There's been a trend this NHL season that has nothing to do with the sport's on-ice product. Several teams have announced plans to hold Pride Nights, during which players wear jerseys celebrating the LGBTQ+ community either during warmups or games -- or both.
But many of those plans have been scraped by teams after being made public. The most recent example came on March 7, when Minnesota Wild players chose to not wear special Pride Night jerseys that had been designed.
Below is a deeper dive into why this is happening among NHL teams.
A reported Russian connection
According to a report from The Athletic, there is a connection to Russia in all of this. On March 10, The Athletic published a report titled "The NHL's Russia-Pride jersey problem, explained: Why Wild became latest to scrap plans."
The report explains how NHL players specifically from Russia have played a part in what has become a league-wide controversy.
- Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov opted out of participating in warmups with his teammates when the team held their Pride Night back in January. Provorov, who is originally from Russia, stated that he didn't wish to participate due to his Russian Orthodox religious beliefs.
- When the Wild were planning to wear Pride jerseys on March 7, the team originally even had an auction site where fans could bid on a Pride jersey that was worn by a player. However, the website was deleted. This could have something to do with the fact that Wild star Kirill Kaprizov is originally from Russia and had issues returning back to the United States from Russia over the summer.
- The New York Rangers also planned to hold Pride Night, but canceled. The Rangers have several Russian players on their roster, including goalie Igor Shesterkin and forwards Artemi Panarin and Vladimir Tarasenko.
- It is worth noting that the Pittsburgh Penguins did hold their Pride Night on Dec. 12, and Penguins star Evgeni Malkin -- who is Russian -- wore a Pride jersey.
The deeper connection here is to Russian president Vladimir Putin and laws he's put into place in the country. Under Putin, Russia has passed several laws that restrict the rights of LGBTQ+ citizens. In December, the New York Times reported that the country passed a law that "makes it illegal to spread 'propaganda' about 'nontraditional sexual relations' in the media, advertising, movies or on social media."
As the Athletic notes, five percent of the NHL's players are Russian.
"These are legitimate fears," Ben Noble, associate professor of Russian politics at University College London, told the Athletic. "'If you put on a Pride jersey, then there is uncertainty regarding how this would be interpreted by law enforcement in Russia — and that's a risk. The authorities have the power to enforce this and other legislation selectively. It's up to them to decide whom they go after."
A total of 14 NHL teams still have Pride Nights planned for the remainder of the 2022-23 season.
A timeline of this season's Pride Night controversies
Sabres (March 27)
When the Buffalo Sabres hold their Pride Night on Monday against the Montreal Canadiens, defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin won't be taking part in the team's warmups. According to the Associated Press, Lyubushkin isn't going to wear a Pride-themed jersey due to the recent anti-gay law that was passed in Russia that restricts the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community.
The 28-year-old defenseman is from Moscow and his family, whom he visits in the offseason, still lives in Russia. While Lyubushkin isn't going to partake in the pregame festivities, the Sabres are still planning to wear Pride jerseys during warmups prior to Monday's contest.
"The Buffalo Sabres are proud to continue to support the LGBTQIA+ community as allies by hosting our third annual Pride Night game," the team said in a statement. "It is of the utmost importance to us to continue to use our platform to strengthen our organizational goal of making hockey for everyone.
"Consistent with previous years, our teams feels strongly that one way to garner support is through wearing Pride jerseys and using Pride tape in warmups. That said, we are aware of general threats to certain players and understand their decision to forego risk."
Panthers (March 23)
Florida Panthers forward Eric Staal and defenseman Marc Staal did not participate in the team's warmups prior to Thursday's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs after deciding not to wear Pride jerseys. The Panthers took their turn in hosting their annual Pride Night on Thursday.
The Staal brothers released a statement saying that they chose not to wear the Pride jerseys because it goes against their Christian beliefs.
"After many thoughts, prayers and discussions we have chosen not to wear a pride jersey tonight.," Both Staal brothers said. "We carry no judgement on how people choose to live their lives, and believe that all people should be welcome in all aspects of the game of hockey. Having said that, we feel that by us wearing a pride jersey it goes against our Christian beliefs.
"We hope you can respect this statement, we will not be speaking any further on this matter and would like to continue to focus on the game and helping the Florida Panthers win the Stanley Cup."
Eric Staal also added that he had never worn a Pride jersey in the past. However, he wore one as a member of the Montreal Canadiens during the 2020-21 season and photographic evidence made its rounds on social media.
Blackhawks (March 23)
The Chicago Blackhawks were slated to hold their Pride Night on Sunday's game against the Vancouver Canucks. But according to the Associated Press, the team announced Thursday that players won't be wearing Pride-themed jerseys during warmups for the event.
The Blackhawks are reportedly choosing not to wear Pride-themed jerseys due to the recent Russian law being passed that restricts LGBTQIA+ rights. The decision was reportedly made after discussions with security personnel inside and outside the team.
In previous years, the Blackhawks have donned Pride jerseys during warmups. The team's players have also worn jerseys in support of other themed nights earlier this veryseason.
