Manitoba

'Just felt right to take a stance': Blake Wheeler wades into U.S. political debate

The Winnipeg Jets' Blake Wheeler waded into a charged political debate when the American forward sent out two tweets on the weekend.

Winnipeg Jets captain the 1st NHL player to talk publicly about Trump's remarks

The Winnipeg Jets' Blake Wheeler, who's American, spoke out against U.S. President Donald Trump on the weekend. (Trevor Hagan/Canadian Press)

The Winnipeg Jets' Blake Wheeler waded into a charged political debate when he sent out two tweets on the weekend.

The American forward appears to be the first NHL player to publicly disagree with controversial remarks made by U.S. President Donald Trump.

The normally politics-averse team captain called out the U.S. president after Trump made disparaging comments late last week about sports players kneeling during the American national anthem.

Trump told a rally on Sept. 22 that NFL players who kneel during the anthem were "ruining the game" and called for them to be fired.

Wheeler said Monday it felt right to take a stand. 

"Crossing over into the, kind of the sports world, it hits home a little bit more," he said. "It's just kind of been a bit of a slow boil, you know. The rhetoric, over and over, is just kind of gone a little bit too far, a few too many times. So you know, it just felt right, kind of, to take a stance.

"Some of the language [Trump] used, referencing NFL players, I think that was kind of the last straw for a lot of guys, whichever way they feel about it, to finally voice their opinion."

Wheeler said he understands people have different perspectives about Trump's comments and the controversy surrounding kneeling during the national anthem. 

"I think that's kind of the whole point. That's the thing that makes America a great country. You're allowed to have different opinions, you're allowed to voice those different opinions, you're allowed to stand up for what you believe in. 

"When you take a side, you want to be cognizant of the fact that there's going to be people who don't feel the same way as you."

That's the beauty of it, he said.

"There's been obviously a lot of talk in our locker room about it. We have some American guys, and it's great," he said. "There's a conversation starting that hasn't been started, and hasn't been had in a long time.

"You learn a little bit more about guys than maybe you knew before."

Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice speaks to media Monday. (CBC)

Jets head coach Paul Maurice and defenceman Jacob Trouba both said they supported Wheeler's comments.

"Just from a personal point of view, Blake Wheeler is one of the finest men I've ever met, and I support his right to voice his opinion," Maurice said.

"Calling football players son of a bitches and privileged, I don't think any athlete really agrees with that," Trouba said. "It's disrespectful and that's not someone that I like looking up to."

Trouba, who is from Michigan, agreed that sports have become more political since he started his career.

"Yeah, but Donald Trump also wasn't president at that point."

Wheeler, who is from Plymouth, Minn., joins a wave of professional athletes who have commented on social media and to traditional media about Trump's remarks.

On Sunday, about 200 NFL players responded to Trump's comments by kneeling, linking arms, or staying in locker rooms during the national anthem.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders joined by linking their arms during the Canadian national anthem at their Sunday game against the Calgary Stampeders. 

"A lot of us that locked arms are Americans, we're African-American, so we understand exactly what's going on back home," offensive lineman Derek Dennis said to media after the game.

Dennis said the team didn't consider kneeling for the national anthem because it wasn't necessary.

"We all have the opportunity to play in a great country like Canada. We didn't want to disrespect the Canadian flag or the Canadian Armed Forces, because this country's done wonders for a lot of us. If it wasn't for the CFL, we wouldn't have the opportunity to play professional football."

The Saskatchewan Roughriders lock arms during the national anthem on Sunday. (Paul Dornstauder/CBC)

CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie was not available for an interview, but sent CBC this statement:

"We cherish our anthem because of the values it has come to represent. One of those values is freedom of expression. Regardless of whether we liked it or agreed with it, we would absolutely respect our players' right to express their views in this way, which is peaceful and does not disrupt our game in any way.

"If the words 'true north strong and free' are to be truly celebrated, we must honour their meaning, not just their singing. We say this in a sincere and heartfelt attempt to be faithful to those who over the years have fought and sacrificed for our freedom by supporting, in the present day, the exercise of that freedom."

While a spokesperson for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers said no players were available to comment on Monday, former Bomber Milt Stegall called Trump's comments "very unfortunate" and said he's in support of the protests.

He said he's glad the actions have led to a conversation in his country.
Former Bomber Milt Stegall said he's glad the actions have led to a conversation in his country. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

"It has nothing to do with the American flag, it has nothing to do with disrespecting the military, it has nothing to do with the national anthem. It's all about the killing of black and brown people unjustly in the street throughout America," said Stegall over the phone from Atlanta, Ga.

"[Trump] attacks the NBA which is majority black, and he's attacking the NFL which is majority black, so it's unfortunate that we're at this point but … regardless of what you think and what you may say, we all have to live together in this country."

About the Author

Elisha Dacey

Journalist

Elisha Dacey is a journalist with CBC Manitoba. She is the former managing editor of Metro Winnipeg and her work has been seen in newspapers from coast to coast. Reach her at elisha.dacey@cbc.ca.

With files from Joelle Seal