The NHL scores the Brand Miss of the Week—for its ongoing missteps with the LGTBQ community.
This is not a new issue but one that isn’t going away, and it continues this week to be a big miss for the National Hockey League. Just before the 2023-24 season started last week, the league sent a memo to its teams saying that use of rainbow-colored Pride Tape was now banned from games, warm-ups, and even team practices.
The move comes after a long year for the NHL and its relationship with the LGBTQ+ community. During last season, several players made headlines for refusing to wear themed jerseys for various teams’ Pride nights, with reasons ranging from religious beliefs to running afoul of an anti-gay Russian law that could hurt Russian players when they return home.
To avoid confusion and more bad press coverage, the league announced in June that teams would no longer wear special jerseys in support of Pride and other causes during pregame warm-ups on theme nights, such as military nights and Hockey Fights Cancer, among others, which teams around the league have had fun with for years. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the other week that taking themed jerseys out of the equation was the league’s attempt to eliminate a distraction.
Bettman said, “What happened last year was that the issue of who wanted to wear a particular uniform on a particular night overshadowed everything that our clubs were doing.”
Okay, let’s get this straight: In reaction to pushback from a small number of players who objected to being asked—not forced—to wear Pride jerseys, the league swings waaaaaay over in the other direction to actually prevent players who do want to express support and allyship from doing so. In the process, it’s tarnished a brand image built over years of support for the LGBTQ+ community.
Long-time player agent Allan Walsh said on his podcast that it was about five players who opted out of Pride last year, while more than 700 others had no problem at all.
Obviously, this is the league trying to protect players who do object from negative media coverage, based on that decision. But in the process, and by doing it with such a drastic move, it’s erasing so much work done on a league and team level to accept and embrace the LGBTQ+ community.
The Stanley Cup first went to the Pride Parade in Chicago in 2010, while the Rainbow Stick Tape has been used since 2016. A statement from You Can Play, an organization that has partnered with the NHL since at least 2013 to strengthen a sense of belonging for LGBTQ+ athletes, coaches, and fans said, “It is now clear that the NHL is stepping back from its longstanding commitment to inclusion, and continuing to unravel its one-time industry-leading work on 2SLGBTQ+ belonging.”
Many players, including three-time MVP Connor McDavid, have said they’re disappointed in the decision. And as a fan, I’m right there with them.
For the sake of argument, even putting where you stand on the issue of Pride aside for a moment, this is just a real flip-floppy, weak, brand move from the league. All its past Pride efforts now look like empty publicity stunts over real action. Surely, there is more room for compromise and understanding here between those who would rather remain quiet on any issue, including Pride, and outright banning active support.
For a sport that’s famous for fist fights and toothless smiles, as a brand right now, the league appears to be missing a backbone.