On the opening night of the NHL season, the league finds itself in the middle of yet another controversy surrounding Pride. Yet again, the damage to the league's image is self-inflicted, and commissioner Gary Bettman doesn't seem to understand why the league is in the wrong.
The NHL banned the use of Pride Tape for this season during warmups, games and even practices, according to an article in OutSports. The rainbow tape, used optionally by players to wrap their hockey sticks for the last six years, was a way for players to show support for the LGBTQ+ community.
The NHL has created its own 'Don't Say Gay' policy, with a ban on Pride Tape.
Disgraceful. Despicable. Outrageous. Petty.https://t.co/3xnhPRywp9
— Outsports (@outsports) October 9, 2023
A memo sent by the NHL to its teams last Thursday clarified its stance on specialty initiatives like Pride Night, Black History Night and Hockey Fights Cancer Night. Here's just a snippet of that memo, via ESPN:
"Players shall not be put in the position of having to demonstrate (or where they may be appearing to demonstrate) personal support for any Special Initiatives. A factor that may be considered in this regard includes, for example, whether a Player (or Players) is required to be in close proximity to any groups or individuals visibly or otherwise clearly associated with such Special Initiative(s)."
For the NHL, it's another step in the wrong direction regarding inclusion.
When many players refused to wear rainbow jerseys during a Pride Night in June, the NHL responded in a cowardly manner by banning teams from altering jerseys for Pride and these other "special initiatives," meaning the league all but said Pride, love and acceptance has no place in hockey. Even NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called the jerseys a "distraction."
Some players — like Florida's Eric and Marc Staal — cited religious beliefs for their jersey refusals. Others — like Russian members of the Chicago Blackhawks — reference anti-gay law in Russia and fear of opposition back home.
In December 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin expanded anti-LGBTQ laws and increased penalties for those promoting "non-traditional sexual relations and/or preferences." According to the AP in 2022, the NHL has more Russian players than any other North American pro sports league. The 45 Russian-born players last season included stars like Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov.
"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," Eric and Marc Staal said in a statement at the time. "Having said that, we feel that by us wearing a Pride jersey, it goes against our Christian beliefs."
The problem with the NHL outright banning rainbow jerseys and tape is it essentially caves into those anti-gay laws and homophobic viewpoints. Instead of standing up to hate and sending a message that "hockey is for everyone" — quite literally the name of the initiative the league launched in 2017 — the league is sitting on the bench in this global fight for human rights.
And NHL fans, players and media members are disappointed, too:
Because 7 players were too afraid to wear Pride jerseys, the NHL banned even the smallest of gestures that would show support for the LGBTQ+ community.
This is pathetic. This is cowardly. This is a massive step backwards.
— Michaela Schreiter (@Schreids) October 9, 2023
it is fascinating to me that the nhl (and its fans) scream about wanting more people to please like their sport and then slam the door in the faces of marginalised people who would very much enjoy liking their sport
— Jay Forster (@_jakobforster) October 9, 2023
The NHL used to be a leader in inclusion ? not great at it, but ahead of the pro sports curve. Incredibly disappointing to see the league continue to cave to a handful of homophobes. https://t.co/n9TQhyFItM
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) October 9, 2023
— Courtney Theriault (@cspotweet) October 10, 2023
Zach Hyman was asked about the NHL's decision to ban Pride Tape pic.twitter.com/GP6TqJJ1RG
— alicia ^^^ ? (@leashadawg) October 10, 2023
Even worse, when Bettman spoke to ESPN Radio's "UnSportsmanLike" on Tuesday, he all but doubled down on the NHL's stance toward Pride: "Let's not touch that." Those were his exact words:
"What happened last year was that the issue of who wanted to wear a particular uniform on a particular night overshadowed everything that our clubs were doing. So what we said, instead of having that distraction and having our players have to decide whether or not they wanted to do something or not do something and be singled out, we said, 'Let's not touch that,'" Bettman told ESPN Radio's "UnSportsmanLike" on Tuesday.
"Anything around the game, anything off the ice. Our teams and our players are continuously encouraged to give back to the communities and get involved in the causes that they find important," he continued. "But what I think we did is we took the distraction away. And so now the concentration can be on the causes that we want to highlight."
Apparently, the NHL doesn't want to highlight — or have anything do with — the LGBTQ+ community.
To be clear, teams will still have Pride Nights this season. You just won't find rainbow-clad jerseys or tape on the ice, but players can still support those off the ice. And the NHL encourages those nights while also donating funds to groups involved.
In response to the NHL, the makers of Pride Tape called the decision "extremely disappointing."
Statement from the makers of Pride Tape on the NHL banning players from using it this season, as part of the league's overall ban on "specialty" jerseys. pic.twitter.com/DpOni21oYn
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) October 10, 2023
"The league has used language in recent days which would prohibit the tape from any proximity to NHL Hockey. We hope the league — and teams — will again show commitment to this important symbol of combating homophobia. Many of the players themselves have been exceptional advocates for the tape," the company said in a statement on X on Tuesday.
Pride Tape may seem small, but it's an important and visible way for players to show support toward a marginalized community. Of course, players should have the choice not to use rainbow gear or wear Pride jerseys, but to ban everyone from using it because of a few homophobes? That's a joke that's not even funny.
If this is the NHL Bettman wants — an outdated and cowardly one not meant for everyone — then count me out.
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