The NHL’s Russia-Pride jersey problem, explained: Why Wild became latest to scrap plans

Joe Smith, Michael Russo, Mark Lazerus, Sean Gentille, Charlie O’Connor, Tarik El-Bashir and Arthur Staple have contributed to this report.

NHL teams continue to struggle with how to handle Pride jerseys, with the Wild following in the footsteps of the Rangers and scrapping plans for players to wear them on the organization’s Pride Night on March 7.

In particular, this issue has arisen for teams with prominent Russian players since that country’s anti-gay laws were amended in early December, per the New York Times, to make it “illegal to spread ‘propaganda’ about ‘nontraditional sexual relations’ in all media, including social, advertising and movies.”

The Flyers also had one player (Russian defenseman Ivan Provorov) opt out of warmups with his teammates on their Pride Night in January because he didn’t want to wear the team’s Pride jersey, citing his Russian Orthodox religious beliefs.

The Wild abandoned their plans to don Pride jerseys out of concern for Russian players. Star forward Kirill Kaprizov, notably, had a difficult journey back to the United States after returning to Russia this past offseason.

The Rangers, who also have several prominent Russian players, cited “individual right to respectfully express their beliefs” in not wearing the jerseys after announcing they would.

Russian Penguins star Evgeni Malkin, on the other hand, did wear a Pride jersey on the team’s Pride Night on Dec. 12, just after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the new legislation on Dec. 5.

The Kings and Panthers, who both have prominent Russian players, host Pride Nights next week. Both teams have previously announced their players will wear Pride-themed jerseys.

What happened on Wild Pride Night

The Wild never officially announced before Pride Night that their players would be wearing rainbow-logoed jerseys, but they wore them last season — including Russians Kapizov and Dmitry Kulikov — and it was common knowledge that they planned to do so again this year. They had even mentioned it on their auction site.

After wrestling for a couple of days with how to handle the situation and educating themselves on Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law, the Wild made the decision the morning of Tuesday’s game against Calgary not to wear the sweaters.

What made the decision harder is the Wild flew in Jack Jablonski, who came out in an article by The Athletic in September, from L.A. to Minnesota to do the Let’s Play Hockey traditional pregame chant and put JABS patches on each of the jerseys the players were supposed to wear.

In the end, only Jablonski showed off the jersey to the sold-out crowd in attendance.

During the course of the day, the Wild called Jablonski and all of their Pride Night partners, including Twin Cities Pride, to explain the situation. Team officials say all were understanding.

The Wild still carried on with several of the planned Pride Night initiatives, including 17 players wrapping the blades or shafts of their sticks in rainbow-colored tape and defenseman Jon Merrill, his wife, Jessica Molina, and other Wild players donating tickets to QUEERSPACE Collective and hosting a postgame meet-and-greet. — Michael Russo

Context on the Russian anti-gay laws

It should be noted that the NHL’s past and present issues with the LGBTQ+ community cannot be minimized as being only a “Russia problem.”

Still, according to scholars on the topic, the threat Russian players in particular are facing because of the escalation of anti-gay laws is real.

“Sports fans needs to realize this is probably not an idle threat,” said long-time University of Minnesota sociology professor Doug Hartmann, who is writing a book on athlete activism and backlash. “Your first reaction is, ‘Oh come on, they’re trying to get out of this.’ But when you start thinking it through, knowing what the Russian state has done in the context of treatment of Brittney Griner, I’d be scared if I were a Russian.

“I think it’s exactly what we don’t know that makes this so threatening. It’s kind of the modus operandi of authoritarian states. Not that they’re going to act all the time. But the threat of that is to create distrust and uncertainty among your own citizens. And in an international context, that allows you to wield power in this way.”

Ben Noble, associate professor of Russian politics at University College London, agreed.

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“These are legitimate fears,” Noble said. “‘If you put on a Pride jersey, then there is uncertainty regarding how this would be interpreted by law enforcement in Russia — and that’s a risk. The authorities have the power to enforce this and other legislation selectively. It’s up to them to decide whom they go after.

