NHL Pride Nights under the microscope: Blackhawks latest team to decline wearing warmup jerseys

The NHL has trademarked the saying, “Hockey is for everyone,” and the league’s webpage for the program includes a link to its “Pride” initiative with stories and videos about celebrating inclusivity with respect to the LGBTQ+ community over the years.

This season, teams have conducted Pride celebrations on different days to varying degrees – with Pride warm-up jerseys, rainbow-colored tape on sticks, outreach programs, player meet-and-greets and social media activations, among others.

But some teams and players have drawn scrutiny with opt-outs and a lack of participation, the latest being a Russian player on the Buffalo Sabres, the Chicago Blackhawks -- who didn't wear Pride jerseys on Sunday -- and brothers Marc and Eric Staal in Florida.

Florida Panthers center Eetu Luostarinen uses a stick with the LGBT pride flag on it before the start of a hockey game against the Nashville Predators on March 20, 2021.
Florida Panthers center Eetu Luostarinen uses a stick with the LGBT pride flag on it before the start of a hockey game against the Nashville Predators on March 20, 2021.

Here’s a rundown of the notable highlights around Pride Night across the NHL:

Why Sabres' Ilya Lyubushkin won't take part in warmups

He cited an anti-gay Kremlin law and fears of retribution at home in Russia, according to the Associated Press. He is from Moscow, has family there and visits in the offseason. The Sabres said they are going ahead with their third Pride Night but understand  players' decisions to forgo risk.

Why Blackhawks didn’t wear Pride jerseys

According to multiple reports, Blackhawks team officials and security personnel made the decision to call off wearing Pride jerseys because of security concerns for three players with Russian heritage. Russia in December expanded restrictions on activities seen as promoting LGBTQ rights in the country. Nikita Zaitsev was born in Moscow, and other players on the team have family or other connections in Russia, the AP reported.

The Blackhawks still had plans for other activities, including DJs from the LGBTQ community and the Chicago Gay men’s chorus.

On March 8, the Athletic published a story that included quotes from alternate captain Connor Murphy – “I don’t think we have anyone, that i know of, that wouldn’t support that – and CEO Danny Wirtz – “the players are committed to this” – that said the team was expecting to participate.

On March 23, Murphy told reporters: "We've been able to wear them before. It's still important to have the night. A jersey's a jersey and I think it's more important that we are supporting the cause as an organization. Whether we're wearing the jersey or not, that's the organization's decision."

Why Sharks goalie James Reimer didn’t participate

Reimer was the only San Jose player to sit out pregame warmups as the rest of the team wore Pride jerseys. He spoke to the media before the March 18 game, saying it was against his religious beliefs.

“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 highest authority in life,” Reimer said.

“As we promote these standards, we also acknowledge and accept the rights of individuals to express themselves, including how or whether they choose to express their beliefs, regardless of the cause or topic,” the team said in a statement. “As an organization, we will not waver in our support of the LGBTQIA+ community and continue to encourage others to engage in active allyship.”

The Sharks also posted LGBTQIA+ topics to their Twitter account during the game in lieu of game updates.

Why Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov didn’t participate

On Jan. 18, Provorov declined to partake in pregame warmups as Philadelphia took the ice with Pride jerseys. He cited his Russian Orthodox religious beliefs and did not offer any follow-up answers to his statement.

“I respect everybody's choices,” Provorov said after the game. “My choice is to stay true to myself and my religion. That's all I'm going to say.”

Flyers coach John Tortorella said Provorov “was true to himself and to his religion.”

Meanwhile, the Flyers hosted a pregame skate for LGBTQ youth, and James van Riemsdyk and Scott Laughton met with about 50 members of the LGBTQ community after the game. The team auctioned off sticks and jerseys with proceeds spent to grow the game of hockey in diverse communities.

Rangers didn't wear Pride jerseys

While some teams have not included wearing Pride jerseys as part of their celebrations, the New York Rangers scrapped the plan entirely Jan. 27 despite promoting it would happen (along with using rainbow-colored tape on their sticks).

They did not explain why they changed course, though they have donated to the Ali Forney Center, an agency dedicated to LGBTQ+ youths in the U.S.

