When the NHL debuted the “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative in 2017, fans and players alike felt a shift in the icy air. The league began encouraging young girls to partake in the sport, the NHL enforced league-wide Pride Nights, and players like Matt Dumba later felt more comfortable calling the NHL out for its leniency on racism.
Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov is the latest in a long line of players to make his stance on the “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative clear: It’s just not for him. On Jan. 17, Provorov opted to sit out of warmups during Flyers’ Pride Night. The player cited his Russian Orthodox religion as the basis for his refusal to wear a Pride jersey. He wouldn’t say much on the subject, but he told the media following the game, “I respect everybody, and I respect everybody’s choices.” He followed the sentiment: “My choice is to stay true to myself and my religion. That’s all I’m going to say.”
Is hockey really for everyone? Or is the initiative nothing more than a quirky marketing strategy concocted by the NHL to seem progressive while doing the bare minimum to diversify the sport? Sure, it seems like a great way to promote inclusivity. But at the end of the day, the NHL straddles the line at center ice so as not to alienate either side of the political aisle. Realistically, some might argue the NHL barely discourages players, fans, and professionals from problematic rhetoric and behavior.
And, subsequently, some might conclude that the NHL — which ran its 2023 All-Star Weekend in strategically complementary programming to the NFL’s Pro Bowl Games two weekends ago — softly silences women, the LGBTQIA+ community, and POC into pretending that the bare minimum is enough.
‘It’s obvious they don’t care’
Angelica Rodriguez, a queer Buffalo Beauts reporter and co-host of the Founding 4 Podcast, told Presser that the “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative “has only proven to me to be a nice little marketing strategy to sell special jerseys and score brownie points with audiences.” She added, “When you historically look at the ways in which the NHL has let its actions speak louder, it’s obvious they don’t care outside of the positive optics it gives them.”
Beyond the fact that being a member of the LGBTQIA+ community isn’t a choice, it’s hard to believe the sentiment that someone respects everyone when they won’t wear a jersey in support of LGBTQIA+ rights. Not wearing a Pride jersey or putting rainbow tape on a stick speaks volumes to queer NHL fans, players, and professionals in the sport: They’re not welcome here. At the end of the day, that’s all something like a Pride jersey is saying — all are welcome, or hockey is for everyone.
The incident blew up online, with Recruit Scouting’s Gabe Foley opining on Twitter that Provorov breached his contract.
Foley highlighted the section of the contract stating that the player agrees “to co-operate with the Club and participate in any and all reasonable promotional activities of the Club which will in the opinion of the Club promote the welfare of the Club and to cooperate in the promotion of the league and professional hockey generally.”
According to David Clark, a trial lawyer and partner at The Clark Law Office with 35 years of experience, the most relevant conditions are the one stated above and the condition stating that “the player should conduct themselves according to the highest standards of honesty, morality, fair play, and sportsmanship. The player should also refrain from behaving in such a way that is detrimental to the best interests of the Club and the league.”
Clark told The Daily Dot that “Provorov technically violated his contract.”
What does ‘reasonable’ really mean?
However, he noted that using the word “reasonable” makes the situation open to interpretation. Clark explained, “There’s no definition of what counts as ‘reasonable,’ so the court can easily argue that it’s unreasonable to ask Provorov to participate in something that doesn’t go with his [religious] beliefs.”
On whether the NHL could amend contracts to state that any player who misses warmups must also forfeit the right to participate in the game, he said that if it was written exactly that way, then “any penalties given to the player by the Club or the league wouldn’t be considered retaliation since it’s a breach of a legal obligation the athlete agreed to prior to signing the contract.” However, he noted that adding clauses like “without any valid reason” could nullify the league’s ability to sit a player out for not wearing a Pride jersey.
Yet like most areas of law, not all lawyers agree on the situation. Former minor league hockey agent and current employment lawyer Nance L. Schick noted, “You can’t contract around the law.” Regarding the Provorov incident, she explained, “If employees have sincerely held religious beliefs that justify their refusal to participate, an employer must accommodate their request not to participate, despite contractual provisions that might allow the employer (team or league) to keep him from playing due to missed warmups.”
(The Daily Dot reached out for comment to NHL and Flyers representatives, and did not receive a response by press time.)
Along with fans and professionals alike, LGBTQIA+ Canadian women’s hockey player Erin Ambrose expressed her frustration on Twitter, calling for action.
Whether or not the Flyers could have legally barred Provorov from the game is dicey at best, but the league’s lackluster statement on the matter left a lot to be desired.
Despite Pride Night being the NHL’s own initiative, the perception that they barely stand by it or make their stance clear could be further alienating to the LGBTQIA+ community. Even something like the pledge of a donation to local LGBTQIA+ charities any time a player opts not to wear a Pride sweater would go a long way toward establishing goodwill. While the NHL’s inaction isn’t surprising, the dismissiveness from the top emboldens fans to mirror the behavior in arenas and through their keyboards.
The specter of sexism
In 2020, I experienced a threat of violence at an Islanders home game. I am a petite 4’11” woman who stood next to the Kings’ tunnel and dared to cheer loudly for Jonathan Quick in away team territory when he faced an onslaught of booing. A middle-aged man in front of me waited until the Kings’ broadcast team turned around to get in my space. He threw a punch two centimeters from my face — not to injure, but to threaten — stopping his momentum right before making contact. The message was clear: Women need to stay quiet.