“Could it be that certain Russian players are using this legislation as an excuse not to do things that conflict with their own personal values — that they may simply not want to put on a Pride jersey? Perhaps. But I don’t think legitimate fears regarding the impact of the ‘LGBT propaganda’ legislation should be disregarded.”

Noble said the amended law in question is part of a bigger campaign by Putin aimed at so-called “traditional values,” which attempts to show how Russian culture is different from the “liberal West.”

“The language of the legislation is so vague. What does ‘LGBT propaganda’ even mean?” he said. “This is a classic case of the political leadership in Russia consciously using ambiguous language to have a broader chilling effect.”

Since the legislation was signed into effect, Noble said, publishers have been forced to pull books from shelves or have been charged for violating the ban on “LGBT propaganda.” When asked whether “coming out” would constitute a violation of the ban, a Russian legislator — and the legislation’s main sponsor — said that each case would be considered individually by a court with expertise from the country’s communications regulator.

“Given the vagueness of the legal language, the importance of the ‘traditional values’ project to Putin and the possible penalties that could be applied, it would be entirely plausible for Russian athletes competing in North America to fear the implications of doing anything that might be interpreted as being ‘LGBT propaganda,’” Noble said.

Noble said another factor for Russians competing in North America is that some senior Russian government figures have called people who left the country after the full-scale February 2022 invasion of Ukraine “traitors.” Although sportspeople are likely in a special category, there is a general suspicion of Russians abroad. — Joe Smith

Rangers Pride Night

In an email to season-ticket holders prior to the team’s Pride Night, the Rangers announced they would be wearing Pride-themed warmup jerseys to be auctioned off. When the team hit the ice for warmups on Jan. 27, they were in their regular jerseys.

The Rangers issued a statement the next day. “Our organization respects the LGBTQ+ community and we are proud to bring attention to important local community organizations as part of another great Pride Night. In keeping with our organization’s core values, we support everyone’s individual right to respectfully express their beliefs.”

The other planned aspects of Pride Night went on as planned, including a Pride-themed giveaway and a member of NYC Pride dropping a ceremonial first puck. — Arthur Staple

Capitals Pride Night

The Capitals hosted their seventh annual Pride Night on Jan. 17 vs. Minnesota. They did not wear Pride-themed jerseys for warmup but that’s not a new development as they’ve never worn them.

Players were given the option to wrap rainbow tape on their stick handles and blades to be used during warmups, and approximately five players opted to do so. In all, 20 players wrapped their sticks with rainbow tape for the team’s auction, which raised a record $40,810 benefitting local LGBTQ+ organizations.

Throughout the game, the Caps displayed rainbow-colored video boards and messages of support for the community, including interviews on the Jumbotron featuring video coach Emily Engel-Natzke and her wife as well as defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk and other players. The team also honored a military member of the LGBTQ+ community as part of the “Salute to Service.”

It should be noted, though, that Chick-fil-A’s “Spot the Cow” promotion — a staple at home games this season — was not held on Pride Night. Some fans also noticed that there were no auction items this year from a few players — most notably captain Alex Ovechkin and Dmitry Orlov. — Tarik El-Bashir

Flyers Pride Night

Provorov’s decision to sit out warmups rather than wear a Pride jersey with the rest of his teammates prior to the Flyers’ Jan. 17 game against the Ducks first raised awareness of this situation. In past years, the Flyers had celebrated Pride Night as an organization, but on-ice player participation was limited to the optional use of Pride tape during warmups. Led by Scott Laughton and James van Riemsdyk, the team decided to wear jerseys this year.

Provorov raised concerns to team officials the week prior to Pride Night, and by the night before Jan. 17, he had reaffirmed his intention to pass on wearing the jersey for religious reasons. Flyers hockey operations made the call to go forward with the warmup jerseys for the rest of the players — who remained intent on participating, with or without Provorov — while allowing Provorov to stay in the locker room and skip warmups.

