4 Reasons the NHL's Decision to Ban Pride Tape Is a Big Deal
By Suzanne Bowdey/Washington StandOctober 13, 2023
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The puck dropped on the NHL season Tuesday, but the greatest win for fans came off the ice. Ten months after defenseman Ivan Provorov upended the sports world by refusing to wear a Pride jersey, the ripple effect has exploded across other players, teams, and even leagues.
Major League Baseball was the next shoe to drop, quietly killing their rainbow gear after watching hockey officials painfully navigate player boycotts all spring. Now, to the surprise of a lot of people, Commissioner Gary Bettman has announced the league wasn't done. Before there could be any confusion, the front office banned something else: Pride tape.
The decision was significant for a lot of reasons, but primarily because the tape -- which players wrap around their stick blades in a show of LGBT support -- was how liberal skaters planned to bypass the jersey rule. Now, with even the tape taboo, the NHL is leaving the league's player-activists with very few options to advocate their extremism.
According to the memo sent to teams, players "should be encouraged to express themselves off the rink" but also clarified that players "shall not be put in the position of having to demonstrate (or where they may be appearing to demonstrate) personal support for any Special Initiatives.
A factor that may be considered in this regard includes, for example, 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 Initiative(s)." Practically speaking, that rules out Pride expressions during warm-ups, games, and practices.
For people who are sick of sports' woke moralizing, this latest change is a sign things have radically changed. How do we know?
1. The NHL expanded its policy despite pushback.
When Bettman finally declared an end to the Pride jersey tradition in June, it's not like he was heralded as a hero for religious freedom. Outside groups pummeled the league for surrendering on what they considered a core value of the NHL: sexual radicalism.
"They've just become more of a distraction from really the essence of what the purpose of these nights are," Bettman told SportsNet after leaders reached a decision. "We're keeping the focus on the game. And on these specialty nights, we're going to be focused on the cause."
National groups like You Can Play accused the league of turning its back on inclusion, claiming the Board of Governors "decision means that the over 95 percent of players who chose to wear a Pride jersey to support the community will now not get an opportunity to do so," they wrote. It's "disappointing" and "concerning."
"The bigots won" was the headline of the Toronto Star. Longtime sports writers like Larry Brooks bashed the NHL for its "cowardly decision." "When the going got tough, the NHL high-tailed it," he fumed. "The league waved the white flag. Minority ruled. ... It sends a horrible message to those in the LGBTQ+ community who play the game at any level and have an emotional investment in the sport."
This was after Provorov himself was openly excoriated by hockey writers who called him "disgusting" and his defenders "homophobes." He was accused of "hiding behind religion," until it was suggested that he be released from his team altogether, an idea one author insisted wasn't even a "difficult decision."
In the face of all this hostility, the NHL not only stuck to its guns -- it expanded protections for players who didn't want to be skating sandwich boards for political messages they disagreed with.
2. The league went against its biggest stars to do it.
The Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid, widely considered the face of the league and three-time MVP, was openly angry about the NHL's jersey decision in June. "It's disappointing to see," the NHL's leading scorer for 2022-2023 told reporters. "It's not my call, but obviously it's disappointing. ... I certainly can't speak for every organization."
Those candid objections, coming from a player that a lot of writers (not this one) consider the NHL's biggest superstar, might have deterred other leagues. But facing off over policy with one of the most powerful voices in today's hockey didn't stop Bettman. Surprising since now, with the tape ban, McDavid is even more outspoken.
"In terms of a league standpoint, is it something that I'd like to see put back into place one day? Certainly. You know, but that's not the way it is right now," he told a gaggle of press at Rogers Arena. "I've commented on this before. I think everyone knows how I feel. ... I know in Edmonton, we were one of the first teams to use the Pride Tape. We strongly feel hockey is for everybody, and that includes the Pride Nights."
