Breaking Barriers

Today, were Major League Baseball not in lockdown due to the global coronavirus pandemic, would have been Jackie Robinson Day. The annual celebration throughout professional baseball marks the day, in 1947, when Jackie Robinson first took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He became the first black man to play in the Majors in the 20th century and broke the color barrier in the sport.

Baseball was ahead of the curve in terms of civil rights in America, with Jackie, through Dodgers general manager, president and part-owner Branch Rickey, breaking the so-called “gentleman’s agreement” of racial segregation in baseball. Robinson was signed by Rickey in the 1945 offseason and played in 1946 with the minor league Montreal Royals. This came an almost full two decades before the Civil Rights movement sprung to the forefront of national consciousness in the early-1960’s.

On April 15, 1947, 73-years ago, Robinson stepped onto a major league field and forever changed the sport and society.

Today, Robinson is honored throughout MLB with his number 42 retired by every club. He was also elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

His influence on the sport is so great that the New York Yankees, a team he never played for (and who was frequently his opponent come World Series time in the ‘40s and ‘50s), have a plaque dedicated to him in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. Likewise, the New York Mets (whose Citi Field is modeled on the Dodgers’ Ebbets Field) named the main entrance to their stadium the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. It features a large “42” that fans can take photos in front of, as well as pictures and quotes from Jackie on the walls.

Jackie’s influence in baseball is widely felt and that got me to thinking of hockey and what is currently being done to open it to a wider and more diverse audience.

Willie O’Ree is known as the “Jackie Robinson of hockey” due to him being the first black man to play in the National Hockey League, suiting up for the Boston Bruins in 1958.

Hockey, being a mostly Canadian sport in the ‘50s and ‘60s – the days of only six teams in the league, faced a less daunting task when it came to integrating. But, as’s John McGourty wrote in 2015, O’Ree did face problems. McGourty quoted him as saying: “racist remarks were much worse in the US than in Toronto and Montreal. Fans would yell ‘go back to the South’ and ‘how come you’re not picking cotton?’ Things like that. It didn’t bother me. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn’t accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine.”

Today, O’Ree’s legacy is felt in the NHL. From seeing more diverse players playing the league, including PK Subban of the Devils, to the programs that help to get kids from different backgrounds to suit up and take the ice.

Subban is a shining example of how diversity helps the NHL. He does just as much off the ice as he does on it. He is a hard-working player who will give you his all every shift at the rink, a former Norris Trophy-winning defenseman. Away from the arena, he is extremely charismatic and uses that in a good way. He is always great with the fans and started the “Blueline Buddies” program to bring an inner-city kid and a police officer to a Devils game.

Subban started this program while in Nashville playing for the Predators. He has brought it with him to Newark. As he has pointed out, there exists some tension between the police and many young people in cities across the US. Subban does this as a way to bring the two communities together and bridge the gap, so to speak.

In a sense, PK Subban is breaking barriers just as Jackie Robinson and Willie O’Ree did, albeit in a slightly different way. He is breaking down the walls that exist between the law enforcement community and residents of some of Newark’s lower-income neighborhoods. He is trying to do his part as a professional athlete to lead his community.

There is nothing that says an athlete must be a role model, but it is fantastic to see someone as charismatic and outgoing as PK is to be a leader on and off the field of play.

Just as important is someone as low-key as Wayne Simmonds, a former Devil turned Buffalo Sabre. As any fan of the Flyers can tell you (Simmonds spent his prime in Philly), Simmonds is a true heart and soul guy who plays with grit and will end up endearing himself to a fanbase. He is tough, scrappy and has a scoring tough in front of the net.

Simmonds is a role model in a sense of how he plays the game as a great teammate and a tough opponent.

But just as much as players like Subban and Simmonds have been leaders in their communities and on the ice, fans have to lead in the stands.

There have been instances in recent years involving fans berating minority players, especially on social media. What comes to mind is the 2012 playoffs and Joel Ward of the Washington Capitals’ overtime goal to eliminate the Bruins in game seven of their first round series.

We, as fans, need to remember that the players on the ice are human beings first and foremost and treat them with the respect that they deserve. It is fine to debate them for their hockey skills, that is what we are here for, that is what the players are there for. But once you get into the realm of insulting a player based on his personal traits, you cross a line.

That is where the NHL’s Hockey is For Everyone initiative comes in. Through this, the NHL is trying to teach that anyone, regardless, of skin color, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity,

 disability or any other non-essential hockey quality, can play this game.

