The NHL’s move away from Pride jerseys was ‘really disappointing,’ advocates say

The NHL said this week its teams will no longer wear special jerseys in support of Pride and other causes during, as they have for some time, pregame warm-ups on theme nights starting next season.

That the news broke during the height of Pride festivities was just one problem with the policy shift, say advocates for more inclusion in sport.

“It’s a really disappointing decision and it’s really, really poor timing,” Harrison Browne, the first transgender athlete in pro hockey, told CBC News Network on Friday.

The NHL did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.

But NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has indicated the change is because some players refused to wear Pride jerseys, which created a “distraction” that overshadowed the causes those jerseys were intended to highlight.

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“This way we’re keeping the focus on the game. And on these specialty nights, we’re going to be focused on the cause,” Bettman told Sportsnet on Thursday.

Teams will produce special jerseys for those events, even though players won’t wear them on the ice.

League-wide Pride events

All the NHL’s 32 teams hosted Pride events last season and it appeared most players — “a supermajority” according to one labor leader — wore special jerseys.

WATCH | Some NHLers object to Pride-themed jerseys:

Handful of NHLers object to wearing Pride-themed jerseys

Canadian NHL players Mark and Eric Staal are the latest to join a handful of others who are refusing to wear Pride-themed warm-up jerseys in support of the LGBTQ community. It’s ignited a debate over inclusivity and personal freedom in pro-hockey.

You Can Play, an organization that has worked with the NHL to improve representation and inclusion of LGBTQ people, said in a statement over 95 per cent of players had chosen to “wear a Pride jersey to support the community.”

Yet Kurt Weaver, chief operations officer of You Can Play, says he was not surprised that a relatively small group of opponents could cause a “headache.”

“We’re finding organizations like the NHL are making decisions to make around this — are we going to obligate players to do this and fight that fight, or are we going to make a change here and do something different?”

Though disappointed with the league’s decision, Weaver said he was “heartened” to hear Bettman say Pride-themed nights would continue.

“We had 32 teams do is last year and we’re hopefully going to have 32 teams do it next year,” he said, adding that last year set a record for the amount of money raised for LGBTQ causes.

With the league-wide promotion of these events and many players taking part in them, it raises the question why the league is paying such attention to voices that aren’t.

“Why are we listening to the people who don’t want to be inclusive and allow their voices… to become the dominant narrative?” said Russell Field, an associate professor at the University of Manitoba, whose research interests include issues related to sports and social justice.

He said it’s “hard to imagine another issue in which player objection would carry the day in the way that this has,” and that potentially speaks to deep-seated homophobia still present in the culture of men’s hockey.

What about the players and fans?

Like Weaver, Harrison is pleased that theme nights will continue in the NHL.

But he said the league’s decision to take the special jerseys off the ice is also taking away opportunities to share important messages, for many important causes — including those close to the LGBTQ community.

“I think as a young LGBTQ2+ fan, or someone who might be looking into getting into hockey, seeing one of their role models sporting a jersey that says: ‘I support you, I welcome you, you’re included here, you’re safe here’ — I think that the opportunity for that is now going to be erased and I think it’s a really big shame.”

Then there are the players, who are losing a chance to be a role model on the ice and to help spread the message that Harrison describes.

Weaver also pointed to the influence these players can have.

“The visibility of an athlete wearing this on the ice and and our heroes wearing these on the ice is massive,” he said, adding that may be particularly so for someone at home questioning if they belong in the sport.

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