Hockey isn’t for everyone, apparently: The NHL’s Pride night problem

Zoë Hill Print Editor-in-Chief

Hockey is for everyone; it’s that simple. Given the recent track record of teams in the National Hockey League, it seems the issue isn’t so black and white.

For those who don’t have a favorite pack of fight-prone ice skaters with less teeth than they should have or for those not deep into hockey Twitter, here’s what is going on with NHL’s Pride nights.

Every team across the league has a schedule of theme nights throughout the regular season. These vary by team, but most include celebratory nights for Black history, military, Hispanic heritage, and a cure for cancer. Increasingly, hockey teams have been adding LGBTQ+ Pride nights to that list.

These aren’t a new thing entirely; Pride events within the NHL started over a decade ago, and have increased in their organization to become full-fledged themed nights for all 32 teams. Many of the teams dub this night as “Hockey Is For Everyone” night.

To overgeneralize the whole league, an average Pride night consists of players using rainbow tape for hockey sticks and warming up before the game in Pride-themed jerseys, which are auctioned off for LGBTQ+ charities.

This year, however, Pride nights have caught quite a bit of controversy. Seven teams this season have had Pride night incidents resulting in criticism for the teams, players and the league as a whole.

The Philadelphia Flyers were the first team this season to shine a bad light on Pride night when, on Jan. 17, defensemen Ivan Provorov refused to wear the Pride warm-up jerseys issued to the Flyers for religious reasons. This became a trend throughout the league, with San Jose Sharks’ goaltender James Reimer and brothers Eric Staal and Marc Staal of the Florida Panthers all standing against the warm-up jerseys for religious reasons.

The New York Rangers and the Minnesota Wild planned to wear Pride warm-up jerseys for their Pride nights, but opted not to wear them last minute with little explanation.

“Our organization respects the LGBTQ+ community and we are proud to bring attention to important local community organizations as part of another great Pride night,” the Rangers said in a statement. “In keeping with our organization’s core values, we support everyone’s individual right to respectfully express their beliefs.”

The Chicago Blackhawks and the Buffalo Sabres held Pride nights but few or all of the team elected to not wear Pride warm-up jerseys because of “general threats” to the safety of some players because of a recently passed anti-gay law in Russia.

Speaking from within the hockey-fan community but from outside of the LGBTQ+ community, I think Pride nights are critical within hockey culture. For what is known as a largely manly and brutal sport, the reminder of inclusivity is imperative.

I do respect personal choice and religious freedom, but that is not at its core what this is about. The moniker “Hockey is for Everyone” should be the end-all to the controversy and debate. What these nights are about is inclusion into a sport and fanbase that millions enjoy. It’s about telling LGBTQ+ fans that you are safe, loved and welcome in our arena. It’s about telling current, future and past LGBTQ+ hockey players that you are safe, loved and welcome in our locker rooms and on our ice.

One of the things Shark’s goaltender Riemer said in his statement was: “I strongly believe that every person has value and worth, and the LGBTQIA+ community, like all others, should be welcomed in all aspects of the game of hockey.” Yet, his refusal to wear the warm-up jersey for 20 minutes unravels that sentiment.

Riemer is absolutely correct that every community should be welcome in all aspects of hockey, and that’s why the league has “Hockey is for Everyone.” It is just frustrating to see the hypocrisy and run-around that some of the players, teams and staff use to exclude people from this sport.

While there is no perfect team or player, several have come out in support of the LGBTQ+ community and NHL Pride nights amid the controversy. While none of the current NHL players are out, Nashville Predators’ prospect Luke Prokop came out as gay in 2020. I think he relays the meaning of Pride nights best.

“I share the disappointment in what feels like a step back for inclusion in the NHL,” Prokop said on Twitter. “Pride nights and Pride jerseys play an important role in promoting respect and inclusion for the LBTQIA+ community, and it’s disheartening to see some teams no longer wearing them or not fully embracing their significance, while the focus of others has become about the players who aren’t participating rather than the meaning of the night itself.”

It is important to commend the teams that came out on the ice united and wearing their team’s Pride warm-up jerseys. Admittedly, as a massive Dallas Stars fan, I was worried the Texas team would be the latest on the list of Pride night dodgers. Given the political atmosphere in the state, I was nervous for their “Y’all Means All” Pride night.

That in itself is a problem because it’s a telltale sign that the controversy around the league is taking away from the meaning of the night. As Prokop said, it becomes about the players and wondering if your favorite parade of players is going to be controversial. Thankfully, the Stars’ Pride night went off without a hitch, but not every hockey fan can say that for their favorite team.

Not every hockey fan can feel safe, loved and included in a sport they love so much. So, no, hockey is not for everyone; but, it can be, and it should be.

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