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Some thoughts on the NHL ditching pre-game speciality jerseys
The NHL made the decision to eliminate all pre-game specialty jerseys for next season.
I’m a straight white guy.
When it comes to writing about and covering hockey, I’m well aware I won the genetic lottery. Most people look like me, my name isn’t foreign sounding to anyone within the sport, and when I grew up, first playing roller hockey, I could look up to players that fit my demographic.
It’s why I’ve wanted to be careful and thoughtful in how I write about the NHL’s recent decision to stop using pre-game speciality jerseys. A decision that stems, as Gary Bettman put it, from pride jerseys becoming too much of a distraction.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, I’ve never lived that experience. I have a family member who has, I have a former college roommate who has. I don’t know what it’s like to be potentially hated by a stranger for being my authentic self.
People have societally, in both hockey and beyond, have been asked or told to hide in the shadows. Conform to another norm, and avoid being a distraction.
Pride Nights, and pre-game warmups in pride jerseys, fought against that. If a sport that’s been built on decades on conformity can reach out, fight some societal norms, and become publicly welcoming for an 18-minute pre-game warmup, it speaks volumes that at some point a closeted NHL player can actually live authentically — that when they hoist the Stanley Cup they can celebrate alongside their husband, just like the heterosexual players can celebrate with their wives.
When the NHL comes out and calls pride jerseys a distraction, it fights that progress. By using pride nights as a reason to cancel all pre-game specialty jerseys the NHL made it even worse.
The narrative doesn’t shift to the other initiatives, as Bettman claimed, instead when we don’t have a military appreciation night or an Irish-heritage night, or whatever other speciality jersey, it could focused back to the fact it was “ruined by members of the LGBTQIA+ community,” which is both unfair and gets away from the larger discussion we should be having.
There will be comments that sports are supposed to be a distraction, that we should stick to stories about sports. That we shouldn’t force players to champion a cause they don’t stand for.
But players weren’t championing LGBTQIA+ rights by wearing pride jerseys. Just like I don’t think wearing a military appreciation jersey makes someone an army supporter or a St. Patrick’s Day jersey makes them Irish.
It’s a piece of fabric, if a player doesn’t want to wear it, if they want to sit out warm-ups, that’s their decision, I’m fine with that. (For precedence, back in 2002 San Jose Sharks captain Owen Nolan skipped a preseason game because Queen Elizabeth was there to drop the ceremonial face-off for political reasons.) But that shouldn’t stop the league from working to be more inclusive publicly, it also shouldn’t stop the league from reaching out to new fans.
This isn’t just a LGBTQIA+ commentary. By pulling the plug and banning pre-game jerseys in general, the NHL has lost touch points with other communities. For example the Dallas Stars want to connect more with potential Mexican hockey fans, Noche Mexicana jerseys helped share that public message.
Hockey is a great sport, I’ve made my living covering it. But too often the NHL goes out of its way to create roadblocks to growth. There are communities and individuals that need an entry point, when the NHL commissioner goes and deems one of those entry points as a distraction it is backward thinking.
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