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The NHL Has a Pride Problem

Reflecting on the NHL’s Decision to Ban Specialty Jerseys

I never thought I would have to spend so much time thinking about the topic of Pride jerseys in sports, and yet here we are. Pride nights can be cynically looked at as just another way to make money for franchises owned by billionaires and giant corporations, but they are also a step towards making the sports community a welcoming environment. What was once a largely mundane, albeit wholesome, corporate gesture has become a platform for bigots to create controversy and express their displeasure at inclusivity.

A couple weeks ago, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred was asked about pride jerseys, and his answer was disheartening. While the MLB leaves the decision to hold Pride nights entirely up to each individual team, Manfred also stated that the league has recommended teams to avoid Pride related logos on uniforms and hats. You can have Pride night, but you’d better make it as subtle as possible and keep it away from the players. I think leaving the decision up to teams is fine, but actively discouraging teams from using pride jerseys is a step too far. This set a very low bar for the NHL to clear, and they still managed to trip over it. 

Commissioner Gary Bettman recently announced that no specialty jerseys will be worn by teams next season, calling them a “distraction”. That’s a bit of a silly reason because the distraction wasn’t caused by the jerseys, but by players refusing to wear them. Previously, they weren’t a distraction at all. The teams involved in these situations didn’t help either, by allowing players to skip warmup and still play in the following game. In a sport where players will get labeled as “problems” for being a few minutes late to team meetings, it’s just bizarre to not scratch a player after they refuse to partake in a team event. I think the media firestorm surrounding this topic could have been somewhat reduced if teams had actually let their players know that this stuff won’t fly.

One professional sports team who recently made it clear they won’t tolerate open bigotry from players was the Toronto Blue Jays. Pitcher Anthony Bass received backlash after sharing a video that referred to transitioning as “evil and demonic”. The video, of course, took the “protect the kids” angle – but really, the only reason people don’t want to see trans kids is because they also don’t want to see trans adults. As a trans sports fan, it takes some extreme cognitive dissonance for me to cheer on dudes who think my existence is demonic. Considering that every job has a code of conduct clause that employees agree to, and that professional athletes are often expected to be role models, I certainly have no qualms with the fact that Bass was quickly released by the Jays after this fiasco. Although, his role on the team as a non-star player definitely made it easier to cut him. The recent rise in athletes refusing to support Pride initiatives has pretty much coincided with the rise in anti-trans sentiments in North America, like the one Bass shared. What is essentially an organized hate and disinformation campaign by Republicans has turned people who didn’t really care before into sudden radicals. Eric Staal previously put so little thought into this subject that he “forgot” he wore a Pride jersey with Montreal in 2021. Yet suddenly, he refuses to wear one now. I don’t think the timing is a coincidence. 

That is why I can’t see any player opting out of pride support in anything but a negative light. Personally, I’d rather not know which players would hate me if they met me. Simply existing as a queer person already feels like constantly walking on eggshells, so a player being unable to stomach the thought of partaking in a small show of support can feel like a gut-punch. It feels like I’m scared to like any particular player in fear of them publicly being a homophobe. I don’t expect athletes to be angels or anything, but keeping your hatred to yourself is basically the bare minimum.

In a selfish way, I was glad that the Ottawa Senators, my hometown team, didn’t wear Pride jerseys this year. It would have been great if they did, but at least now when I’m cheering them on, I don’t have to know which players would be disgusted by my existence. Given recent trends, it was smart of the Senators organization to direct their Pride night efforts towards the fans (and away from the players) by covering every seat in the arena with complimentary Pride t-shirts.  It was an incredible night being at that game and a warmup holdout would have tainted the message. However, the Senators’ decision was really only acceptable to me due to the fact that they’ve never worn Pride jerseys in the past. It was only a few years ago that former owner Eugene Melnyk was outraged at the team marketing to “dogs and gays” on social media. Given that, we’re on an upward trajectory over here.

Despite being ironically content with the Senators’ lack of pride jerseys, I don’t give teams a pass for ditching Pride nights entirely. Teams like the New York Rangers, who have worn Pride jerseys in the past, elected not to do so this season despite advertising that they would. If I was a fan of them, there would be a sense of abandonment. ‘You said you cared before, but a couple of guys on your team are uncomfortable wearing rainbow colors, so you throw the baby out with the bathwater?’ Take a stance as an organization and don’t protect people with those views. Scratch those players and make it clear to your fanbase that you don’t agree with them. This also applies to the league deciding to scrap all specialty jerseys – it’s frankly ridiculous that Hockey Fights Cancer jerseys may not return, just to protect some homophobes.

There’s also the topic of how the media reacts to these cases. One take I remember seeing on Twitter this past season was that we should just ignore the bigots and focus on amplifying positive allyship within the sport. While the later should definitely be emphasized, the former just doesn’t seem like a productive way to move forward. Letting bigotry slide without responding just allows hateful ideas to fester and creep into the minds of otherwise reasonable people – especially through social media. In a similar vein, letting players off the hook would just result in even more bad apples coming forward and more Pride initiatives being canceled entirely. Those things happening would just further contribute to making the hockey community even more of a toxic place for LGBTQ+ fans. I fully expect homophobic people to take the removal of pride jerseys as a “win” and be more openly hateful towards their fellow fans, especially on social media.

We’re at a bit of a crossroads where things can either get better or worse. Where does all of this leave me as a queer sports fan? It’s rough out here, but it always has been. All I can do is continue to exist in this space, be who I am, and hope that things don’t get worse.

Maude Schoblocher (she/her) is a host of Game Over: Ottawa on sdpn. You can find her @maudescho on Twitter.


Ian Kennedy: “Why are NHL players refusing to wear Pride jerseys? Explaining the league’s latest controversy”. Yahoo Sports Canada, April 4, 2023.

Erica Hunzinger: “NHL’s Pride nights collide with LGBTQ+ political climate”. CBC Sports,  April 4, 2023.

Ian Mendes, Dan Robson, and Katie Strang: “The Eugene Melnyk era in Ottawa: Hopeful, then bizarre and tyrannical”. The Athletic, April 14, 2022.

R.J. Anderson: “Rob Manfred says MLB urged teams not to wear Pride-themed uniforms to ‘protect players’”. CBS Sports, June 15, 2023.

CBC News: “Blue Jays pitcher Anthony Bass apologizes for sharing post supporting anti-LGBTQ boycotts”. May 30, 2023.

Greg Wyshynski: “NYC Pride unaware of Rangers’ jersey decision on Pride Night”. ESPN, Jan 28, 2023.