Shut Up and Dribble: When Advocacy in Hockey Becomes a “Distraction”

Removing Themed Jerseys in the NHL Hurts Everyone

Graphic Pau Qureshi Klamburg

Last week, the NHL cowered to intolerance and decided that specialty jerseys in support of various causes would no longer be worn by players during warm-ups on the ice.

“We rather [themed nights] continue to get the appropriate attention that they deserve and [themed jerseys] not be a distraction," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told Sportsnet reporter Elliotte Friedman.

Over the years, professional hockey teams have held special themed nights around causes like Indigenous Celebration, Black History Month, Hockey Fights Cancer, Military Appreciation, and of course, Pride. However, it’s clear that only one themed jersey has been a source of “distraction” in the past year.

Indeed, to commissioner Gary Bettman, the only solution that remained to avoid polemics surrounding Pride jerseys (which only seven players in the 2022-23 season refused to wear), was to make everyone suffer. All of the beautiful themed jerseys that supported causes that affect any hockey fan in one shape or another would be scrapped.

“We rather [themed nights] continue to get the appropriate attention that they deserve and [themed jerseys] not be a distraction.” — Gary Bettman, NHL Commissioner

Pro-LGBTQIA2S+ advocate and NHL league partner You Can Play released a statement on June 23, sharing it was “concerned and disappointed” by the NHL’s choice.

“Today’s decision means that the over 95% of players who chose to wear a Pride jersey to support the community will not get an opportunity to do so,” the statement read.

On top of this, the decision from the NHL’s board of governors came just as Pride month was in full swing. Friedman brought up the concerning timing of the decision to Bettman.

“I agree those are legitimate concerns, but in the final analysis, all of the emphasis and efforts on the importance of these various causes have been undermined by the distraction of which teams, which players [chose not to wear the jerseys],” Bettman replied. “This way we’re keeping the focus on the game and on these specialty nights we’re going to be focused on the cause.”

However, the question remains on how exactly these nights will be commemorated in the absence of themed jerseys worn by players on the ice, which represented a powerful symbol. The silver lining remains that Pride nights will “absolutely” continue to be held, according to Bettman. 

Pride jerseys—and themed jerseys in general—will still be designed and sold to raise money. Unfortunately, the auction of player-worn themed jerseys will cease too, representing a loss for the charities that received the donations. Some of these charities had the missions of including LGBTQIA2S+ people in sports, promoting school retention and academic success of Indigenous youth and raising money for pediatric cancer research, to name a few. Notably, the Washington Capitals had raised more than $88,000 for cancer research during their last Hockey Fights Cancer jersey auction.

Besides being a genius way to raise money for charities, wearing the Pride colours was all about representation, and assuring fans and players of all ages that their sexual orientation doesn’t affect their place in hockey.

Some commentators have said that the “distraction” was a result of fans loudly (and rightfully) denouncing the players who chose to not wear the jerseys. However, it’s unfair to expect queer hockey fans to remain silent when players categorically opt out of festivities that support their inclusion in the game. 

Homophobia is rampant in hockey, so Pride jerseys serve as a colourful reminder that sports are for everyone; even professional hockey players are behind the movement. However, with the fall of the Pride jerseys—and all the other themed jerseys for that matter—it’s hard to believe that the NHL really thinks hockey is for everyone.

No matter what message Bettman thought he was sending with this decision, it was the wrong one.