National Hockey League Pride Nights: Not Everyone on the Ice is a Dinosaur
Remember when Bobby Orr, one of the top five greatest National Hockey League (NHL) players of all time, declared his support for Donald Trump in the 2020 U.S. election?
While the shock of this news was a gut punch for many, it reminded some of us who once admired the man for his on-ice artistry and record-breaking performances that hockey players do not tend to be gifted with staggering intellect. The revelation that Orr was not just a Republican, but a Trumpian allowed those of us who believe in civil society and common decency to move on from Number Four and, broken hearted, never waste another minute watching his career highlight reels.
There’s a similar effect going on right now with a small handful of NHL players who have decided not to participate in their team’s annual Pride Night event.
Today, the NHL and most of its players endorse some form of Pride Night— a chosen game date for teams and their players to participate in the mostly performative ritual of demonstrating support for 2SLGBTQ+ players and fans. They do this by displaying visible signs of solidarity such as warm-up jerseys and rainbow-taped sticks, as well as by conducting player interviews about the importance of embracing diversity and, in some NHL cities, producing feature mini-documentaries on the local queer hockey organization. But this year, a few NHL players have opted out of their Pride Night entirely, citing personal reasons. (In a related move, three teams have chosen not to wear their Pride jerseys during warm-up, one citing the security of their Russian players and their families back home. More on this later.)
As well as admiring their hockey skill and respecting the commitment it must have taken for three of them to make it to the NHL, I once considered the Staal brothers really hot—especially the prettiest one, tall and blond Eric, when he led his team in play-off scoring in only his second NHL season as the Carolina Hurricanes won the 2006 Stanley Cup. But that’s all over now. For a gay man, there is no greater buzz kill than the revelation of ignorance and prejudice in someone I find attractive, the realization that this person likely finds my very existence repulsive. And so, for Eric and Marc Staal, both Florida Panthers, any trace of desirability—or respect—completely vanished the moment they said this:
“After many thoughts, prayers, and discussions we have chosen not to wear a pride night jersey tonight. We carry no judgement on how people choose to live their lives and believe that all people should be welcome in all aspects of the game of hockey. Having said that, we feel that by us wearing a pride jersey it goes against our Christian beliefs.”
As cowardly loads of bullshit go, this statement is fairly typical. The Staal brothers not only carried judgement; they pronounced it to the world. Like the Philadelphia Flyers’ Ivan Provorov, a Russian defenseman who became the first player to opt out of his team’s Pride Night earlier this year, they used the classic homophobic dog whistle of “choice” to signal their non-acceptance of human nature. For their get-out-of-jail-free card, they used the crutch of “Christian beliefs,” rather than the more appropriate “fundamentalist dogma,” to explain themselves. A similar statement was released by San Jose Sharks goaltender James Reimer.
Let’s be clear: if these refuseniks truly believed “that all people should be welcome in all aspects of the game of hockey” then they would not hesitate to participate in these simple, low-commitment rituals. For heaven’s sake, it’s not like they were being asked to march in a Pride parade stripped down to their undies or decked out in leather chaps; they were not expected to guest host drag story time wearing their best high heels and a skirt. Pride Night is simply an opportunity for the hockey elite to broaden the appeal of their sport by inviting more people into it, becoming more interesting as a result. What’s not to like about that?
Those who defend the Pride Night defectors predictably claim that these players are being targeted by “cancel culture.” But who needs cancel culture when these unfortunate men are more than willing to cancel themselves with a single public pronouncement? NHL players like Provorov, Reimer, and the Staals (we don’t yet know about Jordan, the third NHL brother, currently captain of the Hurricanes) are announcing to the world that, regardless of Stanley Cup wins, they are essentially losers: sad, stupid men who are too shallow to understand that it’s not only queer teammates, other queer athletes, and queer fans they are alienating—and not only the queer staff who attend to their needs in the arenas where they work. They are also alienating legions of heterosexual hockey fans who are fed up with bigotry in the sport and disgusted that players they once admired do not want hockey to be for everyone.
Here’s a memo for the cement-head fans who typically populate the Facebook feeds of NHL teams, the dimwits who complain that politics have no place in hockey: Pride Night is not a product of “the woke mob” but, in large measure, of Mr. Truculence himself. That’s right: if it weren’t for the cigar-chomping, fight-loving, hot Irish-tempered Brian Burke, the NHL would never have come as far as it has on Pride Night. As macho as they come, Burke could easily be a poster boy for heteronormative clichés about masculinity, pugnacity and old-fashioned, rough-and-tumble hockey. Instead, the former NHL executive and current Pittsburgh Penguins president of hockey operations has become a vocal advocate for diversity and inclusion of 2SLGBTQ+ players, fans, and NHL team employees.
He comes by it honestly. When his own son Brendan, an aspiring goaltender, came out of the closet as gay in 2007, Burke embraced and pledged to support him in every way he could, unconditional love being at the core of his own Christian beliefs and “family values.” After Brendan was killed in a car accident at age twenty-one a couple of years later, Brian and his other son Patrick began the You Can Play project as an initiative to make hockey and all sports more inclusive. And that has led to where we are today. In an interview with Ron Maclean on Hockey Night in Canada, Burke had this to say about the few defections from Pride Night:
“To our friends in the LGBTQ+ community, don’t be discouraged. We’ve had a couple of minor setbacks from a tiny number of players, but we’ve made steady and spectacular progress in this space. Thirty-two teams will have held, by the end of this season, a Pride night. So even the teams where we had some dissenters, the teams still held Pride night. It’s still important, it’s a very important part of what we do.”
He also rejected the argument of Christianity as an excuse not to participate: “I was born and raised a Catholic. I don’t see any conflict between my religious beliefs and the ability to say to the LGBTQ+ community, ‘You’re welcome here.’ That’s all Pride Night is: ‘You’re welcome in our building.’ They’re not asking to sign any forms. They’re not asking you to join any churches. It’s about saying this community is valuable and important, and we want to honour them.”
So stick that where the sun doesn’t shine, NHL dinosaurs.
The issue of security for Russian players is more complicated. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin has introduced new legislation beefing up its anti-gay laws of 2013. The Chicago Black Hawks, in cancelling plans to wear Pride jerseys during warm-up, said they had concerns about repercussions back home for three of their Russian players. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly has responded that the league “has no information that would suggest there is any material threat that would exist [in Russia or otherwise] related to a Russian player participating in a Club’s Pride activities.”
It’s hard to know for sure. Officially, the only punishment to Russian citizens for the promotion of “LGBT propaganda” is a fine of up to 400,000 rubles (US$6,370). Hardly bank-breaking for the average NHL player, but the more subtle forms of punishment—limiting career opportunities in the Russian Hockey Federation, say, or banning a player from the National Olympic Committee—could be a more serious deterrent for any kind of activism in the West.
And if that’s the case, it’s too bad the Black Hawks, New York Rangers and Minnesota Wild felt they had to pull their entire teams from participation. Why not just give a pass to those Russian players who truly feel at risk, and voluntarily exclude them? As long as they don’t mouth off like Provorov, it would be hard to hold it against them.