The NHL has declared that February is now the “Hockey is for Everyone” month to highlight their commitment to diversity and inclusion. Teams have been hosting specific events to celebrate and recognise diversity, for example, participating in sled hockey, meeting blind players, and welcoming recent immigrants to the country to drop the puck. Fans have also been encouraged to share their stories of how hockey has impacted their lives using the hash tag #HockeyIsForEveryone. Each team has also assigned a You Can Play ambassador, who is said to be a leader in the locker room and the community on issues such as equality.
In addition, this month is hosted in partnership with You Can Play, a non-profit organisation that supports LGBTQ rights and holds that locker rooms and sports venues should be safe and free from homophobia, and athletes should not be judged on their gender identity or sexual orientation. One specific night during February is dedicated to You Can Play featuring ceremonial puck drops, hometown heroes, and Pride Tape.
Whilst I agree that these nights are important on a whole, I have a few issues with them too. Firstly, the ambassadors. The biggest “what the heck” name on the list is that of Andrew Shaw. Last April, Shaw was suspended during the playoffs and fined for using an anti-gay slur towards an official. He said he let his emotions get to the best of him – let’s be honest, it’s not the first time he’s thrown a tantrum. The reason why these types of nights are hosted are for people to realise why a gay player might be uncomfortable in the league, but also for players and fans to change their attitudes. On one hand, that’s great – he made a mistake, showed remorse then learnt from it, and wants to turn it in a positive. On the other hand, was he really the best ambassador they could muster? From the statement he issued, it gave the vibe of his own personal project, and some fans in the LTBQ community have expressed dismay at his appointment because he’s not a person they feel comfortable with representing and supporting them – considering he was screaming f—-t on national television ten months ago, you can understand why.
In contrast, some ambassadors get the big thumbs up. Braden Holtby and his wife
visited Harvey Milk’s former home which is now the San Francisco Human Rights Campaign Action Center and Store, and were later invited to a national dinner.
Together they attended the Capital Pride Festival as anonymous supporters, then the Washington Capitals asked Holtby to represent the organisation at the Capital Pride March – which he and his wife planned to attend anyway. The organisation itself has also been great in supporting this special month; Fatima Ali, a hockey player from the UAE was invited over, they’ve hosted a Chinese cultural night, USA Warriors, a hockey clinic for disabled children, and a ‘try blind hockey’ event. The team has also held a screening for middle school students of Soul on Ice, a documentary about black hockey players.
How much do these nights really help in the advancement of acceptance? Holtby stated that You Can Play have pushed the conversation forward so that acceptance is the norm, but is rainbow tape on a stick really going to encourage a player to come out? The NHL store is stocked with pride t-shirts and the tape but make no mention of where that money is going which makes me feel like the NHL is cashing in on what should be a progressive event. Considering they’re building a hockey team in Las Vegas – ANOTHER PLACE WITH NO ICE – it’s safe to say they love that cash. Secondly, you only have to look at comments on Facebook to see dozens of “keep politics out of sport”. The safety and comfort of minority groups are not a political campaign – they are basic human rights and should be treated as such.
A small point, not wholly relevant to this post but still important, is that some Russian players, like Yakupov, have also expressed their support for the You Can Play campaign. Considering the attitudes in Russia towards homosexuals, even speaking up and saying that a gay teammate would be supported is a quietly monumental feat that could put them in a precarious situation in their home country.
Whilst the effectiveness of You Can Play nights can come into question, and could be considered as just another money spinner for Bettman, the point remains that these events are a step in the right direction to making the league safer and more comfortable for minority groups, and importantly begin a conversation about it. For every fan complaining that politics should be kept out of hockey, there are others who fight for night’s like You Can Play. It’s not perfect – it won’t ever be – but it tells LGTBQ people that they are welcome in hockey, and that’s what counts.