Roundtables are an occasional feature on Hockey in Society. Roundtables present brief commentaries from Hockey in Society contributors on pressing or timely issues within hockey and its culture, with the aim of presenting multiple critical viewpoints on the topic under discussion.
On January 17, 2023 the Philadelphia Flyers hosted its annual pride night celebration. James van Riemsdyk and Scott Laughton have been credited as the driving forces behind the night for the players. They met with over 50 members of the LGBTQ+ community after the game. The team also decided to create pride themed jerseys this year, but Ivan Provorov ended up being the talk of the night when he chose to sit out the warm up as a way to avoid wearing the pride jersey. Provorov explained his decision thusly: “I respect everybody and I respect everybody’s choices. My choice is to stay true to myself and my religion.” This one seemed too hot of a topic to ignore.
With the advent of “theme” nights in professional sports, we’ve ended up conflating opinions and marketing activations with human rights. For example, the New Jersey Devils list Third Jersey Game, St. Patrick’s Day, and Marvel Super Hero Night alongside Gender Equality Night, and their Black History Celebration. Some of these theme nights are meant to support the very existence of marginalized groups and others are purely for fun. In a society where we have come to privilege individual choice above collective well-being, I can see how folks like Provorov might get confused with “[respecting] everybody’s choices” versus supporting non-negotiable human rights. But let’s be clear that opting out of Marvel Super Hero night because you’re a DC fan is not equivalent to what happened on pride night. Sexual identity is not a choice. Full stop. That being said, I don’t want him to wear the pride jersey if this is where he is at.
In the summer of 2022, Jaelene Daniels of the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage refused to wear the pride jersey and thus wasn’t rostered for the game against the Washington Spirit. She also refused to wear the pride jersey as part of the U.S. Women’s national team in 2017. If she does not believe in LGBTQ+ rights then the last thing I want her to do is pretend. As an Asian woman who identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community: I don’t want you to support gender equality night if you also like that Andrew T*te guy, and I don’t want you to wear the pride jersey if you’re not actually going to vote for your gay teammate’s right to marriage equality, adoption rights, and access to mental health supports etc.
To paraphrase the words of Guy Debord (1967) in his analysis of the spectacle, these commemorative theme nights and jerseys could be understood as the glitter that is used to hide the rot. Admittedly, the NHL has gotten better on the labour side of things with some teams hiring jersey designers with the specific community in mind, but the Provorov incident shows why these initiatives are limited in value. He has also been consistent in not participating in Flyers’ pride nights. Previously the team used pride tape for pride night but this was optional. For the jerseys this year, the players decided they “wanted to do more…as a unified whole.” The appearance of unity on the ice with one player hiding in the locker room is a problem. Steve Simmons from the Toronto Sun went as far as to say that if former Flyers’ owner, Ed Snider were still alive Provorov would have never gotten away with opting out of pride night.
I think it is important for fans to know who and what they are supporting, especially for the kids. And yes, this door swings to both the progressive and regressive sides of the spectrum because Provorov’s jersey is now sold out on the NHL’s online shop and on Fanatics. Similarly, Jaelene Daniels became a martyr for the Christian right and there isn’t much we can do to stop that. It would have been interesting to see Provorov on the ice for warm-ups and with him as the only outlier. That could have started some very interesting conversations for families at the game: Why is his jersey different than everyone else’s? He can believe whatever he wants to believe, but as a league, the NHL is going to have to pick a side of the fence.
The Hockey is for Everyone tagline has been challenged ever since it made its appearance in 2011. As I wrote last year, one of the flaws of hockey is that is has been too inclusive – trying to remain its conservative fanbase while also drawing in new blood. This contradiction was further emboldened last week when the league gave in to Governor Ron Desantis’ childish understanding of “discrimination.” Instead of headhunting diverse job candidates at a job fair in Florida, the NHL’s spine magically dissolved kowtowing to the man who is undoing generations of anti-oppression work. I would argue that rolling a human rights issue into the same events portfolio as St. Patrick’s day is the fundamental problem with how the NHL approaches equity. St. Patrick’s Day is one day out of the year. Fighting homonegativity is either an everyday activity or it is nothing. And, the dynamic of having James van Riemsdyk in the locker room with Provorov is what we’re asking a closeted player to navigate.
