The National Hockey League has banned individual players from wrapping their hockey sticks with rainbow-colored Pride Tape during warm-ups, games, and practices in an attempt to avoid controversy over the idea of LGBTQ inclusion.
The new prohibition coincides with a larger societal backlash against LGBTQ visibility, particularly boycotts of companies or organizations that openly support Pride, with backlash against Bud Light and Target being among the more extreme examples.
The ban also comes in response to incidents where conservative players refused to don rainbow warm-up jerseys during team “Pride Night” celebrations.
On October 5, the NHL sent a memo to all 32 teams to “clarify” the guidance from June in which the league effectively banned players from wearing “specialty sweaters” representing any cause or special initiatives, such as Pride Night, on the ice.
At the time, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman declared that controversy stemming from some players’ refusal to wear Pride-themed gear had become a “distraction.”
Under the updated guidance, the NHL clarified that the restrictions apply to on-ice activity, saying that players “should be encouraged to express themselves off the ice.”
The only off-ice restriction is that no player can be compelled to participate in events supporting “specialty causes,” such as a Pride night, because some players might fear retribution or embarrassment if they decline to participate.
A source familiar with the updated guidance told ESPN that players and teams are permitted to “celebrate and support” specialty causes.
Teams are also allowed to host the groups at games, such as an LGBTQ organization, while players are free to wear “whatever they want” as long as it falls within the guidelines of each team’s dress code.
The guidance also says that a factor to consider when trying to ensure that individual players are not being coerced into supporting a particular cause can include “whether a Player (or Players) is required to be in close proximity to any groups or individuals visibly or otherwise clearly associated with such Special Initiatives.”
In addition to Pride nights, the ban on expressions of support for specialty causes applies to other events, including Black History Night, Hockey Fights Cancer Night, and Military Appreciation Night.
As noted by the LGBTQ sports website Outsports, the updated guidance — particularly its wording about players’ proximity to other people supporting a cause — might technically mean that players could refuse to take the ice if there is a drag queen, a gay men’s chorus singing the National Anthem, or out gay players present at the event.
Besides scuttling rainbow-colored or Pride-themed warm-up jerseys, players are expected not to use Pride Tape on their hockey sticks.
Pride Tape is a rainbow-colored, cotton blend high-performance cloth using a special dye that is supposed to withstand prolonged use.
The rainbow-colored tape was backed by a Kickstarter campaign in 2015, with the intent of symbolizing LGBTQ inclusion and encouraging LGBTQ youth to get involved in team sports.
Proceeds from its sale benefitted LGBTQ youth outreach and educational initiatives. The tape soon became incorporated into the NHL. with many players using it to wrap their sticks, especially on nights honoring the LGBTQ community, and the tape even being sold in the NHL’s official league shop.
Critics of the NHL’s guidance also note that Pride-themed jerseys are still available for purchase on NHL websites, but can’t be worn on the ice — signifying that while the league is happy to take LGBTQ fan money, but it won’t abide by public displays of support for the community.
Those critics also noted that the NHL never made a social media post honoring the community during Pride Month — a move that appears to bolster the league’s decision to distance itself with LGBTQ visibility.
In a statement published on Instagram, Pride Tape said it was “extremely disappointed” by the NHL’s decision and had received numerous messages of support since the announcement.
“Seven years ago, Pride Tape was born out of adversity as a grassroots hockey initiative that remains resilient, and optimistic about our plans with hockey clubs, organizations, and their partners at every level,” the company wrote. “Despite this setback, we are encouraged for what lies ahead based on our recent conversations from every corner of the sport.”
“This is not the way forward,” You Can Play, an organization advocating for LGBTQ inclusion in sports, wrote in a post on X. “It is now clear that the NHL is stepping back from its long-standing commitment to inclusion.”
Some high-profile players criticized the ban on Pride Tape and other LGBTQ symbols as well.
In response, Kristopher Wells, one of Pride Tape’s co-founders, replied, “We will send Scott and his teammates all the free Pride Tape they want.”
Other NHL players said that while they disagree with the ban, they will respect the league’s rules.
“It sucks,” Calgary Flames defenseman Rasmus Andersson said of the ban, noting that Pride nights and the idea of inclusion were “close to my heart and something I would love to support.”
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly called the ban “unfortunate.”
“Whatever statement was made is fine, but as players, we’re gonna continue to offer support and be allies. We want to be a part of this community,” he said.
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