NHL’s Pride nights collide with LGBTQ+ political climate

NHL’s Pride nights collide with LGBTQ+ political climate

Sports leagues and teams often use Pride nights to increase visibility and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people — as well as sell them tickets — and the NHL has been a leader. They can include special shirts designed by LGBTQ+ artists, performances, information boards, even drag performances. And they are mostly a hit.

But six NHL players recently decided not to wear rainbow jerseys on their teams’ Pride nights for the first time, prompting the league’s commissioner to say it is weighing the events’ future.

That worries some LGBTQ+ fans and supporters, who say it’s a sign that a political climate that has led to restrictions on expression, health care and participation in transgender sports both in the U.S. and internationally is now threatening events intended to be fun and affirming.

“It’s certainly fair to say that this political landscape is helping to kind of normalize people to give up the optional ways they’ve been asked to show support for marginalized members of society,” said Hudson Taylor, executive director and founder of Athlete Ally. , an organization that works with teams and leagues to promote LGBTQ+ inclusion.

Professional sports have been here before. In June, five Tampa Bay Rays pitchers cited their Christian faith in refusing to wear Pride jerseys, and a U.S. women’s national soccer player skipped a 2017 overseas trip when the team wore Pride jerseys and also did not play in an NWSL game last year for the same reason.

This season, three NHL teams — the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers and Minnesota Wild — that previously wore rainbow warm-ups decided not to. The Rangers and Wild changed course after initially planning to have players wear rainbow-themed warmup jerseys, but did not specifically say why.

Between player selections and team decisions, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league will “evaluate” in the offseason how it handles Pride nights moving forward, calling the rejections a distraction from “the essence of what our teams and we have been doing and standing for.” However, he also noted that the NHL, teams and players “overwhelmingly” support Pride nights.

The NHL has partnered for a decade with the You Can Play Project, which advocates for LGBTQ+ participation in sports. No NHL player had ever given up on Pride nights before.

The changes come as Republican lawmakers across the US pursue several hundred proposals this year to roll back LGBTQ+ and transgender rights in particular. At the same time, the sport’s international governing bodies are creating policies that ban all trans athletes from competing in track and field, effectively banning trans women from competitive swimming.

Internationally, a Russian law restricting “propaganda” about LGBTQ+ people, including advertising, media and the arts, has led to at least one Russian NHL player refusing to participate in Pride night. And Ugandan lawmakers recently passed a bill outlining prison sentences for offenses related to same-sex relationships.

It’s all connected, said Evan Brody, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky whose research in media studies often focuses on LGBTQ+ spaces in sports.

“The laws that are being passed, the players that are not participating, they all exist within the same kind of ecosphere,” Brody said. “They all exist within this larger anti-LGBTQ discourse, which I think we’re often too quick to point out about other countries and maybe less to think about how that’s affecting things in United States.”

In the NHL, many Pride nights are more about selling tickets, Taylor said. But because the league has been a leader among men’s sports in how to do Pride nights well, he said, it’s “noticeable” to see players and teams “turn back the ways that they have historically shown support and given visibility to the LGBTQ Community.”

Russia’s Ivan Provorov and Canada’s James Reimer and brothers Eric and Marc Staal all cited religious beliefs for refusing to participate in warm-ups in rainbow jerseys. Ilya Lyubushkin said he would not participate because of the law in Russia, where he was born. And Andrei Kuzmenko, another Russian player, decided not to wear the special uniform after discussions with his family.

“Some players choose to make choices that they’re free to make,” Bettman said Thursday night at a news conference in Seattle. “It doesn’t mean they don’t respect other people and their beliefs and their lifestyle and who they are. It just means they don’t want to endorse it by wearing uniforms they’re not comfortable wearing .”

Taylor noted that the fear of Russian punishment could be “very real” for a player like Lyubushkin, who has family in Moscow and visits often.

“I don’t think the LGBTQ community should feel that NHL hockey players are turning their backs on that community,” said new NHL Players’ Association executive director Marty Walsh. “A majority of players have worn the shirt.”

The Twin Cities Queer Hockey Association participated in the Minnesota Wild’s Pride night this season, with two teenage LGBTQ+ members of the association sitting on the bench during warmups, among others.

Bennett-Danek, who co-founded the association with her wife in early 2022, said the Wild have been nothing but supportive of their organization and the community at large.

“Yes, canceling the jerseys was wrong, but they didn’t cancel any other part of Pride night and they continue to support our band, even today,” Bennett-Danek said. “They are also auctioning autographed Pride jerseys to help further support our LGBTQIA community here in the Twin Cities. … So in our mind they have corrected the mistake. They have promised us that next year’s Pride will not be cancelled.”

The NHL has not issued a penalty or fine for anti-LGBTQ+ language since 2017, although the American Hockey League suspended a player in April 2022 for eight games for using homophobic language. And the vast majority of NHL players are taking part in pregame Pride skates, which Edmonton’s Zach Hyman said is “an obvious no-brainer.”

“It doesn’t conflict with any of my beliefs,” Hyman said. “On the contrary, I think it’s extremely important to be open and welcoming to that larger community just because they’re a minority and they’ve faced a lot of persecution over the years. And to show that we care and that we’re willing and able to getting them involved in our game and our sport is extremely important to me.”


AP Sports Writers Stephen Whyno in Washington and John Wawrow in Buffalo, New York, and AP freelance writer Mark Moschetti in Seattle contributed to this report.

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