Hockey is for Everyone™ is the NHL’s initiative to use the game of hockey as a vehicle to “drive positive social change and foster more inclusive communities.” The NHL’s official stance is that all hockey programs, including at the professional level, should provide a safe environment for all, “regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender identity or expression, disability, sexual orientation and socio-economic status.”
Whether or not hockey is actually for everyone is an open question. While perception – and reality – is shifting, there are still many within the hockey community who might agree, unironically, with Derek Sutton, fictional captain of the Hamilton Mustangs, that “thank God there is still a sport for middle-sized white boys.”
Three recent incidents involving the roll-out of Pride Nights by the Flyers, Rangers, and Islanders have caused fans to question how committed the NHL and its member clubs actually are to making hockey for everyone. NHL teams use Pride Nights to showcase their commitment to their LGBTQ+ fans, to signal their commitment to the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone initiative, and, of course, to sell tickets and customized merchandise.
NHL players are usually a reticent bunch when it comes to supporting – or not supporting – social causes. Until this year, NHL clubs have not faced public push-back from players on Pride initiatives, but that changed on January 17th when Ivan Provorov elected not to participate in warmups before the team’s home game against the Anaheim Ducks. Provorov, who is Russian Orthodox, cited his religious beliefs as an explanation for his absence from warmups. Provorov refused to wear a Pride Night jersey and use rainbow Pride tape on his sticks. Provorov played in the game, in which the Flyers wore their usual jerseys, and Coach John Tortorella backed up his player’s personal choice.
Interestingly, Tortorella, when serving as the coach of Team USA in 2016, told ESPN’s Linda Cohen, discussing the controversy over Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem, that “if any of my players sit on the bench during the national anthem, they will sit there for the rest of the game.”  Tortorella walked back his stance in 2020.
Provorov’s decision to skip warm ups, and the Flyers and the NHL’s lack of disciplinary action in response speaks to the limitation of Hockey is for Everyone initiatives and similar programs. Forcing players to participate in events that have social justice valences would likely be seen as tantamount to punishing players for not participating in a display that goes against their conscience.
The Rangers faced criticism over their decision to not wear Pride jerseys or use rainbow tape at all during warm ups for their Pride Night game on January 27th against the Golden Knights. The Rangers, apparently, failed to inform NYC Pride, the organization with whom they partnered for the event, of their decision. The Rangers have historically worn Pride jerseys and used rainbow tape in warm ups as part of the event activation. The Rangers issued a response that read, in part: “we support everyone’s individual right to respectfully express their beliefs.”
The Islanders attempted to short circuit the issue by providing a statement ahead of their Pride Night game February 9th against the Vancouver Canucks that the team, in alignment with their pre-existing policy, would not be wearing Pride jerseys in warmups because they only wear specialized jerseys produced by the league. The league only produces jerseys for Hockey Fights Cancer, Military, and Saint Patrick’s Day events.
Expect to see more about the appropriateness of players supporting or not supporting social initiatives in conjunction with team events. While one may feel that refusing to participate in warm ups is not supportable, it appears that the same principle should apply to all expressions of personal conviction by players, provided they do not infringe on the rights of others to also be true to their convictions.
The NHL and the NHLPA agreed in their 2020 Memorandum of Understanding that up to $2.5 million per year of currently available Industry Growth Fund dollars would go towards programs and initiatives “aimed at increasing diversity and inclusion in the game, as well as promoting social justice and racial equality, with any and all such grants subject to the usual IGF Committee review and approval process.”
One wonders if some players are rethinking their commitment or looking for further say in the sort of initiatives the NHL promotes. Perhaps we have further to go until Hockey is for Everyone is a mantle all take up voluntarily.
 Youngblood, 1986.
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