The Arizona Coyotes aren’t used to this much attention. It’s a shame they can’t sell more tickets off the back of it.
Only 4,600 fans can be packed into their temporary Mullett Arena home in Tempe, and though the team has made the playoffs just once in the last decade and was struggling to shift tickets before it left Glendale, this Friday’s impending visit of the Los Angeles Kings would surely have proved popular to a larger community crowd.
It’s the first Pride Night of the hockey season, and the NHL had inadvertently made it a must-watch even before news broke on Tuesday that its Pride Tape ban is being reversed.
Amid declining TV ratings, you might even suspect this was the strategy all along, but that would give Commissioner Gary Bettman and the Board of Governors too much credit. The policy they laid down to avoid a “distraction” from the actual hockey created a circus in which they looked like clowns.
The turnaround arrives just in time to avoid a potential flagrant show of disobedience from Coyotes players.
In the shortest of statements, the league’s front office confirmed the decision, which was taken following recommendations from its Player Inclusion Coalition and the NHLPA and covers both games and practices.
The NHL appears to have learned the hard way that trying to take a ‘Whac-a-mole’ approach to a culture-war issue only results in custard pies flying in from somewhere else.
It was a little over a fortnight ago that hockey fans learned how the league’s new “specialty nights” instructions, which told teams to keep any and all awareness-raising or cause-championing activity off the ice, extended as far as a Pride Tape ban.
That element had been overlooked until Outsports brought it to light and an outcry ensued. The relatively small but impactful gesture of a player wrapping their stick in rainbow colors to express visible support for LGBTQ people — in many instances, their family members and friends — had been surreptitiously slapped down.
No doubt NHL chiefs didn’t expect much fuss around the tape or thought the commotion would soon blow over. Bettman even told ESPN early on in the PR disaster that the policy as a whole had been “terribly misunderstood and misportrayed”.
But with little to no formal explanation provided by the league and a public silence from the NHLPA on the matter, fans, players and respected figures in the sport like Brian Burke were left to try to make sense of it all, creating even greater disturbance than before.
At the center of all this noise has been the ticking countdown to the Coyotes’ Pride Night, which was put on the schedule back in mid-September, before the announced ban.
The team’s Pride activations in the previous three seasons have been in March and April, but with Phoenix Pride having been held in October for almost 20 years (avoiding the high summer heat), a tie-in that is closer in the calendar works better for local communities.
Coyotes players have been fully engaged throughout, with many sporting Pride Tape on their sticks. Alternate captain Lawson Crouse spoke in a short film produced for the March 2022 night, saying: “I think everyone should have an equal opportunity, do things on their own terms and live the life that they want to live.”
Love is love. ❤️— Arizona Coyotes (@ArizonaCoyotes) March 5, 2022
We’re proud to honor our community during Pride Night. No matter who you love or how you love, our ice is for everyone because hockey is for everyone. pic.twitter.com/GFDJv2ZoXM
Crouse’s show of support was particularly appreciated by ALPHA, the Arizona Legacy Pride Hockey Assn., which was set up in 2021 with assistance from the Coyotes. The LGBTQ-inclusive adult developmental league has already grown to four teams and has welcomed a large number of players who are allies into its ranks.
ALPHA secretary John Valentine told Cronkite News in April that it was “cool to see this guy [Crouse] has our back,” while the association’s vice president, Mel Jones, underlined the importance of visibility on Pride Nights: “Without it, we just don’t exist.”
The Coyotes’ LGBTQ fanbase knew they had recruited another ally in Travis Dermott when he joined as a free agent in the summer. Outsports reported on the defenseman a couple of years ago when he was with the Toronto Maple Leafs, where he had been using Pride Tape since at least 2019.
“I have some family that’s involved in the LGBTQ community,” he told ESPN in 2021, “so I’d like to step forward and in the future take part in supporting them more vigorously.”
Dermott certainly made a bold statement Saturday when he ensured there was Pride Tape on his stick during the Coyotes’ win over the Anaheim Ducks. The chances of the ban blowing up in Bettman’s face on the first Pride Night of the season were already high, but Dermott’s gesture lit the fuse.
The NHL’s response to inquiries about a direct challenge to their authority — “we will review it in due course” — suggests they knew it would be unwise to fan the flames.
The player himself told The Athletic he hadn’t yet been contacted by disciplinary chiefs but had “complete support” from his team. Dermott added that although he didn’t plan to use the tape in Tuesday’s game against the Kings in L.A., he was planning to fire up his Instagram account and would “find other ways” to get the message out.
“The war’s not over,” he told Chris Johnston.
As an organization, the Coyotes probably wouldn’t have wanted to take that fight to the NHL themselves on Friday — they need the league onside in their search for a new arena to call home — but it sounded like they were backing their players to front up.
In an appearance on the PHNX Sports Podcast after the Ducks game, the team’s president and CEO Xavier Gutierrez was asked how support would be shown by the Coyotes to LGBTQ communities this season.
“It is core to who we are,” he replied. “We now have a plan in place that says ‘players, how do you then take a step forward to work with us?’
“It doesn’t have to just be a jersey on the ice, it doesn’t have to be tape around your sticks. Even though those things we think are important, we can move on from that.”
Suddenly, the NHL’s U-turn on its policy has changed the conversation. We should therefore expect to see more than a few rainbows on the rink in Tempe this Friday.
Having said that, the Coyotes’ Pride Night could otherwise pass off entirely without incident, with everything else that’s LGBTQ-inclusive happening off the ice, in just the way that the hockey bigwigs wanted it all along.
But whatever the Coyotes choose to do, this tale of the tape has been a fiasco entirely of the league’s making. Meanwhile, as a talking point, it threatens to affect other teams’ Pride Nights this season, and probably other specialty nights too.
Bettman’s deputy Bill Daly had attempted to explain the purpose of the Pride Tape ban in interviews but he noticeably stumbled when asked by Sportsnet two weeks ago on what the repercussions of a violation might be, saying: “We haven’t talked about how the rule will be enforced.”
The uncertain response to Dermott’s use of the tape last weekend suggested the NHL was floundering in its attempt to reach a decision. Now we know that discussions with the Player Inclusion Coalition and the NHLPA were taking the matter towards a sensible outcome.
It could all have been avoided a lot sooner, but at least Bettman, Daly and the NHL Board are no longer howling at the moon, and the Coyotes have some clarity going into a home game that was really hotting up.