The Blackhawks are still planning several activities in coordination with their Pride Night festivities on Sunday. The team will have DJs from the LGBTQIA+ community on hand to play during the contest and the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus will perform. In addition, Chicago plans to shine a spotlight on a few local businesses that have ties to the LGBTQIA+ community.
Predators prospect Luke Prokop speaks out regarding Pride Night controversies
Nashville Predators prospect Luke Prokop, the league's first openly gay active player, recently spoke out about all the Pride Night controversies that have occurred around the NHL this season. Prokop expressed his "disappointment" in some teams and players refusing to wear Pride-themed jerseys to show their support for the LBTQIA+ community.
"I share the disappointment in what feels like a step back for inclusion in the NHL," Prokop wrote on his Twitter account. "Pride nights and pride jerseys play an important role in promoting respect and inclusion for the LBTQIA+ community, and it's disheartening to see some teams no longer wearing them or not fully embracing their significance, while the focus of others has become about the players who aren't participating rather than the meaning of the night itself."
Prokop was selected in the third round of the 2020 NHL Draft and publicly came out in July 2021. During the draft process, Prokop stated that he informed the Predators about his sexual orientation, and that Predators president Sean Henry informed Prokop that the team would always make it a goal to make sure that Prokop was comfortable in Nashville.
Prokop is currently playing for the Seattle Thunderbirds in the Western Hockey League.
Sharks (March 18)
The San Jose Sharks held their Pride Night on Saturday and the team's players wore jerseys in support of the LGBTQ+ community during warmups. However, prior to the game, Sharks goalie James Reimer announced that he wouldn't be participating in warmups and cited his religious beliefs as the reasoning behind the decision.
Reimer was the only Sharks player that refused to wear the Pride jersey during warmups
While he revealed that he didn't want to participate due to his religious beliefs, Reimer did sign pucks with the Sharks Pride logo on them, which was given to select fans on Saturday.
Here's his entire statement, which team tweeted out:
A statement from Goaltender, James Reimer: pic.twitter.com/GwhWxhbmb4— San Jose Sharks (@SanJoseSharks) March 18, 2023
Wild (March 7)
The Wild originally had an auction site where fans could bid on a Pride jersey that was going to be worn by a player on March 7. However, the website was deleted. In addition, the Wild flew Minnesota native Jack Jablonski into town for the Pride game. Jablonski was paralyzed when he was playing hockey in high school and now works for the Los Angeles Kings.
Jablonski revealed he is gay in 2022, and the Wild even designed a "JABS" patch that was going to be worn on the Pride jersey. When it was all said and done, Jablonski was the only person that ended up wearing the jersey, since the team elected not to don the Pride sweaters for that game.
However, the Wild did still hold several of the team's planned Pride night initiatives, which included 17 players wrapping the blades of their stocks in rainbow tape. Defenseman Jon Merrill and his wife, Jessica Molina, along with other Wild players, donated tickets to the QUEERSPACE Collective and hosted a postgame meet-and-greet with the organization.
It's noteworthy that Wild star Kirill Kaprizov is from Russia and had issues returning back to the United States from Russia over the summer.
Rangers (Jan. 27)
In an email to season-ticket holders, the Rangers revealed that they were planning to wear Pride-themed jerseys during warmups prior to their game against the Vegas Golden Knights on Jan. 27. Those jerseys, the team said, would be auctioned off after the game.
Instead, the team wore their traditional home jerseys when they took the ice for warmups before the Jan. 27 game.
The Rangers released a statement the following day, but didn't offer a reason as to why the team didn't wear the Pride-themed jerseys in warmups as planned.
"Our organization respects the LGBTQ+ community and we are proud to bring attention to important local community organizations as part of another great Pride night," the statement read. "In keeping with our organization's core values, we support everyone's individual right to respectfully express their beliefs."
The Rangers still held other Pride-themed events on Jan. 27, including a Pride giveaway.
A member of NYC Pride also dropped the ceremonial first puck.
Flyers (Jan. 17)
Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov made headlines when he decided not to participate in warmups when the team celebrated their Pride night on Jan. 17. The Flyers wore Pride jerseys during warmups prior to their game against the Anaheim Ducks on that night.
Provorov cited his Russian Orthodox religious beliefs as the reason for refusing to participate in warmups.
"I respect everybody, and I respect everybody's choices," Provorov said following the game. "My choice is to stay true to myself and my [Russian Orthodox] religion. That's all I'm going to say."
The Flyers defenseman had brought his concerns over wearing a Pride jersey to the team a week beforehand. Leading up to the contest, Provorov made it clear that he didn't plan to join his teammates during warmups.
The rest of Philadelphia's players chose to participate in warmups, despite Provorov's opposition to the idea.
"The Philadelphia Flyers organization is committed to inclusivity and is proud to support the LGBTQ+ community, the Flyers said in a statement. "Many of our players are active in their support of local LGBTQ+ organizations, and we were proud to host our annual Pride Night again this year. The Flyers will continue to be strong advocates for inclusivity and the LGBTQ+ community."