Why are NHL players refusing to wear Pride jerseys? Explaining the league's latest controversy
Tracking the teams and players participating in NHL Pride nights, what's behind the controversy and examining some common myths.
Until this year, NHL Pride night celebrations came and went without much discussion.
Teams showed their support for the LGBTQ+ community, wearing rainbow jerseys to later be auctioned with funds benefiting community organizations, and players adorned their sticks with rainbow tape. This year, however, there was a significant shift beginning with Philadelphia Flyers’ defender Ivan Provorov refusing to take to the ice wearing a Pride warmup jersey.
Erroneously, some initially pointed to this as an issue specific to Russian players related to Russia’s “gay propaganda law.” That argument was soon disproven when San Jose Sharks goalie James Reimer and Florida Panthers brothers Eric and Marc Staal also refused to wear Pride jerseys, citing their religion. Despite the evidence, Buffalo Sabres defender Ilya Lyubushkin also cited Russia’s law when he decided on Monday to not participate in wearing a Pride-themed jersey.
If it’s not a Russian issue, and it’s not a Biblically mandated commandment not to wear a shirt supporting the LGBTQ+ community, then what is the reason for this issue? And how does all of this impact the NHL’s marketing campaign of “Hockey is for Everyone.” Several players have openly spoken in support of the LGBTQ+ community and Pride, while other teams have opted out completely.
Let’s take a deeper look at Pride in the NHL, what it means, what’s to blame for the controversy, and who is saying what.
Confirmed players who chose not to participate in Pride night
Ivan Provorov, Philadelphia Flyers: Provorov was the first, stating he would not wear the jersey in order to “stay true to myself and my religion,” which he defined as Russian Orthodox. With Provorov in the dressing room, his teammates took to the ice for warmups in their Pride jerseys, but his absence sparked a debacle for the league that would not soon end.
James Reimer, San Jose Sharks: Next came Reimer, who stated that he was “choosing not to endorse something that is counter to my personal convictions which are based on the Bible, the highest authority in my life.” Reimer’s actions overshadowed the Sharks’ Pride night plans, which were some of the most robust and comprehensive in the league.
Reimer’s decision took individual players abstaining from Pride activities from an isolated incident with Provorov, to a growing pattern. The implications and intent, according to Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation and host of Edge of Sport, were clear.
“They want to abolish the very idea of LGBTQ equality, no matter how many families are violently disrupted in the process,” Zirin wrote of NHL players taking anti-LGBTQ+ action. “It’s impossible to divorce Reimer’s actions from this broader political context.”
Eric and Marc Staal, Florida Panthers: Like Reimer, the Staals cited their Christian beliefs as their reason for refusing to don a Pride jersey ahead of last week's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Eric Staal had previously worn a Pride-themed jersey while with the Montreal Canadiens during the 2020-21 season.
Ilya Lyubushkin, Buffalo Sabres: Most recently, Sabres defender Ilya Lyubushkin opted out of wearing a Pride-themed jersey for the Sabres’ festivities, despite the fact several prominent Russian players have worn Pride jerseys already this season.
Andrei Kuzmenko, Vancouver Canucks: The Russian winger is the sixth NHL player to decline wearing a jersey. Kuzmenko decided not to wear a Pride-themed warm-up jersey prior to Friday’s game against the Calgary Flames. Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet said Kuzmenko’s decision was made in consultation with his family.
Denis Gurianov, Montreal Canadiens: The Russian forward opted out of wearing the Canadiens' Pride Night warmup jersey on Thursday, with the club stating his decision came due to "family reasons." A team statement said that while they understand the decision, they "also hope the focus of attention remains where it belongs: on evolving as a society to be more accepting and welcoming of all, without exception.”
Which teams didn't wear Pride jerseys or use rainbow tape?
The Chicago Blackhawks made headlines when they openly stated they won’t wear Pride jerseys, according to the Chicago Sun Times, “because of safety concerns for Russian players.”