The big difference between the Daniels situation and Provorov is that he played in the pride night game. Daniels stuck to her proverbial guns and accepted the consequences. I can respect that even if I disagree with her beliefs. But while it makes for a poor alignment of theme to allow a player with homonegative views to play in a pride night game, does it really make a difference in the grand scheme of things? Provorov will be in the locker room, in the press box, and on the ice interacting with folks from the LGBTQ+ community whether he knows it or not. To me, that is the bigger issue – he’s always there. This is what working towards “inclusion” gets you – everyone means everyone. Having gays, feminists, disabled people, BIPOC, and trans folks in the same locker room with misogynists, ableists, racists, homophobes, and transphobes is not equality. A system built on justice and anti-oppression, on the other hand, would have vetted him from the league a long time ago. In the NHL’s attempt to create a more inclusive and safer space for marginalized folks, it has ended up fostering a space of conflict and tension between regressive opinions and codified human rights.
“I think everybody knows what the league stands for in terms of our values, what the Flyers stand for in terms of their values” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said on Thursday about Provorov. I agree with him, but not in how Bettman meant it. It’s clear the “values” are literally the economic value of selling merchandise, which Courtney is right on in discussing the conflation of human rights with marketing hype. It often seems to me the only commitment the NHL has to making change is releasing merch, which explains why not much changes in the NHL.
While this was not news to me, what was news to me is that the NHL, arguably the most conformist of all professional sports, supports players going against their team. I thought that the NHL’s near cult-like commitment to a lack of individuality was why NHL players have donned their pride jerseys with, up to now, no complaint, unlike in baseball. I’ve never thought NHL players were less homophobic than MLB players, but just easier to shut up and make follow team orders. The pride jerseys were never about showing that individual players were allies. It was about showing that the team supported (or wanted to profit off of — depends on how cynical you are) their queer fans. And unsurprisingly the minute a player pushed back, this support crumbled because the men running NHL teams do not feel for a need for it.
Shutting players up and following orders is what John Tortorella has been about for the majority of his career, so it’s telling that Tortorella was exasperated at the media questions about why he didn’t bench Provorov. Earlier this season, Tortorella claiming he had “major concerns” about accountability on the team had already benched leading scorer Kevin Hayes because of a bad turnover and lack of dedication to team play. But apparently one of their alternate captains missing warmup is not a lack of commitment to the team. Tortorella also didn’t think Provorov’s homophobia would be an issue with his teammates, which is sadly probably true, but would be an issue in any organization that actually cared about the issue.
Now obviously I don’t think the issue is a player not unquestioningly following the team. The issue is the NHL suddenly claiming they support players following their beliefs as if all beliefs are equal. There’s nothing more devoid of values than saying that players who go against the supposed values on display are also admirable. Ultimately, it shows these supposed values are not important to them and will be easily shed the minute there actually needs to be education to create a cultural shift.
My problem is not with Provorov’s decision to not wear a pride jersey. As someone who identifies as part of the LGBTQI+ community, I agree with others in this roundtable that I do not want someone who expresses homophobic intentions to wear a pride jersey because they are forced to do so: I want them to wear the jersey with every intention of being supportive and inclusive to the LGBTQI+ community. My problem lies in the discourses from the Flyer’s organization, the NHL, and countless others who have justified, excused and supported Provorov’s decision. In my opinion, it is these discourses that do much more harm to the LGBTQI+ community and to LGBTQI+ participation in hockey.
Let’s start with John Tortorella, the Flyers coach. Tortorella made the decision to play Provorov after his homophobic actions. He also fully supported Provorov in his decision. In an interview, Tortorella contended that Provorov “did nothing wrong” and was “being true to himself and his religion.” He also stated that, “Just because you don’t agree with his decision doesn’t mean he did anything wrong.” What these messages signal is that Provorov’s choice was not homophobic but rather just a decision made to support his own beliefs. That Provorov “did nothing wrong” is a gross misjustice to the LGBTQI+ community who suffered discrimination at the hands of Provorov that night. Eric Anderson (2009), a professor of sport, masculinities and sexualities, explains that “homophobia [serves] as a form of heterosexual and masculine social currency” (p.1). In other words, homophobia is used as a conscious weapon to uphold hegemonic gender hierarchies and subjugate the LGBTQI+ community. By choosing not to wear the pride jersey, Provorov inherently works to position the LGBTQI+ community as inferior to the masculine and heterosexual norms hockey culture continues to reinforce. Whether for religious purposes or not, Provorov’s choice was an act of homophobia. Thus, for Tortorella to claim that Provorov did nothing wrong is to deny the very real feelings of queer people, who absolutely felt discriminated against and subjugated when Tortorella chose to play Provorov and support his decision: I know I did.
