherings in arenas and particularly at the Nassau Coliseum where the Islanders will play one final season before moving to their new home at Belmont Park.

When the fans do return to games, you’ll see plenty of kids wearing the jerseys of their favorite Islanders players and hopefully there will be new fans, of all ages, at the games that may have been hesitant to be a part of the hockey world because of the social injustice that is going on right now.  That’s not the message that the NHL and its players want to be associated with their sport or even as part of life in general.

“Young kids…they look up to us and I think we can set a great example of unity and coming together and inclusion,” said Lee.  “It was a great couple of days (last week) for all of us to have conversations.  I don’t think we have them enough.  It’s a good starting point.”

I think the greatest thing about the Islanders logo is that it includes the map of Long Island on it.  That very aspect of the logo has connected the franchise with the community since the team’s inception in 1972.  As the Islanders continue their quest for the fifth Stanley Cup in franchise history, they are now faced with another challenge and that is to not only continue to embrace their community and to help the community in any way that they can, but to also take on the challenge of helping forge change in society in terms of systemic racism and inequality.

This franchise has a great track record…make that a championship resume of putting smiles on child’s faces, helping out those who are in need, and just lending a helping hand.  I wish there weren’t social issues for them to help fix, but I have no doubt that they will do their part in helping the cause.

About the Author

Peter Schwartz

Peter Schwartz is a contributor covering the Islanders for NY Sports Day while also writing about general sports in the New York/New Jersey area. In addition to his column, Peter also hosts his “Schwartz On Sports” podcast as he interviews players, coaches, and other sports personalities. He is also currently a sports anchor for WFAN Radio, CBS Sports Radio, and WCBS 880 radio while also serving as the public address announcer for the New York Cosmos soccer club.

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