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Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler urges change to improve human rights in U.S.

Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler says he never envisioned his hometown of Minneapolis-St. Paul would serve as the spark for U.S.-wide protests against police killings of African-Americans.

Minneapolis native denounces violence but expresses pride in response to George Floyd killing in his hometown

Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler told reporters he wishes he spoke out earlier about human rights in America. Wheeler spoke to reporters via Zoom on Tuesday. (Zoom chat screen capture)

Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler says he never envisioned his hometown of Minneapolis-St. Paul would serve as the spark for U.S.-wide protests against police killings of African-Americans.

During a 40-minute conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Wheeler urged his fellow citizens to vote for candidates who will improve human rights in the U.S. and said the violence sweeping America obscures the positive conversations taking place across the country about the need for change.

"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," Wheeler said, speaking via Zoom from south Florida, where he is living with his family and training in preparation for the possible resumption of National Hockey League play.

"If you watch the news and you see, you know, 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."

"Unfortunately, that's not the case with everyone. Unfortunately, there are people that are taking advantage of those situations and doing some destruction to people who have worked a long time to establish small businesses — and so that's been really heartbreaking."

WATCH | Jets Blake Wheeler spoke about the death of George Floyd in his hometown:

During a 40-minute conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler spoke about the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. 39:52

Wheeler addressed reporters three days after he issued a statement decrying the the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, who died after he was held down by police officers, one of whom had his knee pressed against Floyd's neck.

"Growing up outside Minneapolis, I always felt sheltered from racism. That's because I was," Wheeler wrote in an image posted to Twitter on Saturday night.

"Most people I grew up with looked like me. I never had to be scared when I stopped at a traffic light or saw the police in public. My kids will never know that fear either.

"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."

On Tuesday, Wheeler expressed regret he didn't speak out sooner — and suggested other white athletes should do the same.

"We have to be as involved in this as black athletes. It can't just be their fight," he said, referring to former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick's kneeling gesture during the singing of the U.S. national anthem in 2016.

"I wanna be real clear here: 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 to get behind it in a meaningful way."

"But I guess what you can do is try to be better going forward. That's kind of been my position is I want to be a part of the change going forward."

Wheeler did in fact speak out in 2016. He chastised U.S. President Donald Trump for disrespecting Kaepernick's right to express himself.

On Tuesday, Wheeler suggested Trump is exacerbating violence in the U.S. right now.

"What happened last night in Washington with the president was unfortunate and kind of just pours gas on the fire a little bit," he said, referring to Trump's use of police to forcibly remove protesters near a church in order to stage a photo op with a bible.

"I don't think anyone's condoning rioting and looting and destroying businesses and that behaviour. On the flip side of that, the whole issue that started this is police violence."

Tough to explain to a 7 year old

Wheeler said it was hard for him to explain Floyd's death to his children.

"They watched George Floyd die on TV. So that's been really challenging," he said, adding it was particularly difficult to convey to his seven-year-old.

"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."

Wheeler said it was difficult for him to speak out because the culture of hockey does not condone individualism. 

Athletes, he said, have a platform they must use to promote positive change.

"I strongly feel that this has nothing to do with politics," he said.

"You can vote for whoever you want. You can have your opinions about policy and Republicans, Democrats, all that. But I mean, these are human rights, fundamentally. 

"If you're American, you need to be very educated and vote, not just for the national election, not just for the president, but in your local votes — you know, state, city, county — all these ways that we can try to change the system and put the right people in power so that these things aren't happening any more."

Wheeler was not the only Winnipeg NHLer speaking out. Chicago Blackhawks forward Jonathan Toews posted a statement on Instagram stating the need to acknowledge both the African-American struggle and the human rights conditions for Indigenous people in Canada.

"I can't pretend for a second that I know what it feels like to walk in a black man's shoes. However, seeing the video of George Floyd's death and the violent reaction across the country moved me to tears," Toews said.

"It has pushed me to think, how much pain are black people and other minorities really feeling? What have Native American people dealt with in both Canada and U.S.? What is it really like to grow up in their world? Where am I ignorant about the privileges that I may have that others don't?"

After Wheeler spoke to media, the Winnipeg Jets issued a statement denouncing racism.

Wheeler also spoke about the potential for the NHL's return and the difficulties it may cause players who are parents. He also called those concerns insignificant at the moment.

Minneapolis native denounces violence but expresses pride in response to George Floyd killing in his hometown. 2:05

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.

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