It's been a rough season for queer hockey fans.
In recent years, National Hockey League teams added LGBTQ+ Pride to their seasonal theme nights, which also include events such as Black History, military appreciation, and Hockey Fights Cancer. On these nights, players wear jerseys corresponding with the theme while they warm up, which are later auctioned off with the proceeds going to related charities.
This year, several teams have opted not to wear pride jerseys or don rainbow tape on their sticks. Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov first sparked debate in January when he refused to wear an LGBTQ+ pride jersey, as it conflicted with his Russian Orthodox beliefs, saying his choice was "to stay true to myself and my religion."
To Keira Wiele of Team Trans, an international collective of hockey players who all identify as trans or gender non-conforming, pride nights became "even more of a hot topic after Provorov's refusal to wear a jersey."
"To be honest, while I'm disappointed and frustrated in his stance, I am far more disappointed in the decisions of multiple clubs to now forgo the jerseys/tape as a whole," she told The Advocate Channel via email. "I imagine that individuals feel emboldened by Provorov's refusal and planned on doing the same — so teams are attempting to avoid bad press, but to me this is having the opposite effect."
Ten days after Flyers pride night, the New York Rangers held their LGBTQ+ celebration, but none of the players wore pride jerseys or used rainbow tape. Participating charity NYC Pride later said they were unaware that the jerseys would not be worn, calling it "a major disappointment to the LGBTQ+ community in New York and beyond."
The New York Islanders also nixed their jerseys and tape, with the Carolina Hurricanes and the Minnesota Wild forgoing their jerseys in favor of just tape. The Wild promoted the themed night with the promise that the jerseys would be worn and auctioned to charity, but Outsports reports that the auction website was updated quietly just before the game, and the listings have since been removed.
While the NHL has been vocal about supporting the LGBTQ+ community in some instances, unprecedented waves of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation during the past year could be influencing public opinion and corporate decisions.
Wiele says that teams have recently been "more concerned with protecting individual players than the 'Hockey is for Everyone' platform." She notes that the recent pushback seems odd, as pride celebrations in the NHL have been around for years, and seem to now receive different treatment than other themed nights.
"This is not the first season that such jerseys/tape have been used, so having these things change suddenly, after tickets have been sold and queer fans excited to participate, is frustrating and disheartening," she explains, continuing, "I have to wonder how they would respond if these teams were doing this on other theme nights, such as a heritage night, first responders night, or military appreciation night. I can't help but feel like it would be a different, perhaps stricter response."
To Sawyer James, skater and goalie for Team Trans, it was Provorov's "right" to decide whether or not to wear a pride jersey. While some may see Provorov's beliefs as misguided, the real problem has been executives making the decision for entire teams.
"Everyone has a right to their beliefs, and shouldn't be 'forced' to go against them. It's like [LGBTQ+ people], we can't be 'forced' to be someone we're not, and that's why we fight for who we are," James says, adding, "Each individual hockey player should be allowed to make their own decisions on what they want to do ... but if the higher ups on the team are making the decisions for everyone, I believe that's wrong. The NHL should be coming down on those organizations' executives."
James believes that if players are given the choice to wear pride symbols, more often than not, players will choose to put them on. To him, that would "show their true support."
"If they let everyone decide themselves, it would still be a bigger turn out," he says. "And honestly ... seeing that turn out would make me feel more supported due to the fact each and every person wearing a pride colored jersey [or] pride stick did it out of their own good heart."