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More Than a Jersey: Why Blackhawks LGBTQ+ Inclusion Effort Needs to Mean More Than One Night

Mario Tirabassi Avatar
March 25, 2023

The Chicago Blackhawks will hold their third-ever Pride Night event for Sunday night’s game against Vancouver. The festivities will include the Chicago Gay Hockey Association hosting a family and friends skate event at Fifth Third Arena before attending and participating in a special intermission performance during the game, live pregame and in-game entertainment from DJ Vernimal, DJ Vel, and the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus, as well as local LGBTQ+ businesses and team partners operating within the United Center Atrium before the game. Plus, a lot more.

Full details on the night can be found here.

What will not be happening for the Blackhawks on Pride Night is the team wearing Pride-themed warmup jerseys before the game. Something they have done for both of their previous Pride Night events in 2021 and 2022.

While it may seem like a small part of the events and initiatives the Blackhawks are involved in to support the LGBTQ+ community, it is a major blow to their work and visibility in the community and across the league.

A trend has swept through the NHL this season when it comes to teams and their Pride Night celebrations and it is either individual players opting out of wearing the warmup jerseys or full teams scraping the idea completely. It has happened a half-dozen times this season and is likely to happen again.

  • The Philadelphia Flyers’ Ivan Provorov cited his religious beliefs in opting not to wear the jersey when the Flyers hosted their Pride Night back in January. The rest of his teammates wore them.
  • James Reimer did the same with the San Jose Sharks earlier this month. The rest of his teammates wore them.
  • Eric and Marc Staal did the same with the Florida Panthers just this past week. The rest of their teammates wore them.
  • The New York Rangers, Minnesota Wild, and New York Islanders all skipped wearing Pride Night warmups with the Rangers and Wild having previously said they would wear them.

A total of 14 NHL teams still have Pride Nights planned for the remainder of the 2022-23 season.

The news came out on Wednesday that the Blackhawks would not be wearing Pride Night-themed warmup jerseys. The team put out a statement regarding their Pride Night, but did not address the decision to change course and not wear the warmup jersey. Citing safety concerns for their Russian players and families following the enactment of an anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda law in Russia, the organization made the choice not to wear the jerseys.

The decision came after defenseman Connor Murphy was previously defiant in his assurance there would be no one that didn’t want to participate in wearing the themed warmup jersey as part of the team’s Pride Night events and after both team CEO Danny Wirtz and President of Business Operations Jaime Faulkner spoke confidently back in February that the night would go on without any issue.

On Thursday night, following the Blackhawks’ 6-1 loss to the Capitals, the CHGO Blackhawks crew spoke about all of this and what impact it does have and can have for not just the team, but also for those in the LGBTQ+ community who want to feel seen and welcomed in the Blackhawks world. You can find that full conversation below.

We were given more information on Friday afternoon as NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said that the league has no evidence that Russian players face any direct threats to their safety for participating in NHL Pride Night events.

Within that report from Scott Powers of The Athletic, the Blackhawks issued a statement on the league’s conclusions:

“We are unaware of any direct, material threat on an individual currently. That being said, we understand that there is a more general threat toward certain players and believe we need to respond accordingly. We will not have any further comment on this matter at this time. We wish to reiterate that our overall Pride night will go on as planned, and we are excited for all of the activities and LGBTQIA+ community members who will be in the spotlight.”

I have SO MANY thoughts about and questions for the Blackhawks at this point with this whole situation. Too many to get into at this point.

But here are two main thoughts I have:

1. Wouldn’t holding a night where you honor the people of Ukraine, who are currently fighting in a war against Russia, be more offensive to the Russian government than any Pride Night events?

2. Multiple Russian NHL players have participated in wearing Pride-themed warmup jerseys this year without any word of safety concerns. Notably, Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Evgenii Dadonov, Vladislav Gavrikov, and Alexander Barabanov. So why are the Blackhawks different?

Regardless, the Blackhawks have some explaining to do and it does not need to come from Luke Richardson and the players, since it appears this decision was not made in consultation with the players, but rather a decision handed to them based on the comments Thursday morning from Richardson and Connor Murphy.

This is where we’ll pick up the conversation now. On Murphy’s sentiment that the jersey is just a part of what is happening and that “supporting the cause as an organization” is the more important part.

It is the larger part of what teams like the Blackhawks must be doing. The visibility and physical representation is extremely important, but so is the work that goes into supporting the LGBTQ+ community and the inclusion efforts people around the game are doing to make hockey a more welcoming place for marginalized people.

I had the pleasure of speaking with former professional hockey goaltender Brock McGillis in February about the ongoing controversies that the NHL continues to get entangled in when it comes to their inclusion efforts with the LGBTQ+ community. McGillis is the first men’s professional hockey player to be out as a member of the queer community while still in his playing career. Now retired, he works as a public speaker and advocate for the LGBTQ+ community within hockey and focuses on changing the culture of the sport from within.

