NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in an interview with CTV Ottawa that the league will consider the future of team Pride Nights this offseason as some players have opted not to participate.
“This is the first time we’ve experienced that, and I think it’s something that we’re going to have to evaluate in the offseason,” he said of the backlash.
A growing group of teams and players have pulled back support for Pride Night events, especially surrounding dedicated Pride warmup jerseys. Now, the NHL will likely decide whether to hold the events at all.
“This is one issue where players for a variety of reasons may not feel comfortable wearing the uniform as a form of endorsement,” said Bettman.
“But I think that’s become more of a distraction now,” he added, “because the substance of what our teams and we have been doing and stand for is really being pushed to the side for what is a handful of players basically have made personal decisions, and you have to respect that as well.”
The objections of a few teams and players have put something of a dark cloud over Pride events this season. After Ivan Provorov refused to wear the Flyers’ Pride Night jerseys, citing his Russian Orthodoxy, the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and Minnesota Wild all announced they would not wear Pride jerseys, despite earlier promises from the Rangers and Wild to do so. James Reimer cited objections stemming from Christian values when he sat out of warmups for the San Jose Sharks, as did brothers Marc and Eric Staal of the Florida Panthers.
The Chicago Blackhawks also canceled plans to wear Pride jerseys, this time over concerns for the safety of Russian players and their families. The Sabres’ Ilya Lybushkin similarly expressed concerns of retaliation from Russia when he chose not to participate. Notably, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Athletic the league had no information suggesting “material” threats to Russian players for their participation, and many have chosen to wear Pride jerseys without issue.
With several teams still planning to hold Pride events in the coming weeks, the league may see yet more objections before the end of the season.
The backlash to Pride Nights comes at a time when seven in 10 Americans support same-sex marriage and over 60% oppose discrimination against transgender people. The players’ objections contradict the beliefs of most Americans (not to mention most of their teammates), reflecting poorly on the league.
It’s possible Bettman, a lawyer by trade, could see Pride Nights now as a public relations liability, giving players the opportunity to publicly express prejudiced views. There may be additional concerns of litigation should teams try to force players to wear the jerseys or punish them for not doing so (something that has not been done in any instance of refusal).
In the CTV interview, Bettman noted that the NHL has promoted equality and inclusion in the hockey community through its current measures.
“I think in terms of the profile and the platforms that we’ve been using consistently for Pride Nights, we’ve been very aggressive and supportive,” he said.
That support has translated into a meaningful impact in the community, with jerseys, sticks, and pucks with rainbow designs often auctioned off for charity. In 2022 alone, the Capitals’ Pride Night Auction raised over $25,000 to benefit SMYAL, a DC-based organization that supports LGBTQ+ youth.
To end the Pride Night initiative would hurt these organizations, as well as LGBTQ+ fans and players who value the message that they are welcome in hockey. Though a few players have chosen to sit out, many more have chosen to show their support, with multiple teams quietly seeing full participation in initiatives.
Bayne Pettinger, an openly gay NHLPA agent and co-founder of the Alphabet Sports Collective, spoke with The Athletic’s Pierre Lebrun about the importance of Pride Nights–something easily missed among a wave of controversy.
“I just think we’ve lost sight of what these nights are about,” he said. “They’re not asking players to decide what’s right or wrong; it’s about the community for one night that wants to feel welcomed by the NHL and the sport and feel safe — by their favorite NHL team. It’s about the community and welcoming everyone in and not pushing them out.”
Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong/RMNB
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