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After the game, Provorov was asked to explain his absence. “I respect everybody, and I respect everybody’s choices. My choice is to stay true to myself and my (Russian Orthodox) religion,” he responded. “That’s all I’m going to say.” — Charlie O’Connor

Penguins Pride Night

The Penguins’ Pride Night, on Dec. 12, went off without any restrictions or changes. All players wore Pride warmup jerseys that were later auctioned for LGTBQ+ charities.

Malkin participated, as he has in every Pride and/or theme night held in Pittsburgh since he joined the Penguins in 2006-07. He has never objected.

Malkin has never publicly shared his stance on LGTBQ+ issues. He is generally apolitical.

Brian Burke, the president of hockey operations, has marched in June Pride parades in Pittsburgh since he joined the organization in February 2021. — Rob Rossi

What the league has said

The NHL must “respect individual choice” if players decide not to take part in events such as Pride Night, commissioner Gary Bettman said during the All-Star festivities in South Florida last month.

When asked whether Provorov’s decision not to take part in Philadelphia’s Pride Night warmup or apparent changes to New York’s Pride Night plans send the wrong message about inclusivity in the sport to young players and fans, Bettman told reporters that “some people are more comfortable embracing themselves in causes than others.”

On Feb. 28 in Calgary, Bettman told reporters: “Our clubs do a lot for Pride Nights. And the issue was a handful of players not wanting to wear the Pride sweaters in warmup. That doesn’t (necessarily) mean they’re homophobic. It means they were uncomfortable wearing that type of sweater. And you have to respect, at some point, individual choice.

“You may be charitable and donate to charities. And then, somebody comes up to you and says, ‘I’d like you to donate to a particular charity.’ And you say, ‘I don’t really want to donate to that charity.’ It doesn’t mean you’re against them. It just might mean you have other priorities.”

The league has traditionally avoided commenting on situations involving Russian affairs, particularly last summer when there was worry about players like Kaprizov in their homeland.

The league won’t comment specifically on whether the anti-gay propanda law is why Russian players may not be comfortable wearing Pride sweaters, because the league doesn’t want anything it says misinterpreted in Russia.

Five percent of NHL players who have played a game this season are Russian, so the league has a dilemma when it comes to Pride Nights and the visuals of Russian players wearing jerseys. They’re trying to be respectful of that, so it would not be surprising if the jersey part of Pride Night initiatives becomes a thing of the past in future seasons. — Michael Russo

Reaction from the LGBTQ+ community

Like every other corner of the fan base, hockey’s LGBTQ+ community is anything but monolithic and doesn’t speak with one voice. Reactions to the growing number of teams opting out of wearing Pride jerseys have ranged from righteous anger to a weary shrug. But for many, the issue underscores just how far the sport has to go to make it a welcoming place for all hockey fans.

The question is: Do Pride Nights really do anything to achieve that goal?

Multiple activist voices in the LGBTQ+ hockey community have privately wondered if Pride Nights are more trouble than they’re worth, because they stoke a defensive reaction in much of the hockey world, furthering the rift among fans. But, they say, Pride Nights aren’t going anywhere unless teams eliminate all the other themed nights they host, as well, including military nights and police nights. One went so far as to say they’d have to eliminate the national anthems, too, if the goal is to make the sport as apolitical as possible. After all, some of the teams that host Pride Nights also are corporate partners with Chick-fil-A, whose corporate owners have spent millions of dollars on anti-LGBTQ+ legislation efforts over the years.

But corporate-sponsored rainbow tape and rainbow jerseys aren’t going to change hearts and minds. As Brock McGillis — whose Alphabet Sports Collective, an advocacy group for the LGBTQ+ community in hockey, had its launch party in Toronto on Thursday night — has said in the past, humanizing LGBTQ+ players and fans is the only way to break through the bigotry. That, ideally, means having a sizable number of openly gay and non-binary players in the NHL. With that simply being unrealistic at the moment — Predators prospect Luke Prokop is the first and only out player under a pro contract — humanizing means having prominent players continue to stand up for the community. Lost to many amid the Provorov controversy was how the Flyers, led by veteran Scott Laughton, have been leaders in that space. — Mark Lazerus

What about upcoming Pride Nights?

