Pride nights have split open hockey's closed culture — and that's a good thing

In my experience growing up as a closeted minor hockey player, hockey culture cultivates an insular, us-against-the-world mentality far stronger than that of most other sports, writes Colin Walmsley.

Instinct to turtle up and hope problems disappear is manifestation of hockey culture

Hockey sticks wrapped in rainbow coloured-tape on the ice.
Tampa Bay Lightning players warm up with sticks wrapped in rainbows for pride night before a game in March. Ignoring homophobia in the sport won’t make it disappear, writes Colin Walmsley. (Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

This column is an opinion by Colin Walmsley, a Canadian teaching in Paris. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

On Monday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said that NHL Pride nights would have to be re-evaluated in the offseason, the latest fallout from a controversy that has engulfed the NHL. 

As a rising number of players refuse to wear Pride jerseys, the last few months have been one of those rare and uncomfortable occasions when hockey's closed and insular culture is split open and revealed to the world. 

With their players' opinions under the spotlight, some teams seem intent on avoiding the conversation at all costs: the New York Rangers, Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks all nixed previously announced plans for their entire teams to wear Pride sweaters, choosing to comply with an anti-LGBTQ+ law passed in a dictatorship half a world away rather than stand with the queer community.

Unfortunately, that instinct to turtle up and hope for problems to disappear is just a manifestation of the fortress mentality present throughout hockey culture at all levels of the game.

What happens in the locker-room stays in the locker-room; the team is everything; the locker-room is our stronghold. In my experience growing up as a closeted minor hockey player, hockey culture cultivates an insular, us-against-the-world mentality far stronger than that of most other sports.

Sometimes, this attitude can have positive outcomes: the friendships built during hours together in carpools and bus rides; the teamwork forged in early morning or late-night practices; the shared hockey culture. The Humboldt Broncos tragedy showed us that at its best, this culture can unite an entire country.

Unfortunately, it's not often at its best.

Slurs thrown around

I played a lot of sports alongside hockey as a kid, probably in part to hide my gayness in conservative rural Alberta. But I haven't played another sport where post-game handshakes had to be eliminated to avoid fights, or where homophobic, sexist, and racist slurs were thrown around with such thoughtless regularity. 

And as we've seen with the Hockey Canada sexual assault scandal and the recent revelations of racism brought to light by NHL players such as Akim Aliu and Matt Dumba, there's a rally-'round-the-team effect in hockey than can cause teams and organizations to shore up their defences, protecting their own brands and their players' reputations at the expense of the broader community.

This entrenchment is aggravated by the fact that so many of us are seen as being exterior to Fortress Hockey, rather than integral parts of it. Women. Visible minorities. Queer people. And on and on.

Like a fish that can't see the ocean, I took that culture as a given, internalizing it and overlooking the ways it harmed me and others. It was everywhere and everything — the language used around the locker-room; the internal team values; the way we thought about our opponents — and so became invisible to those of us who sustained it. 

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The NHL's Pride nights are so important to me because they acknowledge that LGBTQ+ people are part of the hockey community, and commit to breaking down the pervasive homophobic and heteronormative barriers to participation like the ones I perpetuated and faced growing up.

While eliminating homophobia from hockey will not be a quick or easy task, there's at least an easy solution to the NHL's supposed Pride night conundrum: just let the players choose whether to wear the jersey or not.

I, for one, wouldn't hold it against Russian players who don't wear a Pride jersey. The anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda law in Russia is real, and the ultimate consequences for violating it are unclear. 

But the teams themselves? The only consequences they face are reputational. Since several teams have worn Pride jerseys despite the Russian law, it's hard to shake the suspicion that the teams that have walked back their Pride jerseys are using the Russian law as a smokescreen to shield their non-Russian players who don't want to participate from having to explain that choice and face any consequences for their homophobia.

A benefit to the discourse

Most teams are doing Pride night right. The San Jose Sharks and the Florida Panthers chose to wear Pride jerseys despite the opt-outs of James Reimer and Eric and Marc Staal. In doing so, they demonstrated the support of the organization and the players, while leaving the non-participating players to explain their position.

Despite the often sensational headlines, there's a benefit to that discourse. Forcing people to explain their homophobia often demonstrates how hollow their reasoning really is. And the responses to the controversy from other NHLers show how isolated they really are.

While most of the attention has been on Reimer and the Staals, there have been strong messages of support from players with higher profiles, like Connor McDavid, Matthew Tkachuk, Jamie Benn, and many others, demonstrating that in many cases, the players have more courage than their teams.

While we queer hockey fans would love to "just let the players play," as the comment sections of articles on NHL Pride nights keep telling us to do, ignoring homophobia in the sport won't make it disappear. Fortunately, most players seem to understand that eliminating homophobia from hockey culture requires a proactive approach, so I'll leave you with Matthew Tkachuk's recent statement on the importance of Pride night:

"A night like tonight, for me, really is just all about including everybody. In my opinion, it's by far the greatest game in the world, and everybody's welcome in my locker-room."

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Colin Walmsley grew up in Fort Macleod, Alta. He's currently a lecturer at a university in Paris, where he teaches about the legal systems of anglophone countries.