Queer People Like Hockey, Too. But Is the NHL Doing Enough to Welcome Us?
Being a sports fan can be rough for queer people, especially for queer people of color in white-dominated spaces like hockey. At best it’s uncomfortable. At worst, it’s actively hostile. Here in the United States, all 32 NHL teams host some type of “Pride Night” as part of the “Hockey is for Everyone” movement during the league’s regular season. The concept behind Pride Night is to show the growth of support for LGBTQ people, on and off the ice, and to give a special shout-out to queer hockey fans.
Proud to celebrate Pride Night tonight. pic.twitter.com/gdiZbY8SDt
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) January 25, 2022
The teams that do a specific Pride Night and not just a vague general diversity night often highlight local queer hockey groups, and proceeds from auctioning off warmup jerseys and sticks go to supporting local LGBTQ charities.
The New York Rangers had their Pride Night for the 2021-2022 season on January 24, 2022. Along with the usual warmup jersey auction and rainbow stick tape, there was a ceremonial puck drop with Alexander Roque of the New York Gay Hockey Association, and the National Anthem was sung by Wren Rivera, a nonbinary actor.
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Some teams invest more effort into their Pride Night. For example, the New Jersey Devils tend to make a weekend out of it with actual outreach, talking to members of the community. Some of the other NHL teams who do the bare minimum should definitely take notes on the efforts the Devils make to be inclusive.
Last night, we hosted a special event to discuss the importance of Pride & inclusion for the LGBTQ+ community in sports.
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) January 23, 2022
The NHL also celebrates Pride Month in addition to each team having a Pride Night during the season, since Pride Month falls during the post-season. Teams often post statements highlighting the importance of Pride. Some teams will also have a visible presence at Pride parades, such as Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas marching with You Can Play at the 2019 Toronto Pride Parade, representing the organization.
As of now, there’s only one out player signed to an NHL contract. Luke Prokop, drafted in 2020 in round three at 73rd, is a Nashville Predators defenseman prospect currently playing for the Edmonton Oil Kings in the Western Hockey League. He came out as gay on social media in 2021.
— luke prokop (@lukeprokop_6) July 19, 2021
But when exactly did actual effort in the NHL to show support to the LGBTQ community begin?
In 2012, Brian Burke, a hockey executive who is currently the President of Hockey Operations for the Pittsburgh Penguins, along with son Patrick Burke, Brian Kitts and Glenn Witman, established the You Can Play project as a tribute to his late son, Brendan Burke. Brendan was a college hockey player. After he came out as gay publicly in 2009, he worked towards combating homophobia in hockey. He tragically passed away in a car accident in 2010, and the Burkes wanted to continue his legacy.
You Can Play’s partnership with the NHL eventually led them to launch the extremely broad “Hockey is for Everyone” project with this as it’s goal:
We support any teammate, coach or fan who brings heart, energy and passion to the rink. We believe all hockey programs — from professionals to youth organizations — should provide a safe, positive and inclusive environment for players and families regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender identity or expression, disability, sexual orientation and socio-economic status.
But even with the NHL’s queer outreach efforts over the last few years, it’s hard to believe the league’s assertions that “hockey is for everyone” when racist and homophobic slurs are still hurled out on the ice by active players at all levels of play.
As a queer hockey fan myself, it’s obvious that just having a Pride Night with little follow-up action or education contributes very little to actually improving not only the environment on ice for any potentially queer players but for fans as well. Just looking at the replies to all those Pride Night tweets, you’ll find plenty homophobic replies.
Still, there’s something comforting about the fact that these organizations are doing something, and the atmosphere at these Pride Nights is electrifying.
Having a Pride Night is a just baby step towards actual acceptance, but it’s one that matters. The NHL just needs to make more of an effort to make hockey welcoming for marginalized people.