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'It is harmful': No Pride in hockey's troubling trend

Winnipeg Sun logo Winnipeg Sun 2023-03-21 Paul Friesen
The Manitoba-born goalie for the San Jose Sharks, James Reimer cited his religion for not pulling on a Pride-themed sweater for San Jose's Pride Night. © Provided by Winnipeg Sun The Manitoba-born goalie for the San Jose Sharks, James Reimer cited his religion for not pulling on a Pride-themed sweater for San Jose's Pride Night.

It began with such good intentions, an effort to make a sport plagued with toxic masculinity a more welcoming place for a long-marginalized community.

NHL Pride Nights were going to smash down those walls and send a message to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, that they are welcome in the game.

That message, though, has hit a rut in the ice.

Individual players, citing their religions, are opting out and some teams are caving, scrapping the most public part of their Pride Nights, the rainbow-themed jerseys.

It’s a troubling trend for those most affected.

“This representation was really important,” Ashley Smith, the director of advocacy for Winnipeg’s Rainbow Resource Centre, was saying, Monday. “It was a chance for young people in our community to see that they can be accepted and live authentically and do what they want to do, i.e. play hockey. And it’s a shame, because all of that is going to crumble. And only for the viewpoints of one or two people.”

The latest player to dig his skate blades in is James Reimer, the Manitoba-born goalie for the San Jose Sharks.

Like Philadelphia’s Ivan Provorov before him, Reimer cited his religion for not pulling on a Pride-themed sweater.

Unlike the New York Rangers and Minnesota Wild, who scrapped their plans without explanation at the last minute, the Sharks went ahead, making Reimer available to take questions from the media before Saturday’s game.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a nicer guy express genuine support for the very community he was snubbing.

“It’s a challenge to be diplomatic about religion, while still being clear,” Smith said. “No matter which religion you’re a part of, homophobia is homophobia. You are hating on a certain people because of preconceived notions, and it’s all unjust. And it is harmful.”

That’s what advocates fear the most.

When young people see the heroes of their game support them in such a public way, it lightens the load of being who they are in a society that still stigmatizes and discriminates against them.

“That means a lot. That could save a life, honestly,” Smith said. “Living in the closet or with a fear of discrimination or stigmatization, those limit your life… even lead to mental-health crises, even suicide, for many. This kind of representation is so important. It means so much to the kids, it means so much to the adults. It’s critical.”

Smith says he hears stories of discrimination every day.

The temperature is rising, and not just south of the border.

“Our phones have been lighting up with people who have serious concerns about their children in school, about their workplaces, about their housing,” he said. “And it is because of the rhetoric that is coming through the media, through sports, through all the messaging that is available, through the news. It’s on the rise, and it’s impacting lives. And it’s making some people feel able to discriminate.

“It’s seriously harmful to those who are vulnerable.”

It was important for hockey to take a lead because of its history of intolerance, both racial and of anything non-heterosexual.

The game has been slow, downright plodding, to create an environment where gay players are comfortable coming out.

Pride Nights were supposed to help. And maybe they still can.

The Sharks at least handled it better than the Wild, allowing Reimer his freedom and his say, while still standing by their commitment.

By contrast, Minnesota scrubbed all mention of their jersey plans and subsequent fundraising auction from their web site.

“Here we are at a time when transphobia and homophobia is on the rise again, and look how quickly they’re caving in to that,” Smith said. “And it’s just an example of how the loudest voice in the room, not the most voices, but the loudest one, is leading the way.”

You wonder about the future of these public shows of support.

It’s easier for teams just to shelve the whole Pride theme altogether than to risk outing a player as being less than fully accepting.

If the NHL decides it’s more hassle than it’s worth, that would be a shame.

The Winnipeg Jets are still promoting their own Pride Night, April 5, complete with themed jerseys that’ll be auctioned off to support the work Smith and his centre do every day.

“I just hope they proceed,” he said. “And remember the people that they’re supporting when they do this.”

Twitter: @friesensunmedia


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