Sabres' Lyubushkin skips Pride night warmup, fearful of retribution in Russian homeland
Players wore rainbow-coloured jerseys before ex-Leafs blue liner took the ice for game
Ilya Lyubushkin cited an anti-gay Kremlin law and fears of retribution at home in Russia for electing not to participate in the Buffalo Sabres' pregame warmup on the team's Pride night, when players wore jerseys with the team's rainbow-coloured logo on the front in support of the LGBTQ+ community.
The team announced Lyubushkin's decision Monday morning. Lyubushkin is from Moscow, where he has family and visits regularly in the off-season.
The 28-year-old defenceman was Buffalo's only healthy player not to take part in the warmups, before participating in the game. The remaining players took the ice wearing dark blue jerseys with the Sabres logo on the front encircled by a rainbow-coloured outline, the same design as the team used for its social media avatar throughout the day.
A handful of players had their sticks wrapped in Pride tape, and the Sabres warmed up with commemorative pucks, featuring the date and both teams' logos in rainbow colours. As in the Sabres' past two Pride Nights, the Buffalo Gay Men's Chorus sang the American and Canadian national anthems.
"We continue to advocate for under-represented groups in hockey and hope that our Pride Night, like many across the league, sparks meaningful conversations and encourages support for the LGBTQIA+ community," the team said in a statement.
"Our team feels strongly that one way to garner support is through wearing Pride jerseys and using Pride tape in warmups," the team said. Without mentioning Lyubushkin specifically, the Sabres added: "We are are aware of general threats to certain players, and understand their decision to forego risk."
Sabres captain Kyle Okposo, whose father is from Nigeria and faced discrimination for being Black upon immigrating to Minnesota, defended his teammate while citing the importance of celebrating a Pride night.
"We support 'Boosh' [Lyubushkin] in this room, and we want to make sure that he's comfortable and we respect his decisions," Okposo said.
"I have empathy for my teammate, for Boosh in the situation he's in, but think about it: If there's a closeted gay member of a team, and you have to have empathy for that person, too, in that situation," he said. "We have to realize that and that's part of being accepting, and that's why we want to be accepting."
Pride nights in the spotlight
Okposo also reiterated what he told The Associated Press last week when he said he's sensitive to Russian players' concerns because "we're frankly not capable of understanding, because we haven't been there."
It has not just been Russian players opting out of warmups that have put Pride nights around the NHL in the spotlight in recent months.
Ivan Provorov of the Philadelphia Flyers, James Reimer of the San Jose Sharks and brothers Eric and Marc Staal of the Florida Panthers all refused to take part in warmups with Pride-themed jerseys, citing religious beliefs, while the New York Rangers, Minnesota Wild and Chicago opted not to have players wear them.
Chicago, like Lyubushkin, cited a law passed last year in Russia that expanded the restrictions on supporting LGBTQ+ rights in the country as its reasoning.
The Panthers, whose star goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky, is Russian, went forward with plans to wear Pride-themed jerseys on Thursday night before their home game against Toronto. Bobrovsky took part.
Sabres head coach Don Granato said he left the discussion and decision to his players on how to handle Pride night.
"It was nice for our group to really take an event like this and have a lot of meaningful conversations, even leading up to it based on what's going around the world — around the U.S. and around the world — and actually have talks [about] more than hockey," Granato said. "I think the authenticity of our group has been really a silver-lining positive of the event that we're excited to have tonight."
Okposo said what he found important was Sabres players were engaging in discussions on a sensitive topic.
"I think that is something that as a society as a whole, we're still grappling with, and as a hockey community, we're still grappling with as well," Okposo said. "But we're getting better. And we are going to continue to have these conversations and continue to get better. But it's extremely important to have this night tonight."