The NHL delivers an unintended message: Hockey isn’t really for everyone

The first black eye of the National Hockey League’s 2023-24 season came several hours before puck drop on Tuesday. Even more remarkable, it was self-inflicted.

On the same day the league launched its new marketing campaign, “Is hockey somehow getting better?,” North American media outlets were focused on what is being called its new “Don’t Say Gay” policy. The coverage came in response to the league’s decree that its players would no longer be able to wear Pride jerseys or use Pride tape during warm-ups or games.

First reported by Outsports, the announcement codified the league’s stance on Pride-themed jerseys originally outlined by commissioner Gary Bettman in June, when he said that themed jerseys of any kind had become a “distraction,” and players would not be permitted to wear them during warm-ups.

According to ESPN, the league sent a memo to all 32 teams last week outlining its stance on themed night activities. Entitled “Game and Practice-Related Special Initiatives,” the memo is said to have come in response to a number of NHL clubs seeking clarification on a previous memo around event nights.

The league’s original decision regarding themed jerseys stemmed from the controversy that erupted when several NHL players refused to wear Pride jerseys last season—citing religious beliefs and, in the case of some Russian players, fear of retaliation in their notoriously anti-LGBTQ+ homeland.

The decision to enforce a blanket ban on themed jerseys provoked responses from gay rights and anti-discrimination groups including PFLAG and the Get REAL Movement.

Aside from preventing individual players offending homophobes by making their own small gesture of  support for the LGBTQ community, the new policy also seems to directly contradict the League’s “Hockey is for Everyone” platform, which was introduced in 2017 specifically to broaden the sport’s appeal beyond its core white male demographic.

At the time, the NHL and the NHLPA partnered with You Can Play, a group committed to fighting homophobia in sports, on a program that saw each team appoint a dedicated You Can Play ambassador. These ambassadors, said the league in a release, would be a leader on diversity, equality and inclusion in both the locker room and the community.

But in its report, Outsports called this week’s decision “the most stifling, anti-LGBTQ policy any pro sports league in North America has ever issued.”

It’s not clear how far this criticism will stretch beyond the initial outrage, however. While many of the more than 75 companies and brands listed as business partners by the NHL have publicly supported Pride Month in the past, it was hard to find official statements criticizing the league for its most recent decision.

However, You Can Play condemned the league’s recent actions in a tweet yesterday, saying it’s becoming increasingly clear that the league is “stepping back from its longstanding commitment to inclusion” and unravelling what had at one point been “industry-leading” work on 2SLGBTQ+ belonging. “We are now at a point where all the progress made, and relationships established with our community, is in jeopardy,” it stated.

Pride Tape, meanwhile, issued its own statement via X, in which it said it was “extremely disappointed” by the league’s decision, while some media outlets presented scathing critiques.

In an editorial yesterday, the San Francisco Chronicle said that the league had unofficially introduced a new marketing slogan: “The NHL: It’s not for you. Or you. Or you. In fact, we hate you. Why don’t you just stay away?” Closer to home, the Toronto Star said that with one simple decision, the league showed that its hockey is for everyone messaging is a lie.

‘[B]anning Pride tape is the place where the NHL’s ham-handed backward crisis management crosses firmly into ideology,” wrote columnist Bruce Arthur. “With the jerseys, you could at least accept that it was an argument that some players involved felt singled out, and that the NHL felt it was a distraction. Even if you thought there was room for negotiation, and ideally, for education, you could at least conceive of the errant thinking that led the league to that decision.”

The NHL, though, continues to carry on as if everything is fine. As has been customary in recent years, it introduced its new ad campaign to get fans hyped about the upcoming season.

Developed by Chicago agency Highdive, the 30-second spot is filled with the usual array of highlight reel goals and saves by the league’s biggest stars. It also rhetorically asks “Is hockey somehow getting even better?” while touting the arrival of the league’s “next golden era.”

There is legitimate reason to get excited about the upcoming season (well, except you, San Jose Sharks fans), which sees junior phenomenon Connor Bedard joining the league amidst the kind of hype we haven’t seen since Connor McDavid’s arrival in 2015.

Bedard is set to join an array of otherworldly young talent that might rightly lead the league’s marketing department to conclude that NHL hockey really IS getting better. But, as this week made clear, the off-ice product still needs a lot of work.

Chris Powell