Staal deflects questions about ditching Pride jersey, but Tkachuk makes strong statement

For barely more than a minute after the Florida Panthers’ ugly 6-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday, Eric Staal stood in front of a small group of reporters to answer questions about why he chose not to wear the team’s LGBT-inspired special “Pride Night” warm-up jerseys and instead skipped out on warm-ups entirely at FLA Live Arena.

The 36-year-old forward’s voice was shaky as he pointed back to the statement he put out jointly with Marc Staal — his brother also skipped warm-ups because of the jerseys — before the game, and he also had no good answer for what changed between this year and 2021, when he wore a Pride jersey during warm-ups as a Canadien.

“I never have before,” the six-time All-Star said, despite evidence of the contrary circulating on Twitter a few hours earlier. “I haven’t worn a Pride jersey before.

“Respectfully, I would just like to stick with the statement we made and released. That’s how we felt in this situation and that was the decision that we made, and I’d like to leave it at that and try my best to move forward.”

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His brother did not speak after the game.

The statement pointed to the brothers’ “Christian faith” as the reason why they chose not to wear the jerseys and their decision not to stood in stark contrast with coach Paul Maurice’s earlier indication the entire team would wear them.

Aside from the Staals, they all did, including star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who stood in defiance of the recent expansion of Russian gay propaganda laws, which prohibit the sharing of positive information about LGBT people.

The celebration of “Pride Night” across the league has become a controversy across the league this year, largely because of these Russian laws, which several teams have used as a reason to ditch special Pride-themed warm-up jerseys. So far, the Blackhawks, Rangers, Islanders and Wild have abandoned plans to wear them, and now four individual players — all citing religious reasons — have skipped warm-ups because of them, too.

Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov refused to wear a Pride-themed jersey in January and Sharks goaltender James Reimer did the same Wednesday.

“Pride Night” is important to the Panthers. They held the first ever NHL one in 2013 and the vast majority of the roster embraced it.

Matthew Tkachuk, in particular, is a big advocate of it and gave a strong statement in support of the LGBT celebration Thursday.

“For myself personally, obviously being out there and wearing the jerseys, and kind of enjoying and embracing a night like tonight—we only have so many of these nights throughout the season, whether it’s ‘Military Night’ or ‘Hockey Fights Cancer Night,’ or whatever,” the All-Star right wing said. “A night like night, 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.”

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Earlier in the day, Maurice said, “As an organization, we’ve decided, and rightfully so, to move forward with it, and support it and celebrate it.” He did say after the game, however, he was aware the Staal brothers opting out “was a possibility.”

“The story isn’t about them,” he said. “The story is about the rest of the group being excited; the organization, the fans being excited to celebrate a great night. Those are both grown men and they’ve lived in their faith their whole lives. This isn’t new to them, so they have the right to their opinion and take that stand. The rest of the players wore the sweater proudly and hope we conveyed that message of welcome to our building, and to our franchise and to our great game of hockey.”

Eric Staal had one shot, one block, one giveaway, one takeaway and two penalty minutes in the blowout loss. Marc Staal had one shot, two hits, four blocks, two penalty minutes and a plus-minus of minus-3. The loss left Florida (36-28-7) out of a playoff spot with 10 games remaining and another major test coming up Saturday against the New York Rangers (42-20-10) at 5 p.m. in Sunrise.

All-Star center Aleksander Barkov said their decision did not affect the team.

“It was all handled really well by our organization, by Eric and Marc, and by everyone in this room,” the captain said Thursday. “I don’t think we had any problem with that. They jumped into the game without the warm-up really well.”

Added Maurice: “You’ve got two men who are very well respected for their belief and their faith. ... As in all walks of life, there is a diversity of opinion and a right to have that. I believe that they’re equally as respected as men today as they were yesterday.”