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.

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