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NHL's Pride Night Hits Resistance for First Time

League to reconsider its handling of the event after seven players sit it out
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 7, 2023 3:55 PM CDT
NHL's Pride Night Hits Resistance for First Time
Florida Panthers center Eetu Luostarinen uses a stick with the LGBT pride flag on it on March 20, 2021, Pride Day.   (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

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 seven NHL players recently opted out of wearing rainbow-colored jerseys on their team's Pride nights for the first time, leading the league's commissioner to say it is weighing the future of the events, the AP reports. 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 is now threatening the events.

"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 of Athlete Ally, an organization that works with teams and leagues to push for LGBTQ+ inclusivity. Pro sports has been here before. In June, for example, five pitchers with the Tampa Bay Rays cited their Christian faith in refusing to wear Pride jerseys. 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.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league will evaluate its handling of Pride nights in the offseason. The NHL, teams, and players overwhelmingly support Pride nights, he said. 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. 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, per the AP. It's all connected, said Evan Brody, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky.

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"The laws that are being passed, the players not participating, all exist within the same kind of ecosphere," Brody said. 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. Andrei Kuzmenko and Denis Gurianov, both Russian players, decided not to wear the special uniform for family reasons. "Some players choose to make choices that they are free to make," Bettman said Thursday night. "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."

(More NHL stories.)

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