"Our organization respects the LGBTQ+ community and we are proud to bring attention to important local community organizations as part of another great Pride Night,” the Rangers told Lohud.com, part of the USA TODAY Network. "In keeping with our organization's core values, we support everyone's individual right to respectfully express their beliefs."

Wild didn't wear Pride jerseys

The Minnesota Wild did not wear Pride jerseys for their March 7 game even though they were scheduled to do so. According to The Athletic, the Pride jerseys were shown on the Wild's auction website. Some players used rainbow-colored tape on their sticks.

Minnesota scrapped the jersey wearing because of Russia's anti-gay propaganda law, The Athletic said.

“The Minnesota Wild organization is proud to continue our support of the LGBTQIA+ community by hosting our second annual Pride Night tonight, which we are celebrating in many ways," the team said in a statement. "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.”

Jack Jablonski, who came out as gay in September 2022, did the Let's Play Hockey pregame chant. The Wild continued with other initiatives, including some players donating to QUEERSPACE Collective and hosting a meet-and-greet.

Why Panthers' Eric and Marc Staal didn't participate 

Eric and Marc Staal declined to wear the Panthers' Pride Night jerseys in warm-ups before the team's March 23 game, saying "it goes against our Christian beliefs."

Every other member of the team participated, according to Florida Hockey Now's George Richards, including Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.

What did NHL commissioner Gary Bettman say?

Bettman was questioned at the All-Star Game media availability not long after Provorov's announcement.

“You know what our goals, our values and our intentions are across the league, whether it’s at the league level or at the club level,” he said. “But we also have to respect some individual choice and some people are more comfortable embracing themselves in causes than others. And part of being diverse and welcoming is understanding those differences.”

Asked later whether that stance meant the league was accepting bigotry, he said, “Whether or not you choose to embrace and make a statement on behalf of a cause affirmatively, if you choose not to do that it doesn’t necessarily make you a bigot. I’m sure that you don’t endorse every single charity that solicits you and you don’t participate in every social cause. You pick and choose the ones that are important to you. The ones you don’t choose to do don’t necessarily make you bigoted, misogynistic or homophobic or racist.”

He added: “We’re trying to be open, welcoming and inclusive, and within parameters, being welcoming and diverse and inclusive requires, to a line, which gets drawn in each case, that you’re tolerant, to a point, of various views.”

What about teams that have worn jerseys?

Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk said of the Staals and the team's Pride Night: "They voiced their opinion and they have the right to their own opinion, whichever way they want to go."

He went on to address what the night meant for him personally.

"A night like tonight, for me, really is just all about including everybody," he said. "In my opinion, it's by far the greatest game in the world and everybody is welcome in my locker room. I think our organization has done an unbelievable job of showing that and embracing that, starting from (team owner Vincent Viola) all the way down to the players. ... It started here a bunch of years ago with the (Pride) tape. I think we were one of the first teams to start it and continuing the tradition every year and showing each and every day that hockey is for every single person."

Sharks captain Logan Couture told the Athletic: “Every individual has a choice, and he (Reimer) has made his. The rest of us are going to be wearing the jersey. I think this organization sees this as an extremely important night. And I think a lot of guys are excited to go out and wear the jersey and celebrate it. I think that hockey is really for everyone. It is an inclusive sport. We want it to be that way.”

Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn told Bally Sports Southwest that he had read a statement by Pittsburgh Penguins executive Brian Burke in the locker room the day before the team’s Pride Night on Tuesday.

“I thought it was a good message, and everybody’s welcome in our room,” Benn said.

Burke’s son, Patrick, helped found the You Can Play Project in memory of his brother, Brendan, who died in a car accident shortly after the college hockey team manager had come out as gay. Brian has helped raise money for the organization.

“I wish players would understand that the Pride sweaters are about inclusion and welcoming everybody,” Brian Burke said in the statement. “A player wearing Pride colors or tape isn't endorsing a set of values or enlisting in a cause. He is saying you are welcome here. And you are, in every single NHL building.”

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NHL Pride Nights controversy: Blackhawks latest team to skip jerseys