The NHL suspends and fines players for abusing other players or officials using racist language. We fans are on the honor system. No one is going to fine us some of our salaries should we use the n-word to describe a player or another fan on Twitter. All that happens is we look like idiots.

I realize that this has been a long-winded and rambling way to say “be nicer to each other out there,” but I wanted to pay tribute to Jackie Robinson in any way that I could. Tying it in to hockey and hockey fandom is the best way I knew how.

Stay safe and healthy everyone!

Somerset Patriots Host “Devils Night” and Devils Reveal Promotional Schedule

The Devils continued their tour of New Jersey minor league baseball parks tonight as the Somerset Patriots played host to “Devils Night” at TD Bank Ballpark in Bridgewater, New Jersey.

The Patriots, a member of the independent Atlantic League, played host to the Road Warriors, a team without a home who has played the entire 2018 season on the road. The Patriots won 2-0.

On hand was Devils mascot NJ Devil, who threw out a first pitch and participated in some mascot hijinks with Patriots mascots Sparkee, Slider and General Admission.

In addition to the NJ appearance, Devils historical highlights were shown on the video screen and a Devils table with information on tickets and giveaways was set up on the concourse. It was another successful way for the Devils to get their name into the community and help grow the fanbase.

And speaking of promotion, the Devils also today announced their promotional schedule for the 2018-19 season. Some of the highlights include: opening night at The Rock against the Washington Capitals which will feature “Now We Rise” bam-bams, a Fan Festival and the annual Red Carpet Arrival of the team. That game is on Thursday, October 11.

There will be a schedule magnet giveaway on Tuesday, October 16 against the Dallas Stars, as well as other giveaways like Taylor Hall Hart Trophy Poster Night (on Saturday, October 27 against the Florida Panthers) to honor the NHL’s reigning MVP, Martin Brodeur Hall of Fame Poster Night on Tuesday, November 13 against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Brian Boyle Masterton Trophy Poster Night on Monday, December 3 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Upper Deck hockey cards will be given away on Saturday, March 24 against the Arizona Coyotes.

Some theme nights include the second annual WWE Night on Thursday, October 18 against the Colorado Avalanche which will feature ticket packages, “in-arena theme videos and graphics,” a concourse WWE museum and “Superstar appearances.” Military Appreciation Night is on Saturday, November 17 against the Detroit Red Wings and will feature the Devils warming up in special camo jerseys as well as a military cap giveaway. Hockey Fights Cancer Night is on Friday, November 23 against the New York Islanders. Kids Day will take place on December 29 against the Carolina Hurricanes and will allow kids to take part in activities like making a PA announcement or sitting in the radio booth with play-by-play man Matt Loughlin.

A pair of retro nights will include 80s NIght on Thursday, January 10 versus the Toronto Maple Leafs. This will likely be one of the nights the Devils wear their “Heritage Jerseys” and will feature in-arena graphics and music. An 80s themed bobble will also be given away. Then, on Tuesday, February 18 against Pittsburgh, the Devils will present 90s Night. This will be similar to 80s Night in presentation and will also feature a special 90s themed bobble to be given away.

Firefighter Appreciation Night will take place on Saturday, January 12 against the Philadelphia Flyers as the Devils will honor New Jersey firefighters. Then, on Saturday, February 9, the Devils take on the Minnesota Wild on Law Enforcement Appreciation Night which will honor police officers across New Jersey communities.

For the first time, the Devils will “Go Red for Women” on Sunday, February 10 versus Carolina. This night, in conjunction with the American Heart Association and RWJBarnabas Health, will see fans don red to support awareness and help raise “funds for local initiatives which support heart health and the mission of Go Red for Women.”

On Sunday, February 17, the Devils take on the Buffalo Sabres and host a “NJ Hockey Celebration.” This is part of Hockey Weekend Across America and New Jersey youth hockey will be spotlighted throughout the night. Fans in attendance will also receive a pair of Devils socks.

The Devils will once again host Pride Night on Monday, February 25 when they host the Montreal Canadiens. This will be the third season the Devils will host this event, which will raise “awareness and funds for local LGBTQ initiatives.”

Finally, on Saturday, March 30, the Devils will host Fan Appreciation Night against the visiting St. Louis Blues. This is the final regular season Saturday home game and “the Devils will take their in-game promotions and giveaways to the next level to show their appreciation.”

Of course this is just the tip of the iceberg, as the Devils will likely be adding more to this schedule as they go along during the season. It is likely that we could be seeing another Ring of Honor inductee this year, as the team took a year off last season due to Patrik Elias’ jersey retirement, so be on the lookout for that. We will try to keep you updated if anything is added right here.