Anti-gay laws passed in Vladimir Putin’s Russia are having a chilling effect on whether NHL teams decided to wear rainbow jerseys on their LGBTQ Pride Nights because of fears for their Russian-born players.

That is the upshot of a deep dive by the Athletic into why some teams have reversed course and not worn Pride jerseys after promising they will do so. The most recent example came Tuesday with the Minnesota Wild, who went so far as to delete a webpage promoting auctioning off a Pride jersey worn by a player.

From the Athletic:

The Flyers had one player (Russian defenseman Ivan Provorov) opt out of warmups with his teammates on their Pride Night in January because he didn’t want to wear the team’s Pride jersey, citing his Russian Orthodox religious beliefs.

The Wild abandoned their plans to don Pride jerseys out of concern for Russian players. Star forward Kirill Kaprizov, notably, had a difficult journey back to the United States after returning to Russia this past offseason.

The Rangers, who also have several prominent Russian players, cited “individual right to respectfully express their beliefs” in not wearing the jerseys after announcing they would.

Russian Penguins star Evgeni Malkin, on the other hand, did wear a Pride jersey on the team’s Pride Night on Dec. 12, just after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the new legislation on Dec. 5.

Under Putin, Russia has become more and more anti-gay, passing several laws that restrict rights for LGBTQ people. The most recent law, passed in December, “makes it illegal to spread ‘propaganda’ about ‘nontraditional sexual relations’ in the media, advertising, movies or on social media,” according to the New York Times. It’s part of Putin’s hypernationalist push to blame the West for what he sees as importing LGBTQ views and infecting pure Mother Russia.

Five percent of those who have played in an NHL game this season are Russian, so their concerns can’t be easily dismissed. The law is written so vaguely that it could cause trouble for a Russian player wearing a Pride jersey. And given what happened to Brittney Griner last year, don’t put anything past Russia when it comes to enforcing its laws.

“These are legitimate fears,” Ben Noble, associate professor of Russian politics at University College London, told the Athletic. “‘If you put on a Pride jersey, then there is uncertainty regarding how this would be interpreted by law enforcement in Russia — and that’s a risk. The authorities have the power to enforce this and other legislation selectively. It’s up to them to decide whom they go after.

The Wild were condemned by many LGBTQ people and groups, including by Outsports, for yanking the Pride jerseys because it smacks of homophobia. What made it more glaring was that the Wild flew in Minnesota native Jack Jablonski specifically for the event. Jablonski, a Minnesota native, was paralyzed while playing hockey in high school and now works for the Los Angeles Kings. He came out as gay last year and the Wild designed a “JABS” patch to be worn on the Pride jersey. In the end, Jablonski was the only person who wore the jersey.

The Wild’s actions were defended by Andi Otto, executive director or Twin Cities Pride. Otto expressed disappointment at the jerseys not being worn but praised the Wild for an otherwise terrific Pride Night and what Otto says is the team’s year-long commitment to LGBTQ causes in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Otto said that Wild owner Craig Leipold gave assurances that Pride Night was not going away.

What to make of all of this?

  • We have no idea if players objecting to wearing Pride jerseys are doing it because they don’t support the LGBTQ community or because of fears of what might happen should they go back to Russia and the Russian laws are being used as a cover for homophobia. It’s also possible that Russian players, in general, are more anti-gay given the country’s culture so the laws dovetail with their personal beliefs.
  • This is a failure of management on these teams. This anti-gay Russian law has been well-known for months. Unless a team has 100% buy-in on Pride jerseys, don’t promote them in advance. Otherwise, the jerseys become the story as they have with the Flyers, Rangers and Wild.

The wearing of Pride-themed jerseys in the NHL (and to a lesser degree Major League Baseball) is a relatively new thing and not one demanded by LGBTQ fans as a necessity to have a successful Pride night. Most teams do not wear them and that does not diminish their Pride events. An example from the Athletic:

The Capitals hosted their seventh annual Pride Night on Jan. 17 vs. Minnesota. They did not wear Pride-themed jerseys for warmup but that’s not a new development as they’ve never worn them.

Players were given the option to wrap rainbow tape on their stick handles and blades to be used during warmups, and approximately five players opted to do so. In all, 20 players wrapped their sticks with rainbow tape for the team’s auction, which raised a record $40,810 benefitting local LGBTQ+ organizations.

Throughout the game, the Caps displayed rainbow-colored video boards and messages of support for the community, including interviews on the Jumbotron featuring video coach Emily Engel-Natzke and her wife as well as defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk and other players. The team also honored a military member of the LGBTQ+ community as part of the “Salute to Service.”

The Athletic notes the several NHL teams are scheduled to host Pride Nights in the next few weeks, with some advertising Pride jerseys, at least for warm-ups. We’ll soon see if any of these teams balk and blame Russia.