“Inclusion matters. Showing fans that that are welcome in your space matters,” McGillis said in our conversation last month.

“My focus has always been on the culture of the sport and it will continue to be on the culture of the sport.  The culture of the sport is in locker rooms and in front offices. The language, behaviors, and attitudes we’ve seen exist in locker rooms. My biggest thing has always been about shifting culture in the locker room. If we can do that, we will see more people comfortable being themselves. More people growing and wanting to understand why this matters.”

For McGillis, it’s not just about one night or one Pride-themed warmup jersey, it’s about all of the efforts surrounding the sport and the biggest league in the world. “I care about the conversations we’re having with front office members. What organizations do for inclusion matters more than one night.”

The efforts for inclusion in the sport have been growing over the years. Not just in the NHL, but across the landscape of the major men’s professional leagues, which has been a community, both as fans and players, dominated by straight men. But there’s so much more growth that can come for those sports by having a better understanding and efforts towards a more open and inclusive environment.

“I think everyone can do more,” McGillis said of NHL teams. “It’s going to take a group, whether Chicago or someone else, to say ‘Hey we are going to be at the forefront of the evolution of the culture. Be at the forefront of hockey being incredibly acceptable and inclusive to everybody to be a part of the sport.'”

What has been encouraging for the current landscape of the NHL and in hockey in general is the changing, slowly, of the culture around the sport. Just in the past few weeks, while teams and players have been in the spotlight for opting-out of the inclusion efforts, a number have become more vocal and forthcoming in their support. We’ve seen Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars, Matthew Tkachuk of the Florida Panthers, and Zach Hyman and Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers come forward with messages of support and openness for the LGBTQ+ community within hockey.

“I think now more than ever, we need actual vocal outlets doing more than just wearing a rainbow,” McGillis said. “Quite frankly, especially in America, the queer community is under attack. It has been politicized and weaponized, and we are going backwards and it is scary.”

Doesn’t get bigger in the NHL when it comes to voice than Connor McDavid, if you ask me.

While it is very encouraging to see the current group of NHL players coming around and becoming more vocal in support, it feels like it won’t be this generation of hockey player that makes the real chance or biggest impact. My feeling is that the changes needing to be made in the culture of the sport are coming at the youth/junior-level leagues and will eventually trickle upwards into the professional ranks as time passes.

I asked McGillis about what he felt about the next generation of hockey players and how they view the culture of the sport.

“I think they are more aware and less judgmental because they have been exposed to it. However, I don’t think the language and behaviors have matched their thoughts. They are a product of culture where homophobic language is commonplace.”

One thing we’ve seen up close in the junior ranks as Blackhawks fans is how the younger generation is gaining exposure to having people of the LGBTQ+ community around their teams more commonly and in their locker rooms. Currently, Blackhawks prospects Kevin Korchinski, Colton Dach, and Nolan Allan are all teammates with Luke Prokop, an openly gay player with the Seattle Thunderbirds. Prokop also played alongside another Blackhawks prospect Jalen Luypen while with the Edmonton Oil Kings last season.

This past week, the Seattle Thunderbirds fans coordinated their own Pride Night events outside of the team and still the players used Pride Tape during warmups and the game to show support for their LGBTQ+ fans and their teammate on that night. When the CHGO Blackhawks crew spoke with Luypen last summer, he spoke about Prokop as a teammate and how he had changed the minds of some players in the locker room by just being himself. Luypen spoke about how Prokop was not viewed by his teammates as “a gay hockey player,” but just as a teammate and a friend. It’s seeing him as another person.

That’s what events and the supporting efforts outside of the “one Pride Night” look to accomplish for the LGBTQ+ community. To be seen as people, real people, who deserve the same sense of welcoming and inclusion in the hockey community that most other people feel, without even thinking about it.

“I think the more people end up coming out, the more it gets humanized,” McGillis said of Prokop, a player he helped prepare for coming out as gay within the hockey community. “The more we can humanize the existence of the people of this community, my community, people can realize the impact of the language and behaviors and the sooner it can change … We just need to humanize this stuff so that they see a real person as opposed to a theoretical ‘thing’ or a disingenuous, deceitful version of what the people in the community are actually like.”

Those efforts for inclusion and a change in culture are aided by the visibility that wearing a Pride-themed jersey provides, but it is not the be-all end-all. As McGillis focuses on in his work, the culture change in hockey takes this effort 365 days a year.

Hockey is an amazing sport. The NHL has a lot of work to do to maximize its own potential outside of what the game actually is. Growth, accessibility, and inclusion are all things that hockey can be better at and that I want it to be better at. You should want the thing you like, to be available for everyone else to like. It’s human nature to want to feel like you are part of a community.

For some LGBTQ+ people, they have lost friendships and family over being who they truly are, and some people find their comfort zone within the hockey community. The sport should love them back as much as they put love into the game.

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