Chicago was not the only team to abandon Pride jersey plans this season, a growing list that also includes the New York Rangers, who were the first full team to ditch Pride following Provorov’s act. Also choosing not to wear Pride jerseys this season, either within their initial plans, or as a reaction to the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric spreading throughout the league, were the Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche, New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning and St. Louis Blues.
The Wild and Lightning still saw players utilize rainbow tape during warmups. As the Wild stated of their organizational decision, "It is important to host nights like this to show all players, fans, and the LGBTQIA+ community that hockey is for everyone. We will continue to utilize our platform to strengthen our community and create a greater state of hockey.”
Which teams did wear Pride jerseys and/or use rainbow tape?
While the teams and players opting out of Pride celebrations are the ones stealing headlines, a larger number of teams did wear Pride jerseys, or at the very least, utilize rainbow tape in warmups.
The Seattle Kraken and Anaheim Ducks had two of the most touted Pride celebrations, not only for their jersey designs and participation, but for the off-ice education, events, and community engagement. The same could be said for the San Jose Sharks, despite Reimer choosing to overshadow the celebration.
Also donning Pride jerseys and rainbow tape this season were the Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets, Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Arizona Coyotes, Florida Panthers, New Jersey Devils, Dallas Stars, Vegas Golden Knights, Buffalo Sabres, Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets and Montreal Canadiens.
The Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, Carolina Hurricanes, Ottawa Senators, Washington Capitals, Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs did not wear jerseys, but did utilize rainbow tape or in the case of the Leafs, helmet decals.
What does Russia have to do with Pride in the NHL?
Despite the Blackhawks reportedly stating they abandoned Pride due to safety concerns for Russian players, the answer to this question, as supported by evidence to date, is there is no connection between Russia’s law and the NHL. If players were on Russian soil, perhaps they could be charged with breaking the nation’s “gay propaganda law,” punishable with a fine of up to $6,500 USD. In North America, however, where the law does not apply, there is no evidence to suggest Russian players, or their families, would be at risk due to participation in a Pride event.
“[W]e have no information that would suggest there is any material threat that would exist (in Russia or otherwise) related to a Russian player participating in a club’s Pride activities,” the NHL’s deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote to The Athletic.
In Florida, on the same night Eric Staal and Marc Staal refused to wear Pride jerseys, netminder Sergei Bobrovsky, who has won four medals for Russia while representing his country at the Olympics, world championships, world juniors and World Cup, wore Florida’s Pride jersey without backlash, charges, or reprimand from any source.
Do religions say not to participate?
To say a specific religion states not to participate in a Pride night would be false. Within Christianity, there are many denominations, each featuring their own interpretation of the Bible, and having their own stance related to the LGBTQ+ community. For instance, the United Church of Canada, which is building a network of affirming ministries, says that these churches “publicly declare their commitment to inclusion and justice for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.”
As a Gallup poll result stated, “U.S. Protestants' views on moral issues such as abortion, gay and lesbian relations, and premarital sex differ sharply, depending on their denominational affiliation.” These differences were based largely on “the ways in which they interpret and teach the Bible.”
As priest Michael Coren wrote on the topic of NHL players choosing to evade participation in Pride in the name of religion, “it’s less about sport or James Reimer than it is about Christian inconsistency and homophobia.”
While multiple NHL players choosing not to participate in Pride this season referenced their religion, the choice of interpretation, and of which Biblical laws they follow, was still a choice. As Coren says, these same players break Biblical laws by playing on Sunday, wearing clothing of mixed fabrics, shaving their beards, and not keeping kosher.
As other writers and scholars state, the chosen interpretation of Biblical verses cited to subjugate the LGBTQ+ community are misunderstood. While the hockey world faces an onslaught of abuse issues, there are even scholars who assert these are actually verses denouncing gang sexual violence.
As Newsweek's Kurt Eichenwald put it, “This is no longer a matter of personal or private faith. With politicians, social leaders and even some clergy invoking a book they seem to have never read and whose phrases they don't understand, America is being besieged by Biblical illiteracy.”