Let’s look now to the NHL’s comments. The NHL released a statement claiming, “players are free to decide which initiatives to support.” Not only does this go against what is in the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement (see below), but it is a missed opportunity for the NHL to have taken a strong and clear stance on the inclusion of the LGBTQI+ community in hockey. The following statement comes from section 2(d) of the NHL Standard Player’s Contract within their collective bargaining agreement:
While the NHL is not as direct as Tortorella in its support, by releasing such a statement, the NHL essentially lets Provorov off the hook for violating the two agreements above. The NHL had an opportunity with Provorov’s boycott of the pride jersey to support the LGBTQI+ community. The NHL could have dealt any number of penalties to Provorov from a fine to suspension to firing him from the league to demonstrate their support of the LGBTQI+ community. They could have at the very least expressed that they did not support the Flyer’s decision to continue to play Provorov in the pride night game. The NHL could have taken this event as a very real example of why there are not out players in the NHL and why queer fans continue to feel excluded and alienated in hockey spaces: they could have chosen to take action to rectify this issue. The NHL did not do any of this. Instead, what they did do is send a message that other players may decide to not participate in their teams’ pride night. Worse than this, they continue to signal to the LGBTQI+ community that they are not prioritized in the NHL or its fandom. Rather, religious beliefs trump a community that simply want a space in sport.
The one other main discourse I want to take the time to note here is the idea of progress. Many people in response to Provorov’s decisions have been noting that despite his decision, we can see progress in the inclusion of the LGBTQI+ community in sport. Sure, on some level this is correct. As “You Can Play” co-founder, Brian Kitt notes, 19 out of 20 players wearing a pride jersey is way more than what we would have seen 13 years ago. Further, every team now has a pride night: this is surely a sign that things are progressing. Yet, pride nights are just one night. How do we ensure that the LGBTQI+ community feels included in the other 81 games? I am not saying pride nights do not work on some level to make the LGBTQI+ community feel included in the NHL space: they do (i.e., Denison & Toole, 2020; Reimer, 2020). But the problems remain that there is still at least one player in the NHL (Provorov) that believes being queer is a choice, there is still no out player in the NHL, and there are still various fans who adamantly believe queer people don’t belong in sport. So, can we really call that progress? Maybe, but it’s certainly not the level of progress that makes the NHL a safe space for the LGBTQI+ community.
The take away that I want to make here is that it is not Provorov’s decision that is the whole problem here. Decisions like Provorov’s allow us to have very important conversations about why LGBTQI+ continue to be alienated in the NHL space and why there is no out player in the NHL. It would be wrong to think that there aren’t more players like Provorov in the NHL who would rather choose not to wear a pride jersey or participate in pride night. However, the Flyers organization, the NHL and others who adamantly or implicitly support Provorov without any real thought or concern for how this may impact the LGBTQI+ community demonstrate that the progress made has been minimal. These decisions signal to conservative fans that they have a voice to spout homophobia. It signals to the LGBTQI+ community that the NHL is not a safe space. It signals to any NHL players who may be struggling with their sexuality that they would not be welcomed. And to those who say there are not NHL players that are hiding their sexuality, I ask you to only look at the plethora of NFL players who came out after retirement. Provorov’s decision came without ramifications and a plethora of support: here in lies the problem. How can the queer community ever feel safe in the NHL space if no one considers the impact on them from decisions like Provorov’s?
Anderson, E. (2009). Inclusive masculinity the changing nature of masculinities. Routledge.
Debord, G. (1967). Society of the Spectacle. Bread and Circuses Publishing.
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.
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