Minnesota Wild right winger J.T. Brown is an African-American hockey player who respects the struggles of pioneers such as Willie O’Ree and Val James, men who endured the foulest racism while carving a future for people of color in the sport.
As a five-year NHL veteran of three teams who previously played for Tampa Bay Lightning and the Anaheim Ducks, he stays connected with people of color in his community and concerned with the direction of the country and the league.
It’s what inspired him to stand with Colin Kaepernick back in 2017, in a professional hockey league that is 93 percent white.
Watch as Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown raises his fist in the air during the playing of the national anthem.
Moment Of Truth
On September 28, 2017, before a preseason game against the Florida Panthers, Brown, a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning at the time, raised his fist during the national anthem, in an attempt to “bring awareness to police brutality and inequality for minorities.”
He ran it back against the Panthers on October 7th, becoming the first NHL player to protest during the anthem in a regular season game.
It was his moment of bravery, but it went over with little fanfare. Black Twitter didn’t go crazy about Brown’s gesture, which was just as brave as Kaepernick’s knee, conjuring images of Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos putting up the black fist on the podium at the Mexico City Games in 1968.
Brothers are sparse pickings in the NHL and there wasn’t a legion of Black players that Brown could unite with. He received death threats. He was out there by himself, fighting for millions of people who didn’t even know he existed.
This wasn’t a beloved superstar like LeBron James or an NFL quarterback taking this risk. Brown’s not even considered a star in his craft; more like an enforcer with ridiculous speed and some swag around the net.
Hailing from Burnsville, Minnesota, his father Ted Brown was an NFL running back for eight seasons (1979–1986) with the Vikings who instilled morals, values and a fighting spirit that still resonates with his 28-year-old son today.
tblightning @JTBrown23 on silent protest: “I know there’s going to be negative backlash. But, in my heart, I know I did what was right.” https://t.co/iupx0imoP2
With the NHL season underway, The Shadow League spoke with the Wild right winger about his moment of truth and his chance to play close to his family in Minnesota, among other topics.
The Shadow League: Why did you choose to raise your fist and protest during the anthem in 2017?
J.T. Brown: I think I had some overwhelming concerns with the direction of the country. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact thing… its something that’s been on my mind for a while. I remember one time I donated to remove a Confederate statue and caught some flack for that. The backlash made me want to do even more to eradicate racism. I think now that I have a child, it kind of changed my outlook on the world a lot more. As an adult, I’m able to defend myself against these bad things. But my daughter, what kind of society was she going to be inheriting?
So that inspired me to do a visual to try to keep the conversation about police brutality and social injustice going for my sake and future family’s sake. I tried to make the right decision and still stand behind it.
TSL: How was the response?
J.T. Brown: All I was worried about was the mission, bringing attention to police brutality and social injustice. Shortly after my protest, I sat down with Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik (who’s also a minority owner of the Boston Red Sox) and we talked. I brought up my different concerns and a lot of them he admitted were not things he thinks about or is part of his everyday thought process… but he could see where I was coming from.
For him to be able to understand where I was coming from and want to help was a big deal. He said, ‘What can I do to help you. Where should we take this?’
At the same time, I understand the negative publicity to a degree…but surprisingly his end goal was to help me get my message out the way I intended to.
Let’s be real: not everybody understands the protestor takes it the same way. It’s constantly explained that the protest is not about the anthem and the military but it continuously gets brought back to that. We talked about what he could do to help me using his connections and how can we go beyond the visual stance and what we were going to do, so it’s not just talking.
A month after promising not to raise his fist during the National Anthem again, JT Brown is continuing community outreach and partnering with local law enforcement.
TSL: What facilitated the meeting and subsequent partnership with Tampa Bay police?
J.T. Brown: There’s been a lot of police shootings of unarmed men of color, but I wanted to put myself in their shoes and go through what it’s like to be a police officer. When I speak about something I can only talk from my reality and what I see. I can’t speak on things I don’t know.
So I went on a ride with a police officer and we had regular conversations and immersed myself in some of their situations like a live traffic stop. I got to see up close, just shoot the shit with them for about three hours while they patrolled. Just get to know them. It was a great experience to be able to do that.
From there we did some actual police training where we were able to go through some “Shoot — Don’t Shoot” type of situations. Before I left for Anaheim, we planned to do a project where we would send police officers who were already working with kids in the community and those kids to a hockey game. I want to find a way to make sure that these young kids’ first experience with police officers is a positive one versus a negative one.
TSL: How was it growing up with an NFL Player as a father?
J.T. Brown: It was cool. My dad retired before I was born but I was able to go down to Mankato and watch their preseason camps and was able to get on the field for games as a kid. It obviously had its benefits, but at the same time I’m thankful that he never pressured us to play football.
He always told me to play smart, play hard and play together.” 📰 @JTBrown23 doing #23 proud just like his dad did with @Vikings: https://t.co/VjfiNirb1I
TSL: You signed a two-year, $1.375 million deal to return home and play for The Wild. How’s it living just 20 minutes from your parents again?
J.T. Brown: I think it’s always been in my mind at some point to be able to come back to Minnesota and be closer to the family. You don’t realize how much time you spend away from your immediate family. Just being able to be around my parents and siblings and be close to them again, but still being able to fulfill my dreams of playing in the NHL is great.
Family is everything. Ted Brown in attendance to see his son @JTBrown23 wear #23 for #mnwild for the first time.
TSL: What community work have you done recently in conjunction with Fortnite?
(Brown streamed a 24-hour Fortnite Marathon in July and raised more than $1,300 for the charity, Hockey Is For Everyone , which included fellow NHL players Brock Boeser, Johnny Gaudreau, Nick Bonino, Zach Werenski and Vladislav Namestnikov.)
J.T. Brown: To be able to make money off it and donate it to a charity doing something that I’ve always loved doing, playing video games… and at the same time raise money… is something that was a no-brainer. The fans who are watching, they get to interact with me on a different level. Playing Fortnite, they get to see a side of me that they won’t ever be able to see when I’m on the ice in my gear.
TSL: What about the low number of people of color in hockey?
J.T. Brown: The numbers are small, but it is growing. There’s still plenty that can be done to help the game grow. We have to keep pushing. Even if we get to 50 players of color in the NHL or 100, that doesn’t mean that we stop. We have to continue to grow the game.
There are many sides to J.T. Brown, beyond being an energetic, tough, highly-physical and relentless competitor on the ice.
J.T. Brown vs Anthony Duclair from the Tampa Bay Lightning at Arizona Coyotes game on Mar 19, 2016. via http://www.hockeyfights.com
The most intriguing being that he gives a damn, and is willing to stand alone for what he believes in. That’s what makes him a real American hero and one of the NHL’s ultimate gamers.