It’s a two-sided debate over the actual meaning of the Bible, and the six verses often referenced to denounce the LGBTQ+ community, that is ongoing in hockey and society.
Who is speaking in support of Pride?
While some players have chosen to use their platform to denounce Pride, others, including Connor McDavid, Matthew Tkachuk and Zach Hyman vocally supported Pride initiatives.
McDavid, the best player on the planet, said his Oilers were looking forward to Pride night, although Edmonton was never scheduled to wear Pride jerseys.
"I know here in Edmonton we strongly believe hockey is for everyone and strongly support Pride Night," McDavid said. "We're looking forward to it. I think we were the first team to use the Pride tape in warmups so we're firm believers in the celebration that is Pride Night."
Fellow Oilers forward Zach Hyman, who is Jewish, also spoke in support of Pride, helping to debunk purported ties to religion and the anti-LGBTQ+ movement.
"These people have their own personal beliefs, I just don't agree with them," Hyman said.
"If I was in that position, I'd wear [a Pride jersey]. It doesn't go against any of my beliefs; on the contrary, I think it's extremely important to be open and welcoming to that greater community just because they're a minority and they've faced a lot of persecution over the years. To show that we care and that we're willing and ready to include them in our game, in our sport, is extremely important to me."
Tkachuk, who plays on the same team as Marc and Eric Staal in Florida, addressed reporters saying, “A night like tonight, for me, is really about including everybody. In my opinion, it’s by far the greatest game in the world, and everyone’s invited in my locker room and our locker room as an organization.”
Perhaps the most ardent supporter of Pride in the NHL has been Pittsburgh Penguins president of hockey operations, Brian Burke.
“To our friends in the LGBTQ+ community, don’t be discouraged,” Burke said in an interview.
“We’ve had a couple of minor setbacks from a tiny number of players, but we’ve made steady and spectacular progress in this space.”
Burke also took time to vocalize his stance that religion should not be a factor in refusing to support Pride.
“With the religious reasons, it just doesn’t compute for me,” Burke said. “I was born and raised a Catholic. I don’t see any conflict between my religious beliefs and the ability to say to the LGBTQ+ community you’re welcome here.”
Recently, a new organization featuring many prominent NHL players and hockey media members as ambassadors, the Alphabet Sports Collective, also launched showing further Pride support from the hockey world. Players announced as initial ambassadors include Sam Reinhart, Morgan Rielly, James van Riemsdyk, Scott Laughton, Kaiden Guhle and Tyson Barrie, and the launch party in Toronto was also attended by Ryan O’Reilly and Alex Kerfoot.
Why is Pride night important?
When news started pouring in about teams and players refusing to support Pride, Luke Prokop himself took to social media to explain the impact and importance of Pride celebrations in hockey.
"Pride nights and pride jerseys play an important role in promoting and respecting inclusion for the LGBTQIA+ community and it's disheartening to see some teams no longer wearing them or embracing their significance, while the focus of others has become about the players who aren't participating rather than the meaning of the night itself," Prokop wrote on social media.
In 2021, the NHL and NHLPA actually titled their Pride month initiative, “Why Pride Matters.” As NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stated in a video promotion for the initiative, “Pride matters because Pride lets you define who you are and how you value your own self worth.”
As the BBC wrote in an explanation of what Pride stands for, “Pride is a celebration of people coming together in love and friendship, to show how far LGBTQ+ rights have come, and how in some places there's still work to be done.”
“[Pride] is about acceptance, equality, celebrating the work of LGBTQ+ people, education in LGBTQ+ history and raising awareness of issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community. It also calls for people to remember how damaging homophobia was and still can be.”
While teams and players grapple with how to support Pride, and some choose to denounce this celebration of “people coming together in love and friendship” that helps to “raise awareness of issues” and remembers “how damaging homophobia” can be, the NHL itself is facing a crisis as the image of the league continues to make news questioning hockey’s commitment to inclusion and diversity, and if hockey really is, as the league’s marketing campaign states, for everyone.