The NHL put out a memo a week ago that banned the use of Pride Tape in any use ahead of their 2023-24 season. This came after an announcement over the summer that its players and member teams will no longer wear special jerseys for theme nights when teams show support for a variety of groups, from the LGBTQ+ community to Indigenous groups, the military and people fighting cancer.
As a gay man in hockey, I have spent a lot of time trying to formulate a cohesive thought on everything going on. I have spoken out probably a bit too much on social media for someone who has dreams and aspirations of getting into higher levels of hockey, but I feel compelled to do so.
This ban is against everything that the NHL has continuously claimed to fight for. The wording “Hockey Is for Everyone” meant that at least one night a year these teams were reaching out to everyone. In addition to rainbow-themed Pride Night jerseys, teams decked out their players in Indigenous night jerseys, Black history month jerseys, Hispanic heritage night jerseys as a way to try, in the NHL’s own words, “grow the game.” But thanks to a “backlash” — a term I use loosely since only seven players voiced concerns with Pride Night jerseys — the NHL has issued a sweeping ban.
When the jersey ban came out, Commissioner Gary Bettman said, “That’s just become more of a distraction from really the essence of what the purpose of these nights are. We’re keeping the focus on the game. And on these specialty nights, we’re going to be focused on the cause.”
Following that up, the NHL went a step further and banned Pride Tape. In a game where symbolism is so important, the NHL has taken away the symbol that allowed LGBTQIA+ people and others to feel welcome. Instead, now we have a sport that was out in front and being a leader bowing to the complaints of seven players. If seven players were to wear Pride Tape would that reverse the decision?
I have watched NHL senior vice president Kim Davis and her wonderful staff formulate and execute events and I had the honor to attend one of them not too long ago. I have spent years devoting time and effort to the You Can Play Project and the great work the Burke family has done to advocate for inclusion in sports. I was awed by the efforts of a player like Kurtis Gabriel, who tirelessly defended inclusion and had Pride Tape on his sticks every game. I continue to watch as Luke Prokop, a highly touted openly gay prospect in the Nashville organization, blazes a path for out athletes.
You don’t change a culture overnight, but progress can regress very quickly. What makes all of this even harder is that though I have seen so much positivity, especially in the past few years, now having to watch everything speeding back the other direction is disheartening.
When events like this ban comes out it is sometimes hard to remember why I spoke out in the first place. In 23 years in the game, first as a merchandise guy and now in the last decade as a broadcaster, I have never announced or been actively involved in a Pride game or a Hockey Is for Everyone game. It is certainly on the bucket list, but hasn’t happened yet. Now with a ruling like the Pride Tape ban, I wonder if it ever will.
When I was coming up and trying to find ways to do what I wanted in this world I didn’t have anyone to look at as a role model. I may only be an independent single-A hockey broadcaster, but I am living the dream every time I put on the headset. If one person can see me do this and feel their dream is possible, that’s mission accomplished. That is why it is important to continue speaking out. To continue to set an example. Whether you are part of the community or an ally, it is important to use your voice.
During this time where things feel as if someone has pushed rewind, remember to continue to be your authentic self. Remember that your story matters. Most importantly, remember that everything we do now effects not only ourselves but the next generation coming after us. Be strong.
Jonathan Kliment is the broadcaster for the Federal Prospects Hockey League’s Elmira River. Sharks. He can be reached by email (JKliment.firstname.lastname@example.org), Twitter or LinkedIn (Jonathan Kliment).