NHL's Pride nights collide with LGBTQ+ political climate
Sports leagues and teams often use Pride nights to raise the visibility and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people — as well as sell them tickets — and the NHL has been a leader. They can include special jerseys designed by LGBTQ+ artists, performances, information tables, even drag performances. And they're largely a hit.
But six NHL players recently opted out of wearing rainbow-colored jerseys on their teams' Pride nights for the first time, leading the league's commissioner to say it is weighing the future of the events.
That worries some fans and LGBTQ+ supporters, who say it's a sign that a political climate that has led to restrictions on expression, health care and transgender sports participation both in the U.S. and internationally is now threatening events that are meant to be fun and affirming.
“It’s definitely fair to say that this political landscape is helping to sort of normalize people for opting out of the optional ways that they have 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 push for LGBTQ+ inclusivity.
Pro sports has been here before. In June, five pitchers with the Tampa Bay Rays cited their Christian faith in refusing to wear Pride jerseys, and a U.S. women's national soccer player skipped an overseas trip in 2017 when the team wore Pride jerseys and also didn't play in an NWSL game last year for the same reason.
This season, three NHL teams — the Chicago Blackhawks, the New York Rangers and the Minnesota Wild — that previously wore rainbow warmups decided not to. The Rangers and Wild changed course after initially planning for players to wear rainbow-themed warmup jerseys but did not specifically say why.
Between the players opting out and the team decisions, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league will “evaluate” in the offseason how it handles Pride nights moving forward, calling the refusals a distraction from “the substance of our what our teams and we have been doing and stand for.” Yet he also noted that the NHL, teams and players “overwhelmingly” support Pride nights.
The NHL has partnered for a decade with You Can Play Project, which advocates for LGBTQ+ participation in sports. No NHL players had previously opted out of Pride nights.
The changes come as Republican lawmakers across the U.S. pursue several hundred proposals this year to push back on LGBTQ+, and particularly transgender, rights. At the same time, international sports-governing bodies are instituting policies that ban all trans athletes from competing in track and field and effectively ban trans women from swimming events.
Internationally, a Russian law that restricts “propaganda” about LGBTQ+ people, including in advertising, media and the arts, has led at least one Russian NHL player to decline participation in Pride night. And Ugandan lawmakers recently passed a bill prescribing jail terms for offenses related to same-sex relations.
It's all connected, said Evan Brody, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky whose media studies research often focuses on LGBTQ+ spaces in sports.
“The laws that are being passed, the players not participating, all exist within the same kind of ecosphere,” Brody said. "They all exist within this larger anti-LGBTQ discourse, which I think we are often very quick to point out about other countries and maybe less so to think about how that’s affecting things in the United States.”
In the NHL, many Pride nights are more about selling tickets, Taylor said. But because the league has been such a leader among men's sports in how to do Pride nights well, he said, it's “conspicuous" to see players and teams "roll back the ways in which they have historically shown support for and given visibility to the LGBTQ community.”
Russian Ivan Provorov and Canadians James Reimer and brothers Eric and Marc Staal all cited religious beliefs for refusing to take part in warmups in rainbow-colored 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 are free to make," Bettman said Thursday night at a news conference in Seattle. "That doesn’t mean they don’t respect other people and their beliefs and their lifestyles and who they are. It just means they don’t want to endorse it by wearing uniforms that they are not comfortable wearing.”
Taylor noted that the fear of Russian retribution 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 back on that community,” new NHL Players’ Association executive director Marty Walsh said. “A supermajority of players have worn the jersey.”
The Twin Cities Queer Hockey Association took part in the Minnesota Wild's Pride night this season, with two teenage LGBTQ+ members of the association sitting on the bench during warmups, among other things.
Bennett-Danek, who cofounded 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 wearing the jerseys was wrong, but they did not cancel any other part of Pride night and they continue to support our group, even today,” Bennett-Danek said. “They are also handing over the Pride jerseys with signatures for auction to further help support our LGBTQIA community here in the Twin Cities. … So, in our mind they have righted the wrong. They have promised us that Pride next year will not be canceled.”
The NHL hasn’t given out a penalty or fine for anti-LGBTQ+ language since 2017, though 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 participating in pregame Pride skates, which Edmonton's Zach Hyman said is “an obvious no-brainer.”
“It doesn’t go against any of my beliefs," Hyman said. "On the contrary, I think it’s extremely important to be open and welcoming to that greater 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 ready to include them in our game and our sport is extremely important to me.”