Colin F. Horgan: How the NHL can really signal it cares about gay rights
Fining players who don't take part in inclusion events will be, in the end, good for business.
By: Colin Horgan
In October, the National Hockey League issued its first report on diversity and inclusion. “Diverse representation within inclusive environments is proven to advance innovation, creativity, and decision-making — all of which are important to the growth of the sport and our business,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in his introduction to the report. This aligned with what the league said in a 2018 white paper. Hockey organizations should “seek to create a sustainable business model — attracting, acquiring, developing and retaining individuals and families, fans, employees, sponsors and other stakeholders. To meet this objective, hockey organizations will need to enhance the experience for all.” Specifically, the white paper noted, the league must attract American millennials, the most diverse cohort in the nation’s history, it concluded. “Leaders of hockey organizations will need to harness the millennials within their ranks … to engage and inspire their networks with a unified, welcoming message that indeed ‘Hockey is for Everyone.’”
The 2022-23 season has put significant pressure on that slogan’s bona fides. The latest blows to the NHL’s inclusion efforts have come in recent weeks. Earlier this month, San Jose Sharks goaltender James Reimer refused to wear the team’s Pride-themed jerseys during the pre-game warm-up — which, as is the case for other teams, are auctioned off following the game with proceeds going to charities. “I have no hate in my heart for anyone, and I have always strived to treat everyone that I encounter with respect and kindness,” Reimer said in a statement. Still, he said, “in this specific instance, I am choosing not to endorse something that is counter to my personal convictions, which are based on the Bible.” The Sharks gave Reimer (and others) an exceptionally wide berth, stating that the team acknowledges and accepts “the rights of individuals to express themselves, including how or whether they choose to express their beliefs, regardless of the cause or topic.” For the record, all the other Sharks players wore the Pride jerseys.
On Wednesday evening, the Chicago Blackhawks announced that its players would not wear Pride jerseys during warm-ups this past Sunday, reportedly due to safety concerns related to Russia’s LGBTQ “propaganda” laws, which criminalize any attempt to promote “non-traditional sexual relations” in public. Other Russian players, including Pittsburgh’s Evgeny Malkin, have won Pride jerseys this season and, curiously, are still alive and well. Then on Thursday, ahead of the Panthers-Leafs game, Eric and Marc Staal released a statement saying that, “after many thoughts, prayers and discussions,” they too would refuse to wear Florida’s Pride warm-up jerseys. “We feel that by us wearing a pride jersey it goes against our Christian beliefs.”
This most recent spate of refusals follows others earlier this year, beginning with Flyers’ forward Ivan Provorov in January, who refused on similar religious grounds. Coincidentally, that was the same month the NHL caved to a broadside attack from Florida Governor Ron DeSandits on the league for its attempt to host an inclusive hiring fair during the All-Star week in Sunrise, Florida. Pride jerseys also quietly disappeared altogether from warm-ups in both New York City and Minnesota this season, where both teams decided, without explanation, that no players would wear them. At least Reimer offered some explanation, despite the gaping holes in its logic. (He made things worse by also saying that, as much as he got on with former teammate Nazem Kadri — a Muslim — he wouldn’t wear a “Muslim jersey.”)
Brian Burke, Reimer’s former general manager in Toronto and a staunch ally of the LGBTQ+ community, was disappointed with the goalie's refusal. “I wish players would understand that the Pride sweaters are about inclusion and welcoming everybody,” Burke said in a statement. “A player wearing pride colors or tape isn’t endorsing a set of values or enlisting in a cause!”
Burke’s defence of the Pride-themed jersey initiative is refreshing, but why isn’t the NHL saying the same thing? The league looks totally lost — but it doesn’t have to.
Back in January, in reaction to Provorov’s refusal to wear a Pride warm-up jersey, the NHL noted that individual hockey clubs are encouraged to “celebrate the diversity that exists in their respective markets” but that players “are free to decide which initiatives to support.” The statement not only undermined the legitimacy of the Hockey is for Everyone initiative by diluting the league’s commitment to its fundamental message, it also welcomed the speculation that the NHL is interested in supporting social impact causes only to the point that they don’t conflict with its business.
This cynical interpretation is likely the correct one. But here’s the thing: that doesn’t have to be a problem for the NHL. Just the opposite, in fact, because it has already stated publicly that inclusivity and diversity is related directly to the “growth of the sport and our business.” With this in mind, the NHL would be justified in saying that, while it doesn’t care if players voice their own personal opinions, if those opinions conflict with the business, growth, health, or reputation of the game, the league can issue a fine. Just as it would if someone were to say something racist or sexist. This would also introduce a basis to justify other themed events, like those that honour the military (does it grow the game or the business?) and set a standard for participation in those cases, too. And it would show that, at least on some level, the NHL actually cares — even if the only reason is the health of its bottom line.
Colin Horgan a former journalist and speechwriter. He writes a monthly hockey column for The Guardian.
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