“Stick to Hockey”: Hockey Fans’ Homophobic Responses to NHL Teams Supporting Pride

Another June, another Pride month. As the NHL and its various hockey clubs gear up to participate in pride month, we see a growth of support from different teams in their support for the 2SLGBTQI+ community. For example, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that they would be marching in the Toronto Pride Parade to demonstrate support for the 2SLGBTQI+ community. Similarly, the newly founded Seattle Kraken are hosting and participating in a variety of pride events in their community, including a pride-themed public skating session and participating in Seattle’s Pride Parade. Further, all NHL teams now host pride-theme nights or events. While critics may be skeptical about the usefulness of such events, Alex Reimer (2020) of Outsports contends that, “To LGBTQ sports fans, it sends the message that we belong.” Not only for fans, but pride theme nights can also help change discriminatory behaviour among athletes. A study conducted on whether diversity-themed events in the Australian Ice Hockey League curtailed discriminatory behaviours found that players on the teams with diversity-themed nights used less homophobic language by 40 percent (Denison & Toole, 2020). However, as we see slow progression from the NHL and its clubs to include 2SLGBTQI+ communities, many fans need to be dragged into 2022. 

On June 1st, 2022, the Toronto Maple Leafs organization posted on their social media accounts that they, along with MLSE (Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment), “are proud to be an official sponsor of Pride Toronto and [will] march in the 2022 Pride Parade.” In addition to donating and marching, they also said that they “look forward to bringing hockey to Toronto’s pride festival weekend through activations in our wellness zone.” The fan response was immediate and polarized. While there were of course, hundreds of tweets supporting and thanking the Leafs for these actions, the discourse on social media was largely homophobic and discriminatory:

Facebook Comments.
Instagram Comments.
Twitter comments.

The comments largely center on the idea that the Maple Leafs should “focus on hockey/winning the cup.” These comments follow similar discourses that we hear around inclusivity in hockey and other sports, that “politics don’t belong in sport.” Specifically, since the Maple Leafs were recently eliminated from the first round of playoffs for the sixth year in a row, many comments targeted the Maple Leafs’ inability to march in the Stanley Cup Parade; therefore, to march in the Pride parade is marked a poor consolation prize. The concern about this comparison is two-fold. First, the Stanley Cup is idealized as the only thing worth achieving in hockey. While I admit it was painful to watch the Maple Leafs eliminated in the first-round again, before these past six years, the Leafs only qualified for the playoffs once in the previous 11 seasons (from the 2005-2006 to the 2015-2016 seasons). So, having a competitive NHL team to watch for six seasons has been a (small) victory. Moreover, sport should be enjoyed for other aspects aside from the championship that only one team can have each year. Second, it belittles the tremendous importance of Pride to the 2SLGBTQI+ community by creating space for 2SLGBTQI+ members and their allies (McFarland, 2012). A survey conducted by the Trevor Project (2022) found that 45 percent of LGBTQ youth contemplated suicide in the past year, and that “LGBTQ youth who live in a community that is accepting of LGBTQ people reported significantly lower rates of attempting suicide than those who do not.” Pride Parades are essential. Thus, the comments about “focus[ing] on winning the cup” take away the positive messages NHL clubs are trying to promote. While these comments may seem more-so targeted at the Leafs’ franchise’s inability to get past the first round of playoffs, other organizations’ posts about Pride events faced similar feedback from their fandoms. For instance, the two-time Stanley Cup defending Tampa Bay Lighting, and their semi-final opponents, the New York Rangers, both had similar fan comments on their Twitter announcements regarding Pride: 

These comments are particularly relevant for the Tampa Bay Lighting, where the State of Florida recently passed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, prohibiting educators from speaking about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten to Grade 3. For the Tampa Bay Lighting and the Florida Panthers (who also wished their fans Happy Pride on their Social Media) to show support for the 2SLGBTQIA+ community is crucially important right now, when they are feeling particularly marginalized. However, the homophobic comments that take up the majority of the space under these NHL teams’ support, effectively neutralizes the inclusivity they are meant to provide. 

This discrimination and homophobia towards the 2SLGBTQI+ community within hockey is not unique to the NHL. Earlier this year, drag queen and Canada’s Drag Race contestant Juice Boxx participated in an Ontario Hockey League event at the Oshawa General’s pride night puck drop. The Oshawa Generals were proactive in deleting the hateful tweets that circulated, but a screenshot from the post demonstrates the numerous tweets that did have to be removed:

There are many social media users who actively advocate for the 2SLGBTQI+ community’s participation in hockey both on the fan and the player level, but they should not have to. As hockey preaches to be “for everyone,” it must do more to ensure everyone feels welcome. When the first handful of tweets under a social media post expressing support of pride are discriminatory and homophobic comments, does the 2SLGBTQI+ community really feel included? As a queer Leafs fan, who grew up in Toronto and took pride in celebrating the Leafs, win or lose every season, I question my belonging, even my safety, when I see comments like these splattered over social media during a month where queerness of all varieties is meant to be celebrated. 

The NHL has been involved with You Can Play in various forms since its inception 2012. Yet, there is still no out 2SLGBTQI+ active or retired NHL player. Further, the NHL’s fan code of conduct, adopted by all teams, does not mention anything about discriminatory behaviour from fans. To my knowledge, the Toronto Maple Leafs are the only club that have a separate fan code of conduct that specifically states that discriminatory behaviour is prohibited at Scotiabank Arena. While the NHL, its clubs and other hockey organizations do make small progressive steps in ensuring the inclusivity of the 2SLGBTQI+ community, the fandom seems to be trailing behind. Is hockey really changing if its fan base isn’t changing with it? 

Niya St. Amant (@niyastamant) is a Ph.D. Student in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University. Her research interests include sports-related concussions, risk and injury cultures, hockey cultures, and the 2SLGBTQI+ community’s involvement in sport. Her Master’s research explored how coaches in minor league hockey responded to, perceived and took up Rowan’s Law. Her doctoral research seeks to explore how concussion legislation assumes to be universally beneficial to all athletes, neglecting the gendered experiences of racialized girls who play hockey. 

Works Cited

Denison, E. & Toole, D. (2020). Do LGBT pride games stop homophobic language in sport? In 

L. Walzak & J. Recupero, Sport media vectors: Digitization, expanding audiences, and the globalization of live sport (pp. 129-146). Common Ground Research Networks.

McFarland, K. (2012). Cultural Contestation and Community Building at LGBT Pride Parades. [Doctoral dissertation, University of North Carolina]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Reimer, A. (2020, March 09). Why does it matter if sports teams hold “Pride Nights?” Outsports. https://www.outsports.com/2020/3/9/21171657/pride-nights-nhl-st-louis-blues-significance

The Trevor Project. (2022). 2022 national survey on LGBTQ youth mental health. 

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