Putting itself crosswise with the sport's most valuable asset, a once-in-a-generation talent who's a huge revenue booster for the NHL, was a calculated risk -- but one Bettman and the Board of Governors was willing to take. And it's not just McDavid who's declared his displeasure, but other big names like New Jersey's Jack Hughes. Surely the league would think twice if talents of this magnitude spoke out, Outsports wondered? "A player with the stature of McDavid or [Hughes] using the tape would raise the issue to one the league could not ignore," they speculated.
But so far, headquarters seems unmoved -- even when players like the Minnesota Wild's Jon Merrill threatened to violate the rule. "If anyone does it, what is the league going to do?" the defenseman asked. "Take me off the ice, give me a penalty?"
Given how the NHL has gone about it so far, he might not want to know.
3. There's obviously more resistance to Pride gear than the media -- or the league -- is willing to admit.
When the New York Rangers became the first team to ban Pride jerseys in February, the national media was shocked. The Big Apple was a mecca of progressivism, after all. But ultimately, probing Ranger officials went nowhere. Reporters found that they were closed-lipped about the decision, stating only that "in keeping with our organization's core values, we support everyone's individual right to respectfully express their beliefs." Including, to everyone's shock, the team's religious and conservative players, who, quietly, must have made their objections widely known.
Five more teams followed suit after the Rangers, ultimately totaling half of the famed Original Six -- the neighboring New York Islanders, Minnesota Wild, Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, and Toronto Maple Leafs. On teams like the San Jose Sharks and Florida Panthers who refused to put the jerseys on ice, individual players protested, standing up and speaking out. The Russian orthodox contingent -- numbering in the dozens and led by Provorov-- was a big factor. But so were Christians like Eric Staal and James Reimer.
But surely the NHL wouldn't have issued such a strong repudiation of a hot-button issue like Pride without the overwhelming support of owners and league officials, who, behind closed doors, almost certainly decided this agenda was bad for the game. A multi-billion-dollar business doesn't make decisions in a vacuum. There had to be an underground swell of opposition to be reckoned with. How many players, trainers, or coaches had privately threatened to make this a larger issue? Thanks to the biased media, we'll never know.
4. Canada isn't exactly the home of free speech.
Pride Tape (like hockey) was invented in Canada. Its co-founder, Dr. Kristopher Wells, has been -- unsurprisingly -- irate at the league's decision to ban his big moneymaker. It's a rule "I get emotional thinking about," he told The Athletic. In the home of the Hockey Hall of Fame, Toronto, steam is flying off the keyboards of journalists who insist the NHL's campaign "Hockey is for everyone" is now a lie.
"The NHL moved from excusing bigotry to participating in it," Bruce Arthur writes, "charging backward after years of inching ahead. Forgive me, but I missed Ron DeSantis's appointment as commissioner of the National Hockey League."
That's the thing -- Ron DeSantises are in short supply in the True North, where "freedom of expression" is guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms but weighed against the rights of other Canadians. In other words, "There are no unimpeachable or absolute rights in Canada," experts explain, which makes the NHL's decision to bolster individual rights -- a foreign concept for most of our northern neighbors -- all the more shocking.
"Saying the wrong thing," Canadians tell their American friends, could land you in jail, especially where sexuality, gender, and other progressive ideals are concerned. "Hate speech can be a crime or a civil offense here," Michael Taube warned in The Wall Street Journal. And Canada's current leader, LGBT-super ally Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has spent his time in power crushing free expression for sport.
While the NHL's modern headquarters are in New York, the idea that Canada's national pastime would ideologically align itself with the American concept of true liberty and tolerance is a sea change for a sport whose heart still beats strongest in a land with no First Amendment.
Maybe, Family Research Council's Joseph Backholm told The Washington Stand, "hockey will be the vehicle through which Canada once again becomes a free country. The Canadian government has become too comfortable erasing civil rights in the name of equality, but that cause is doomed to fail sooner or later."
Let's hope this tape rule sticks, prompting other sports to respect player beliefs of all stripes -- not just rainbow ones.