Saturday, March 25, 2023



     This has been a very strange month in the NHL. Several teams scheduled Pride Nights to show their desire for every person to feel included in the game of hockey, no matter their sexual orientation. The point is to make a marginalized community which has faced exclusion, ridicule and scorn feel that the rink is a safe place for them. 
    Teams have held these nights for the last several seasons and the vast majority of players have been open to wearing rainbow-themed jerseys in warmup for one game, which are then auctioned off to benefit LGBTQ charities. Overall, Pride Nights have been great for outreach.
    Until now.
    Amidst a growing political divide in the USA between evangelical Christians and everybody else, several NHL players have decided wearing a rainbow jersey for fifteen minutes before one single game offends their religious beliefs to the point of making their refusal to participate the thing everyone's talking about.

    Two years ago, when the Canadiens held their Pride Night, Erik Staal skated out with the rest of his teammates, wearing a powder-blue sweater with a beautiful rainbow CH on the front. This year, when the Florida Panthers announced their own Pride Night, Staal and his brother Marc decided it's no longer religiously acceptable for them to do that.
    For those who have applauded the efforts teams are making to be inclusive and welcoming, the Staals' and James Reimer's decisions to opt out have been disheartening.
    Or it is until you ask Kurt Weaver about it.
    Kurt's the COO of the You Can Play Project; the non-profit founded by the Brian Burke family to honour their son Brendan, who died in a car crash at age 21, and who happened to be a gay hockey player. The organization's purpose is to advocate for LGBTQ people's place in hockey. So, asking Weaver to weigh in on what's happening in the NHL could have provoked disappointment or anger. Instead, he said:
    "We're very excited that the NHL teams have taken all the steps they've taken around Pride Nights, pride engagement and the jerseys being worn at those things. And of course, the jersey is the most visible thing.
    "And it's definitely disappointing when an individual decides not to participate or maybe when a team decides to not have the jersey that year, but certainly, we are very proud of the progress and the success where we can be talking about one individual not wearing a pride jersey when just a few years back, one individual wearing a rainbow would have been a huge news story. So, the progress we've made cannot be denied at this front. And hopefully, it won't be seen as a failure or a misstep, it's something we're going to overcome and keep focusing on the positive of all the great work being done at these Pride Nights."
    Weaver makes it clear pride jerseys aren't meant to be offensive for those who claim religion as the reason for rejecting them.
    "Not at all. We like to say respect and religion are not mutually exclusive. Religion, to me, is a place that's welcoming, open and caring. Others may have a different perspective around that. But certainly religion is not something we like to hear as a reason for not doing something," he explains. "Much like other celebration nights, like military, you're not necessarily endorsing what those organizations are doing. You're saying you care about the people in them. We want to make a safe and inclusive place where people are welcome in hockey, and that's the message we believe those Pride Nights and those jerseys are sending."

    He thinks there's more to the players' decisions to reject Pride Nights than simply adherence to religious rules that didn't come into play two years ago.
    "It shows you where, politically, where we are now. If we were in a different place politically, it might be the military or the Indigenous jersey that was getting attacked," he said. "But right now, the LGBTQ community is in the spotlight and in the crosshairs of people who are trying to take stuff back. Especially in the US, versus Canada, you see some of those issues happening at the state level in legislation."
    And, he says, sometimes the players aren't making those decisions on their own.
    "These players have a lot going on. They're not PR specialists. They're not thinking this through. In many cases, we find there's individuals out there who are trying to find players who'll take a step back to make a news story. This is not an invention of a player who wants to do something. They're being approached by an organization that wants to make political hay out of this."
    Still, he says, when a player does decide to make a stand like Reimer and the Staals have done, his group makes the effort to meet with them and explain the reasoning behind Pride.
    "We reach out every single time," he said. "And each time we get to sit down with a player, we say, listen, this is how this affects the community. The fact that your jersey doesn't get auctioned off means funds don't go to a local mental health drop in facility that needs them, that helps kids. There's a knock-on effect to these things that maybe the players don't consider. And when given that information, almost every time, they realize what is a different way to look at things and come out, I would hope, with a better decision next time."
    Whatever individual players decide to do, however, You Can Play is focused on the big picture and how far the movement has come.
    "When talking about the Panthers specifically, the whole front office, the whole arena full of fans, 18 of the 20 guys are there in full support of the community. All the cool things that happened in the intermissions and before and after the game, and the outreach and the money raised, that's the story. The two individuals who chose to make a different decision are simply not the story."
    When you look at it that way, the story is a pretty good one.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Triple Low Five


    When the Canadiens first announced they'd be honouring P.K.Subban with a special night at the Bell Centre, many of us wondered, "Why?" After all, others who made bigger contributions and spent more time with the Habs (hello, Andrei Markov and Tomas Plekanec!) didn't receive such treatment.
    Subban was a controversial figure when he played in Montreal, often through no fault of his own. Rumours of strife in the dressing room, conflict with management and Subban seeing himself as bigger than the team swirled through parts of his tenure. Although his hurt at being traded later translated to a few salty comments, there's no doubt he was a huge fan favourite. Most of the younger generation had never seen anybody like him before. So, when Subban would take the puck end to end (losing it half the time), they stood and cheered for him. When he made bold predictions, they loved it and when he was traded, they were furious.
    Still, considering the fact the Canadiens franchise prides itself almost to the point of silliness on its storied past, it seemed a bit strange to honour a player who spent only six seasons with the team. It didn't really fit with the celebrations we've seen retiring Hall-of-Famers' sweaters or marking a thousand games with the club.
    However, in a sad sort of way, it makes sense. At some point, the whole torch thing, the banners and the retired numbers become meaningless for a fan base that's never seen a Stanley Cup parade. Sure, they're impressive and all, but when number 33 is the most recent raised to the rafters and the man who wore it left Montreal almost 30 years ago, they're not exactly a touchstone for people who never saw them play.
    The new management regime understands fans need heroes they know, and for an entire generation, Subban was as good as it got. To them, he embodied the excitement of Canadiens hockey. He was brash, flashy, outrageous sometimes and a lot of fun to watch. In an increasingly diverse sport, he was also a reflection of the fanbase to itself in a way many hockey fans hadn't experienced before his arrival. He wasn't the best Hab, by far, but he was the modern-day reasonable hand-drawn facsimile. 
    It was touching to watch Subban accept his accolades, and fun when Carey Price came out for one last triple low five with his old friend and teammate. In the grand scheme of things, perhaps honouring Subban was a bit of a stretch, but the fans in the arena that night loved it.
    For those of us who remember watching Brian Skrudland's goal nine seconds into overtime, a sweaty Guy Carbonneau hoisting his first Cup as captain or Jean Beliveau skating into the sunset carrying Lord Stanley, the triple low five is a cute gimmick between friends having some fun. For those under 40 (40!), it's an adored piece of team lore. And, sadly, it's the best they have.
    On his special night, Subban spoke stirringly to the current roster, exhorting them to honour the uniform and leave it all on the ice. If they can and do, perhaps the next player the team honours in retirement will be one who excites the fans and delivers the championship they need, if accolades and Habs lore in the future are to have much meaning at all.