Opinion | NHL needs to bring specialty jerseys back

For years, the National Hockey League participated in theme nights by incorporating special warm-up jerseys into their pregame warmups. The end of this practice was announced last off-season after a controversy surrounding LGBTQ pride jerseys. The NHL’s decision to ban all specialty jerseys was a mistake and a step backward for the game.

It was a shock to hear the announcement that themed warm-up jerseys would be banned moving forward because it was a unique way that NHL teams could support charities and their communities. Themed warm-up jerseys were a special part of the game, not only because they brought awareness to a cause but also because they would often spotlight local artists. Many teams commissioned artists to design their specialty jerseys, allowing for art to exist alongside the sport. After the game, the jerseys were commonly signed by the athletes and then auctioned off to support charities.

Even though themed warm-up jerseys were used to bring attention to different causes and celebrations, including everything from Saint Patrick’s Day to cancer fundraising, everybody knew that the decision to eliminate the practice as a whole was because of the negative attention Pride Nights were receiving in the past season. Since 2013, players have worn rainbow jerseys during warmups for one night a year to raise money for LGBTQ+ charities.  

Most of the controversy started on Jan. 18, 2023, when Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov boycotted the team’s warmup skate on Pride Night when he refused to wear the pride jersey. While talking about his decision, Provorov said that he respects everyone’s choices but doubled down on his decision not to wear the jersey. After Provorov’s controversy, athletes across many teams decided to sit out of warmups, including the Staal brothers. They said that wearing the jerseys would go against their Christian beliefs. The Minnesota Wild went as far as to cancel their pregame warmups as a way to protect their athletes from negative media attention.

This conversation regarding protection becomes highly complicated when considering the current state of Russia. The NHL has many Russian athletes, and the country has been cracking down on the LGBTQ+ community under the rule of President Vladimir Putin for years now. People who are against celebrating Pride during the pregame warmups like to make it into an issue of safety for the Russian athletes despite no claims of previous consequences.

The NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said that the decision to get rid of all specialty jerseys was made to eliminate distractions, but many interpret it as a way to get the attention off of the athletes and teams that do not want to participate in pride celebrations. This explanation became especially likely when rainbow tape was also banned. The pride tape was a key part of Pride Night warmups and was banned before the 2023-24 season.

In the midst of Pride month, we can look back on how different teams handled the new rules on specialty jerseys. 

Some teams went around the rule that the themed jerseys could not be worn on the ice by having the athletes walk in wearing the jerseys. In my opinion, this is the best way to still honor and bring awareness to various causes without facing repercussions from the league. Posting the walk-in photos on social media gives exposure to movements while showcasing support. Teams can still sell the jerseys without athletes wearing them, but for many fans, the excitement comes from the athletes bringing attention to them and, in turn, the charities involved.

Teams can still attempt to spread messages about diversity, but many ring hollow now that we can assume how the NHL feels on the matter. Sports leagues will use diversity only to satisfy people who demand it while also making sure the messaging is ignorable by those who don’t want to see it. Games dedicated to diversity should be spreading the message to everyone that all are welcome. But if that message is so small that it is ignorable, then the league isn’t doing a good enough job. 

The ban on pride tape was lifted after Coyotes player Travis Dermott defied the rule and used pride tape during a game. He said that he has seen the impact of hatred against the LGBTQ+ community on people around him, and he wants to be a good role model for that reason. His motivation to be a good role model is exactly why this message of diversity in sports is important. It may seem silly for rainbow tape to mean something, but if it makes at least one kid who turns on the game feel included, then it is important. 

Jameson Keebler writes primarily about pop culture and current events. Write to her at jrk162@pitt.edu.


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