Maple Leafs won’t wear themed jerseys for team’s Pride night Tuesday

The Toronto Maple Leafs will not be wearing themed warm-up jerseys for the team’s annual Pride Night celebration on Tuesday.

Since 2017, the organization has held “Pride Nights” in support of the LGBTQ community, but has never donned a special warm-up jersey.

The Leafs said rainbow tape will be given to players during the pregame skate, and the team has many other events planned throughout the evening.

Before facing the Columbus Blue Jackets, Toronto player and head coach Sheldon Keefe donned a rainbow-themed T-shirt during a media interview Tuesday morning.

A handful of NHL players who have refused to wear Pride warm-up jerseys this season include Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov, San Jose Sharks goaltender James Reimer, Florida Panthers’ Eric and Marc Staal, and Buffalo Sabers blueline players Ilya Lyubushkin.

Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly has joined general manager Kyle Dubas and team president Brendan Shanahan in the Toronto Pride parade in the past.

“I believe actions speak louder than words,” Rielly said Tuesday. “Especially talking louder than dressing.”

The Maple Leafs will have pride stickers on their helmets, but Russian goalie Ilya Samsonov is not expected to have a pride sticker on the back of his mask.

Sports leagues and teams often use Pride Nights to raise awareness and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people — and sell tickets to them — and the NHL has been leading the way. They can include special jerseys designed by LGBTQ+ artists, performances, information sheets, and even drag shows. They are very popular for the most part.

But six NHL players recently opted not to wear rainbow-colored jerseys on team pride night for the first time, leading the league commissioner to say it is weighing the future of the game.

That worried some fans and LGBTQ+ supporters, who said it showed that a political climate that limits speech, health care and transgender sports participation in the U.S. and internationally is now threatening what should be fun and affirming events.

“It’s safe to say this political landscape is helping to normalize people and stop requiring them to express support for marginalized members of society in optional ways,” said Hudson Taylor, executive director and founder of Athlete Ally, a Organizations that work with teams and coalitions to advance LGBTQ+ inclusion.

Professional sports have been here before. In June, five pitchers for the Tampa Bay Rays refused to wear Pride jerseys, citing their Christian beliefs, and a U.S. women’s national soccer player missed an overseas trip in 2017 while the team wore Pride jerseys , also did not participate in the NWSL game last year for the same reason.

This season, three NHL teams — the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers and Minnesota Wild — have decided not to wear rainbow warm-ups. The Rangers and Wilders changed course after initially planning to have players don rainbow-themed warm-up jerseys, without specifying why.

Between player opt-outs and team decisions, NHL Commissioner Gary Bateman said the league will “assess” in the offseason how it handles Pride nights going forward, saying the refusal to distract from “our team and what we’ve always done Doing and representing.

But he also noted that the NHL, teams and players “overwhelmingly” support Pride Night.

The NHL has partnered for a decade with the You Can Play Project, which advocates for LGBTQ+ participation in sports. No NHL player has opted out of a Pride night before.

The changes come as Republican lawmakers across the U.S. are pursuing hundreds of proposals this year against LGBTQ+, especially transgender, rights. Meanwhile, international sports governing bodies are developing policies to ban all transgender athletes from track and field and effectively ban transgender women from swimming.

Internationally, a Russian law restricting “propaganda” (including advertising, media and art) to LGBTQ+ people led to at least one Russian NHL player refusing to attend a Pride night. Ugandan lawmakers recently passed a bill making prison sentences for offenses related to same-sex relationships.

It’s all interconnected, said Evan Brody, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky whose media studies typically focuses on LGBTQ+ spaces in sports.

“The laws that are being passed, the players that aren’t involved, all exist in the same kind of ecosystem,” Brody said. “They all exist within this larger anti-LGBTQ discourse, and I think we’re usually quick to point to other countries, and maybe even less to think about how this affects the United States.”

In the NHL, many Pride nights are more about selling tickets, Taylor said. But since the league has been a leader in men’s sports in terms of how it hosts a good Pride night, he said it’s “obvious” to see players and teams “backtracking on the way they’ve historically supported and given visibility” to the LGBTQ community. “

Russian Ivan Provorov and Canadian James Reimer, along with brothers Eric and Marc Staal, all refused to wear rainbow-colored jerseys for the warm-up match on religious grounds. Ilya Lyubushkin said he would not attend under the laws of Russia, where he was born. And another Russian player, Andrei Kuzmenko, decided not to wear the special jersey after discussing it with his family.

“Some players choose to make choices that they are free to make,” Bateman said at a news conference in Seattle on Thursday night. “That doesn’t mean they don’t respect other people and their beliefs and their way of life and who they are. It just means they don’t want to support it by wearing uncomfortable uniforms.”

For a player like Lyubushkin who has family in Moscow and visits frequently, the fear of Russian reprisals can be “very real,” Taylor noted.

“I don’t think the LGBTQ community should think that NHL hockey players are turning their backs on that community,” said Marty Walsh, the new executive director of the NHL Players Association. “The vast majority of players have worn jerseys.”

The Twin Cities Queer Hockey Association participated in this season’s Minnesota Wild Pride Night, with two of the association’s teenage LGBTQ+ members waiting on the bench during warmups.

Bennett-Danek, who co-founded the association with her wife in early 2022, said Wild has been “full of support” for their organization and the community at large.

“Yes, it was a mistake to cancel the jerseys, but they didn’t cancel any other part of Pride Night, and they continue to support our team, even today,” Bennett-Danek said. “They also handed over signed Pride jerseys for auction to further help support the LGBTQIA community in the Twin Cities. … So, in our opinion, they have righted the wrong. They promised us that next year’s Pride festival will not will cancel.”

The NHL hasn’t penalized or fined anti-LGBTQ+ language since 2017, despite the US Hockey League suspending a player for eight games in April 2022 for using homophobic language. The vast majority of NHL players participate in pregame Pride skates, which Edmonton’s Zach Hyman says is “obvious.”

“It doesn’t go against any of my beliefs,” Hyman said. “Instead, I think it’s really important to be open and welcoming to this larger community because they’re a minority and they’ve faced a lot of persecution over the years. And to show that we care and that we’re willing and ready to include them in our games and in our In sport, that’s very important to me.”

— Erica Hunzinger, Associated Press, via CP file

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