Milner: NHL needs more outspoken players

Vegas Knights goaltender Robin Lehner called out the NHL last week.

2️⃣ The countdown continues: Starting Monday, May 3, we are unveiling the next chapter of Pregame Skate. For starters, you’ll notice that Pregame Skate’s morning news brief will hit your inbox every week day (Monday-Friday) at 4 p.m. EST, while Saturday and Sunday will be for our premium members. Our weekend columns will be written by two-time National Champion and former professional hockey player Parker Milner, who will share his take on what’s making and shaping the sport.

We sent the below column to all subscribers to give you a sense of what you can expect from the weekend edition of Pregame Skate. Remember, you don’t have to subscribe, but if you want to help power Pregame Skate and get original takes, we appreciate any and all support. The more paying subscribers we get, the more we will be able to scale our premium columns to bring on other personalities, such as players, coaches, agents and more.

Milner: NHL needs more outspoken players

Let’s talk about Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner, who made headlines last week after calling out the NHL for its vaccine policy — or lack thereof. Here’s what happened.

Lehner was allegedly told months ago that the NHL would ease player restrictions once the majority of players were vaccinated, conversations the NHL denies ever took place. After Lehner found out that restrictions would likely not be loosened despite an increase in vaccinations, he shared his thoughts on the situation with the media during a press conference.

“They told me yesterday that they're surveying all the teams to see who has taken the vaccine, and who has not taken the vaccines, and they're not going to change the rules for us as players until all the players have the vaccine at the same time so it's not a competitive edge," said Lehner, who added that the pandemic has been especially trying for people with a history of mental illness (Lehner has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, ADHD and PTSD). "That made me go crazy, to be honest. This is human lives and people are struggling with this stuff a lot in society, and we are humans as everyone else."

Vegas goaltender Robin Lehner says the NHL wasn’t transparent during talks regarding player vaccinations | @robinlehner40

Whether or not you think the NHL should relax restrictions once vaccinations reach a certain level — the NBA and MLB have set an 85% vaccination rate as the point when they will allow players more freedom — there’s one thing NHL fans should agree on: The NHL needs more outspoken players. Here’s why.

The NHL’s move to ESPN certainly has the potential to grow the game, but the network could also dump it on the ESPN2 or ESPN+ back burner if ratings dip in the first year of the contract. The same goes for Turner Sports, which inked a seven-year deal for the NHL’s second-tier rights on Tuesday. And here’s where the players come in. The NHL needs more personalities fans can connect with — think Draymond Green in the NBA or Adam Jones in the MLB. If the league can’t capture folks outside its current fan base, the NHL will continue to be the country’s fourth favorite sport.

Lehner, however, isn’t the only player to speak up in the last month. Perennial all star Connor McDavid criticized the NHL for rescheduling a game the same day as the Oilers’ memorial service for Colby Cave, and J.T. Miller called out the league for rushing the Canucks back to play after more than 30 players and coaches tested positive for COVID-19.

Bottom Line: We aren’t asking for controversy, but there needs to be less mundane commentary from NHL players. Press conferences are littered with the same boring quotes: “The boys put in the work for 60 minutes,” or “We just have to stay focused on what’s in front of us.” This NHL season is unlike any other, due to the ongoing pandemic, and it’s okay to voice concerns, frustrations and opinions, as knowing players’ views will help fans connect with them.

This could be a key step for the NHL as it moves into its next chapter with ESPN and Turner Sports.