- Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.
The NHL’s ban on players wearing specialty jerseys during warmups has frustrated those who directly benefited from their participation, including charities and artists from marginalized communities.
“In short, it hurts,” said Mio Linzie, a queer artist who has collaborated with several NHL teams, including the Vegas Golden Knights and Los Angeles Kings, on Pride jerseys.
“It doesn’t only affect the LGBTQ+ community but it also affects other marginalized communities, as the warmup jerseys is a primary part of community outreach and charity within the NHL. It’s also been a space for artists to express themselves and be able to create unique work under the NHL — and that venue has now partly been taken away.”
The NHL announced Thursday that teams will no longer wear specialty jerseys during warmups, after several players were scrutinized for refusing to wear Pride Night sweaters last season. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has stated that specialty nights will continue to be held and that teams can still create jerseys to be auctioned off.
The NHL specialty jersey ban includes jerseys that teams have worn for Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Military Appreciation Night, Hockey Fights Cancer, as well as more localized celebrations like San Jose’s Hispanic Heritage Night. Those player-worn jerseys were often designed by artists from marginalized communities and would be auctioned off after games to benefit local and national charities — oftentimes generating thousands of dollars per jersey, depending on the player.
Adolescent Counseling Services, which supports LGBTQ+ teens and families, helped raise funds through the auction of San Jose Sharks Pride jerseys this season. Dr. Philippe Rey, the executive director of the organization, was disappointed with the NHL’s decision.
“It’s unfortunate the NHL has come to this decision, as events like Pride Night, where players wore Pride Night warmup jerseys, are a wonderful opportunity for players to show support to our LGBTQIA+ youth and spread a message of love and inclusivity,” Rey said in a statement to ESPN. “Gestures like this can mean a lot to LGBTQIA+ young people, who experience bullying and hate crimes, are four times more likely to commit suicide, and report feeling unsafe in our world today. Hopefully one day, showing support for other humans won’t be seen as a distraction.”
The American Cancer Society, which benefited from the sale of player-worn “Hockey Fights Cancer” jerseys in the past, told ESPN that jersey sales are just one part of the NHL’s charitable efforts.
“We are proud to partner with the NHL and the NHLPA in the fight against cancer, and thankful that their support has helped thousands of cancer patients and their families through free rides to treatment, free lodging during treatment, and our 24/7 support line,” the American Cancer Society said in a statement. “Hockey Fights Cancer jerseys are one aspect of our broad partnership with the NHL and NHLPA that will continue to advance our efforts to end cancer as we know it, for everyone. We look forward to continuing that work with the league and the players’ association for many years to come,”
All 32 teams held Pride or Hockey Is for Everyone nights this past season, but several players decided not to take part in pregame warmups when their teams donned Pride jerseys. Some were Russian-born players who cited religious beliefs or an antigay Kremlin law as justification. San Jose Sharks goaltender James Reimer and brothers Eric and Marc Staal, who both play for the Florida Panthers, sat out of warmups when their teams held their respective Pride Nights, citing religious beliefs. Teams like the Minnesota Wild and New York Rangers announced to fans they’d wear Pride Night jerseys, only to reverse course.
“If you look at the overwhelming number of NHL players, they’re very supportive of the LGBTQ+ community. We had some players that didn’t want to wear the jerseys, whether it was for political or religious reasons,” NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh told SN 650 in Vancouver.
Bettman said the ban on players wearing specialty jerseys was meant to eliminate the “distraction” that the boycotts of Pride Night caused last season, as the players’ actions overshadowed the team events.
“In the final analysis, all of the efforts and emphasis on the importance of these various causes have been undermined by the distraction in terms of which teams, which players,” Bettman said in an interview with Sportsnet following an NHL board of governors meeting in New York. “This way, we’re keeping the focus on the game, and on these specialty nights, we’re going to be focused on the cause.”
Some of the artists who helped design the jerseys took issue with that explanation.
“I personally do not like this word ‘distraction’ that I see is being used over and over again by Mr. Bettman,” “Teepop,” a Black LGBTQ artist based in Miami who designed the Panthers’ Pride jerseys this season, told ESPN. “A distraction to who and to what? The jerseys that I designed were worn by the Florida Panther players for a total of 15 min, only during warmups on the ice.
“The NHL has been doing Pride nights and specialty jerseys highlighting all communities for many years now. Unfortunately, this past year the universal climate for equality has shifted. Axing all of these special jerseys across the board is gut wrenching. Because it says, ‘Everyone is not welcome here on the ice.’ No matter how they try to say that’s not what they are promoting, it is what they are saying.”
Other artists wondered why the NHL didn’t allow teams to make their own calls on jersey policies.
“If this is in response to some players refusing to wear [Pride] jerseys, then that is something that should be worked on by the team itself. Not removing them from the ice all together,” Daniel Martinez, who created the New Jersey Devils’ Pride Night jerseys last season, told ESPN.
Artists like Martinez and Linzie were compensated by teams for their designs. Linzie was somewhat encouraged that teams could continue to make these jerseys despite the fact that players won’t wear them.
“I’m glad they’re allowing the jerseys to be made, and hopefully that’ll lead to them becoming more accessible and widespread,” Linzie said. “But not having the jerseys being worn on the ice and shown [in footage] during the game removes a significant part of what they’ve meant for communities.”
Martinez said holding special tribute nights without the players wearing the jerseys misses the point.
“I don’t see this as a reasonable compromise. The whole point was to give these groups the visibility they need and to auction off those worn jerseys to charities,” said Martinez.
Anaheim Ducks arena organist Lindsay Imber, who is transgender, said designing the Ducks’ Pride jerseys this season was “the best night I have ever had in hockey” and that she felt “an indescribable feeling of acceptance and support” as she watched the players wearing them during warmups.
After the jersey ban, her focus is on finding creative ways to continue to support those communities and charities impacted by the change in NHL policy.
“It makes me sad to think that future artists and collaborators designing logos for any of the specialty jerseys may not be able to experience that moment of euphoria,” Imber told ESPN. “But it means that we all must do more, not less, to honor our diverse communities and make everyone feel welcome. It’s time to do what we do best and get creative to figure out how to invest in our communities.”
ESPN’s Ryan Clark contributed to this report.
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