Part of the reason the Wild and Rangers have gotten flak is that they were expected to wear Pride jerseys and opted not to. Many teams celebrate Pride or “Hockey is for Everyone” and LGBTQ+ Nights without Pride jerseys.

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In fact, the same night the Wild made headlines for not wearing their sweaters, the Lightning held Pride Night in Tampa and didn’t receive criticism for not wearing Pride sweaters, because they had never planned to wear them. Other teams that didn’t wear Pride jerseys include the Avalanche, Blue Jackets, Bruins, Capitals, Hurricanes, Islanders, Red Wings and Senators.

No fewer than 13 NHL teams have Pride Nights remaining on their schedules between March 13 and April 6. Planned events vary by organization.

Kraken, March 13: Seattle, for the second straight season, plans to feature a pregame jersey designed by a local artist. A rendering of the design, featuring Pride progress colors in a rainbow pattern, is shown above a link to purchase tickets on the team’s website.

Kings, March 18: Fans will receive rainbow socks upon entry. No jersey is specified, but players have worn them for warmups in the past.

Sharks, March 18: San Jose has previously hosted Hockey is For Everyone night, but this year they are advertising a dedicated Pride Night. They have worn Pride jerseys during warmups in each of the two previous seasons.

Blackhawks, March 26: The Blackhawks’ annual Pride night “brings the entire Blackhawks organization together to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community and stand together for inclusion.” It includes pregame performances and photo opportunities. Defenseman Connor Murphy, the longest-tenured active Blackhawks player, recently told The Athletic’s Mark Lazerus he expects every player on the team to wear the Pride jerseys for warmups.

Stars, March 31: “The entire Stars team will wear special Pride-themed warmup jerseys before the game that will be auctioned off by the Dallas Stars Foundation,” according to the team’s website. Players will wear Pride tape, as well. The team has held several similar nights in past seasons.

Panthers, March 23: Florida has held previous Pride Nights, and players have used rainbow stick tape and worn Pride jerseys. No details for 2023 were available.

Oilers, March 25: The Oilers will not be wearing Pride jerseys in warmups. They never have, per The Athletic’s Daniel Nugent-Bowman.

Sabres, March 27: Buffalo’s night will “feature activations throughout the game celebrating acceptance in the sport.” The website did not mention the team’s Pride jersey plans; it did, however, mention “special warmup jerseys” for St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, and the team has worn Pride warmups in the past.

Canucks, March 31: Vancouver has held Pride Nights with special jersey designs for several seasons. Their website mentions no plan to wear one on March 31, and no design has been publicly shared.

Blues, April 4: Their website mentions no plan for warmup jerseys, which they wore in 2022. Fans will receive a Pride bag.

Maple Leafs, April 4: No details were available. Last April, players wore Pride-themed T-shirts to a game that were later auctioned to benefit a local charity. They did not and have not worn warmup jerseys.

Jets, April 5: No details were available. Players have worn themed warmup jerseys in the past.

Canadiens, April 6: Montreal is hosting LGBTQ+ Night. Players have worn Pride jerseys during warmups in the past.

The Athletic has contacted these teams to ask whether they will continue with their Pride plans. The Stars have “no changes to (their) plans at this time.” The Jets offered no clarification or specifics other than the confirmation that they were holding an event. The Leafs offered this: “In terms of plans next month, we really value our allyship and long history with the LGBTQ+ community and are very much looking forward to our Pride Night on April 4. The Maple Leafs have held Pride Nights since 2017 and our plans this season remain consistent with previous years’ successful events.”

This post will be updated as we receive comment. — Sean Gentille


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