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Confusing comments follow Panthers Pride Night after Stall brothers opt out of warmups

The Hockey News 2023-03-24 David Dwork
© Provided by The Hockey News

Eric Staal claims to have never worn a pride jersey, but there is evidence suggesting otherwise

A night that was intended to be about spreading the gospel of acceptance and inclusion turned out to be anything but.

The Florida Panthers lost 6-2 on Thursday night to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Florida is in the midst of a playoff chase and every game is seemingly as important as a game in the postseason itself, but as the night grew later, the spotlight shifted from the game to one of its subplots.

Thursday night was also Pride Night at FLA Live Arena.

The issue of supporting LGBTQ+ rights in the NHL has been called into question over a series of decisions that have taken place across the league this season.

From three teams, the New York Rangers, Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks, changing course and electing not to wear Pride Night themed jerseys after initially announcing they would, to two players, San Jose’s James Reimer and Philadelphia’s Ivan Provorov, opting out of wearing pride jerseys over religious beliefs.

It was for those reasons Panthers Head Coach Paul Maurice was asked after Florida’s morning skate if there would be any issues with his team on Pride Night.

“As an organization we've decided, rightfully so, to move forward with it and support it and celebrate it,” Maurice said. “Teams around the league and players around the league have got the right to their opinion and we've got the right to ours.”

He added: “I've seen the sweaters, they're great looking. Should be a great night tonight.”

Yes, it should have.

Then came game time.

Just before Florida took the ice for warmups, a statement was released from Panthers players Eric and Marc Staal.

“After many thoughts, prayers and discussions, we have chosen not to wear a pride jersey tonight,” the statement read. “We carry no judgement on how people choose to live their lives, and believe that all people should be welcome in all aspects of the game of hockey. Having said that, we feel that by us wearing a pride jersey it goes against our Christian beliefs. We hope you can respect this statement, we will not be speaking any further on the matter and would like to continue to focus on the game of hockey and helping the Florida Panthers win the Stanley Cup,”

Eighteen of Florida’s 20 players took part in pregame warmups. The Staal’s, true to their word, did not.

After the game, several Panthers spoke on the subject.

“It was all handled really well by our organization, by Eric and Marc and by everyone in this room,” said Panthers Captain Sasha Barkov said. “They have their own opinions, and we support that, respect that. I don’t think we had any problem with that. They jumped in the game without the warmup really well. They’re veteran guys, they’ve played over 1,000 games each, so they know how to get ready for the games. They didn’t miss a beat.”

While there was an expected showing of support for the Staal brothers, there was also an attempt by their teammates not to diminish what the organization was trying to achieve while holding a Pride Night.

“They voiced their opinion, and they have the right to their own opinion, whatever which way they want to go,” said Matthew Tkachuk. “I know for myself personally, being out there and wearing the jerseys and enjoying and embracing a night like tonight – we only have so many of these nights throughout the season, whether its military night or Hockey Fights Cancer night, and a night like tonight, for me, really is just all about including everybody in what is, in my opinion, by far the greatest game in the world. Everybody is welcome in my locker room and in our locker room as an organization. I think our organization has done an unbelievable job of showing that and embracing that starting from (Panthers owner) Vinnie (Viola) all the way down to the players.”

Maurice was asked after the game about the timing, considering his statement earlier in the day about an organizational decision to celebrate Pride Day.

“I knew there was a possibility (of the Staal brothers opting out),” he said. “We talked about it as a group and we had certainly made the decision that we were all going out there and we were keeping the sweaters and we weren’t going to pull them and hide it, and we were going to wear it proudly. I knew it was a possibility.”

Like his players, Maurice tried to keep the attention on the desired effect of Pride Night and not the decisions made by a couple of his veteran and well-respected players.

“The thought is the story isn’t about them,” Maurice said. “The story is about the rest of the group being excited, the organization and the fans being excited to celebrate a great night. Those are both grown men and they’ve lived in their faith their whole lives. This isn’t new to them. They have the right to their opinion, to take that stand. The rest of the players wore the sweater proudly and hope we conveyed that message of welcome to our building and to our franchise and to our great game of hockey.

“I love both those men, I really do, and they have the right to their opinion, and I stand by that right. But everyone else in the room has the right to put the sweater on proudly and wear it and be as welcoming to all people in our community to come and enjoy the great game of hockey, and hopefully we can win the next one for you.”

Unfortunately, the “you” he’s speaking to, the fans that the team was hoping to reach out to on pride night, could very possibly see more out of the actions of two men than that of an entire franchise.


Because those two men are representatives of that franchise.

Their names are on the roster. Their names would go on the Stanley Cup.

Adding to the night of disfunction, Eric Staal spoke to the media after the game.

He was initially and expectedly asked about the decision made by he and his brother.

“Respectfully, I would just like to stick with the statement that we made and released,” Staal said. “That’s how we felt in this situation and that was a decision that we made. I’d like to leave it at that and try my best to move forward.”

Staal then cut off a follow up question.

“I’m sorry, I would rather just focus on the statement and decision that we came to in this instance and leave it at that.”

One more question was asked, this time about a previous instance in which Staal wore a pride jersey while playing for the Montreal Canadiens.

“I haven’t’ before. I never have before,” he said.

He was then asked about May 1, 2021, which was Pride Night for the Montreal Canadiens. There is video evidence of him wearing a blue pride jersey during warmups, tweeted out by the Habs.

“I haven’t worn a pride jersey before,” he stated.

Here is the video:

Staal can be seen wearing jersey No. 21 at the :14 second mark. 

Here is a still from the video:

The press conference was then abruptly ended.

Make of that what you will.

Could Staal be simply forgetting that he had previously participated in wearing a pride-themed jersey?


It begs the question though, if it wasn’t that important in 2021, what’s happened in the past two years that makes it so much more prevalent in 2023?

“I think you’ve got two men who are very well respected for their belief and their faith,” Maurice said. “This is not something they came to recently. This is the way they’ve lived their lives, and they have that right. I always imagine in all walks (of life) there is a diversity of opinion and a right to have them. I believe they’re equally as respected as men in the room today as they were yesterday.”

That may be true in the Panthers locker room, but the jury of public opinion is going to have its own say in the matter.

Being untruthful, or forgetful, isn’t going to help things.

The bottom line, aside from the confusion of the postgame comments, is a simple concept. If you’re the team saying hockey is for everyone, then everyone on the team needs to be delivering the message.

Otherwise, it comes off as hollow, uninspiring and disingenuous. 

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