Years ago I took issue with the NHL’s “Hockey Is For Everyone” slogan. My issue was reminiscent of a 1990s scandal: the word “is.”
I made the point to people in hockey at the time that the sport is not, in fact, currently for everyone. Racial minorities feel excluded. There are financial barriers to entry that are larger than many other sports. And, yes, LGBT people often don’t feel welcome.
“Hockey Is For Everyone” is a statement of fact that, both at the time and today, is untrue. “Hockey For Everyone” made a lot more sense — an aspirational goal on the horizon of hockey and sports in general that simply removed the word “is.”
My simple one-word suggestion was rejected by the NHL.
The decision by Ivan Proporov to reject the Pride Night hosted by his team — the Philadelphia Flyers — and reject the LGBT community by refusing to wear a rainbow jersey is the latest example of my point. Homophobia — like racism and other issues — is still in the corners of every sport, and actions like this make people feel unwelcome.
No, hockey today is not for everyone.
It’s important when moments like this get blown up in the media and on social media to take stock of reality and get some historical perspective.
The NHL, and the hockey world in North America in general, have been pushing for broader LGBT inclusion longer than any other league. It was about a dozen years ago that Patrick Burke and a team of people founded the You Can Play project, which aimed to increase LGBT inclusion efforts in the sport he and his family have called home for decades.
With the guidance of Burke, Brian Kitts and others, You Can Play has moved the needle. Every club has held Pride Nights, Inclusion Nights or You Can Play Nights. Outsports readers view the NHL as one of the most LGBT-inclusive in men’s pro sports. Players have spoken out in support of the LGBT community. People in the NHL have come out publicly. The NHL and people across the hockey world are trying to change both perspective and reality.
Still, a stigma lingers. The NHL continues to be the only pro sports league in North America that’s never seen an active or retired player come out publicly. I hear reports of language in and around hockey locker rooms (though not necessarily the NHL) as being problematic (though, to be clear, problematic language does not necessarily reflect actual rejection of gay people).
Then a player like Provorov decides to give the big middle finger to the LGBT community on a Pride Night, and everything seems to turn upside down.
I decided last year that I wouldn’t write about a Pride Night to promote it unless I could talk with a player in the locker room. The front office can be full-steam ahead with the full embrace of LGBT fans, and one player from Russia — where there are bans on things like Pride Nights — can upend the public message of the night.
Last year, when five Tampa Bay Rays players refused to wear a rainbow logo on their uniform for that club’s Pride Night, I placed a good amount of blame on the club. Having just one player — let alone five — take a stand like this, and then play in the game, does so much damage to the public conversation.
As the NHL and Flyers coach John Torotorella have stood by Provorov’s choice to publicly reject the LGBT community on Pride Night, I scratch my head as to how the front office could allow this to happen.
The club should have benched him for the night for his refusal to wear a team-sanctioned jersey. While the criticism would still have been loud, it would have focused on this one player. Now the coach and club are deserving of criticism, and the point of the entire night has — rightly or wrongly — gone up in flames.
Yes, sports at every level across North America are getting better for gay and lesbian fans, athletes and coaches. Outsports shares stories proving this every day.
And... Hockey Is Not For Everyone. Not Yet.
It will be one day. And until then, “Hockey For Everyone” fits the place of the NHL and the sport in broader context much better.