Women who follow the league have plenty of stories like this — and aggressive comments are even bolder online. Reading the comments section on Pride Night posts is as defeating as a Game 7 overtime loss.
The comments section is riddled with the sentiment that the LGBTQIA+ community isn’t welcome in NHL arenas. The sexism in the comments section of NHL posts is just as bad — especially when it comes to the sexualization of the Ice Crew.
You’ll meet a barrage of defensive comments if you dare to call a man out for stating how much they want someone — to point out some actual examples — to “send an ice girl to their address” or “use their big golden heart to keep them safe from the winter.” These keyboard warriors don’t like it when women criticize their locker room talk in a public forum. I once witnessed a father make a sexual remark about an Ice Girl in front of his young daughter and then nudge me as if I were in on the joke. I wasn’t.
The NHL does little to prevent or criticize this behavior, either. In fact, the disparity between how the NHL presents women and men on the NHL’s Ice Crew speaks volumes. On many NHL teams, the women wear low-cut outfits with little coverage to draw in the male gaze. Meanwhile, men on the Ice Crew are typically bundled up in pants and long-sleeve shirts.
A former Dallas Stars ice team member said in our interview that their costumes are chosen for body movement in dance, but plenty of the Ice Crew outfits take components of the uniform, like the bust, to an unnecessarily revealing level — going beyond what might be seen in other sports like figure skating and cheerleading competitions. The Ice Team women for the Philadelphia Flyers, conversely, have uniforms nearly identical to the men, proving that they can provide the same level of athleticism with warmer attire fit for hanging around an ice rink.
The former Dallas Stars Ice Crew member also noted that the most she ever made on the team was about $500 in one month — despite rigorous training and mandated practice and game attendance. She pointed out that the pay was “atrocious when you think about how much they pay the players. Nobody’s asking for 150k, but something liveable would be fabulous.”
Another member of the Stars Ice Crew remarked that, regarding fan culture at games, she never felt unsafe. She added, “There were times [when] fans would get a little too close for a photo. But we always had security guards around. If we felt uncomfortable, they would escort the person out of the game.” As it turns out, aggressive men are much more violent when security isn’t watching their every move.
This dancer also wasn’t particularly bothered by the outfits, but added, “It was cold on the ice rink. I never wished to wear a jacket while skating — but [I] always wished to wear one while waiting at the glass during the times we weren’t skating.”
When it comes to the culture toward women in the NHL, she explained, “There [weren’t] many women in office positions — less women overall. [I’m] not sure if that is because of interest or culture.” She noted the “bro-y” culture of the job and outlined some pretty bizarre rules the Ice Crew had to follow.
For instance, Ice Girls couldn’t be in the same place as players — even if Ice Girls were there first. She explained that if a player walked into a bar that any of the Ice Crew were at, the Ice Crew members were required to leave immediately. Additionally, the players could follow members of the Ice Team on social media, but the Ice Team couldn’t follow them. She also mentioned that the NHL is against Ice Crew member relationships with employees or players. But in that case, both parties should be held to the same rules.
(The Daily Dot reached out to the Stars’ organization to comment on the Ice Girls’ claims and did not receive a response by press time.)
Former Colorado Avalanche Ice Team member and 2018 bronze medal Olympian Mirai Nagasu told Presser that her time on the Avs Ice Patrol was what she “needed in that moment” and that “the organization recognized its limitations.”
Regarding her hopes to bring more awareness to the assistance that Team USA athletes critically need, Nagasu explained, “My viewpoint is that women’s sports deserve more of everything. Especially since women’s sports are on the rise, women should get more pay, air time, and sponsorship dollars.” People continually underestimate women’s sports, but Nagasu added, “Women’s hockey is currently the fastest-growing sport in Massachusetts, yet men’s sports get a majority of television coverage.”
Between Provorov’s Pride jersey incident and the heartbreaking handling of Kyle Beach’s rape allegations against video coach Brad Aldrich back in 2010, the league could use a significant policy overhaul to avoid future reputation harmers.
In both cases, the NHL failed to take a hard stance against harmful behavior, sending a dismissive message. The Blackhawks waited to dismiss Aldrich until after they won the Cup that same year, and the organization’s silence allowed Aldrich to abuse minors at Houghton High School following this time with the Blackhawks. According to the law firm Jenner & Block, “While in Houghton, in 2013, Aldrich was arrested and pled guilty to fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a minor.”
NHL officials might be buoyed by this year’s NHL All-Star Game broadcast ratings—according to Sports Media Watch, the celebration garnered a 56% increase in ratings and 31% in viewership from 2022’s numbers. But that success was followed with a New York Post report that the New York Islanders would be the latest team to water down Pride Night celebrations, even deeming rainbow-themed equipment tape too risque.
Perhaps the league will also realize with more eyes on it, more need for accountability should come with it, if hockey’s truly to be more inclusive.
Xandra Harbet is a New York City-based freelance journalist. She primarily covers the entertainment beat and specializes in tackling the intersection between pop culture and social issues. Xandra has written features and conducted celebrity interviews for sites like Looper, Regal, and Mashed.
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