Last weekend I found myself cheering on at a sports event, and caring. Which for me is wonder enough. Added to which, I found myself cheering on a sports event surrounded by rainbows and flags while the teams played in rainbow colours in honour of Pride week. As part of the international ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ initiative, the UK’s EIHL, North America’s NHL, and other leagues across both countries have celebrated Pride and inclusion.
For a Queer kid from Wales who grew up in a sports-obsessed but openly homophobic culture, that felt like something special. Even more so because that the sport was ice hockey, which feels the most welcoming of sports. Let’s put it out there that many sports are not the most inclusive feeling environment for queer folks. And while strides might have been made at the amateur level with many wonderfully, intentionally queer grassroots teams, the professional level across all sports often leaves much to be desired. We only have to look at the recent football world cup and the debacle over wearing a rainbow armband in solidarity with LGBTQ+ fans and players to know that.
The ‘Hockey is For Everyone. movement started in the NHL in 1998. It’s an umbrella month that seeks to promote diversity and inclusivity in the sport across a range of marginalised groups, including the LGBTQ+ community. This includes wrapping sticks in rainbow tape. Many heartwarming stories are emerging as the years go by of why Pride and ‘Hockey is For Everyone’ means a lot to fans and players alike. One such story is that of Brian Burke, president of operations for the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has marched in numerous Pride parades, including Toronto, Ottawa, and Pittsburgh. He does so in honour of his son Brendan Burke who died tragically in a car accident at 21, soon after coming out. Brendan had stopped playing at the college level for fear of what being gay in the hockey world would mean. After his death, his dad started the ‘You Can Play’ project to ensure the safety of marginalised kids in hockey, including LGBTQ+ kids. Across the US and Canada, there are steadily increasing initiatives like this—not just for LGBTQ+ players, but other marginalised groups—using the profile and fundraising of the ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ umbrella to actively make the sport a better place.
Elsewhere in the NHL, the New Jersey Devils have been leaders of the ‘tape on sticks’ initiative. Where hockey sticks are taped up, not in usual blacks and whites, but rainbow colours. Jeff McLean from Calgary started the initiative six years ago for warm-ups to signal that hockey was inclusive. If one person saw it and adopted the idea, it would grow. By 2021 all 31 clubs in the league adopted it during Pride month warm-ups and it’s become an important symbol of inclusivity. In 2019, New Jersey Devils’ forward Kurtis Gabriel unintentionally made history and put his name on the LGBTQ+ map when he kept his stick wrapped with Pride Tape for the entirety of the game and even went as far as to score the game-winning goal with it. At the Cardiff Devils’ Pride match, Josh Batch took pictures for the puck sponsorship photos holding a stick wrapped in rainbow tape. For many, the gesture might go unnoticed, but the beauty of the rainbow tape initiative is its subtleness; if one person notices and feels more included, that matters. In the Devils’ case, Batch holding that stick and deciding to take it out signals to LGBTQ+ fans that he is a safe person to be around and an ally. The little gestures, as much as the big ones, matter. And while we consider the little gestures, remember in many sports, not even these exist; or in the case of football recently, end up outright banned in favour of money.
The ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ initiative has become a part of the NHL and EIHL league in the UK, and it’s noticed if someone doesn’t participate. While it’s not necessarily in players’ contracts to participate, the aim is for clubs to create an environment where it would be notable not to participate. Most recently, this has been Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov refusing to wear a rainbow jersey during warm-ups for the team’s Pride Night earlier this year, citing his religious beliefs. It’s a tale as old as…well, bigotry. And one oft-repeated in sports. But his refusal and the condemnation from fans and fellow sportspeople spoke volumes; perhaps the tides are changing in professional sports. Clearly, the ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ movement is an integral part of hockey and a force for good. The idea that a similar refusal would not be tolerated in the EIHL is reassuring. Luckily, as this photo suggests, the Cardiff team (and goaltender Bowns in particular) enjoys the chance to rock a rainbow jersey.
Make no mistake, ice hockey still has a long way to go. Last year Luke Prokop become the first openly gay player under an NHL contract, having come out while a prospect for the Nashville Predators. While no doubt, as in all other sports, there have been players who came out later—Brock McGillis, goaltender for the Windsor Spitfires, is the most famous and outspoken example—there’s still a way to go on the ice. Much like football, the women’s game is leading the way, with many openly queer players for national teams and at the regional level; the iconic Shannon Mills, head coach of Team Canda, or Swiss player Fabienne Peter, for example. But it’s far from enough. That’s not to pressure LGBTQ+ players to come out, but rather for hockey to create an environment where they feel they can come out. That is, at least, the hope and aim of ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ in the larger sense, to open up the sport to those who traditionally have felt excluded, both on the ice and off.
As it stands, ‘Hockey is For Everyone’ and Pride week are newer initiatives in what is a much younger sport in the UK. Short of boring anyone with a complete history of the sport, the EIHL was only founded in 2003, while most teams in the league were founded in the 1980s or 1990s. So most clubs are around 35-40 years old in their current incarnation. That’s an interesting comparison in terms of LGBTQ+ fans and many players. Most British fans, and players of a similar age, grew up under the last Conservative government stronghold. At the risk of annoying the kind of fans on Twitter who will decry bringing politics into sport, this has a bearing; the 30-something fans (and players) of today grew up under Section-28 (the local government act which banned mention of LGBTQ+ issues in schools and other government-run organisations). So, firstly Mr. Bigot on Twitter, this does have a bearing on sport because, in your local council-run ice rink, your coaches couldn’t even have mention being LGBTQ+. But more to the point, many adults who could have grown up with ice hockey in the UK, also grew up at a time when it wasn’t ok to ‘say gay’. This does (and granted, this is a larger thesis on sport, politics, and education) filter down to inclusivity feeling like they will be welcomed, as in places like sports organisations. The adults the same age as our hockey clubs are people who didn’t grow up feeling welcome, and that goes for players in the 30-plus age bracket too. So to now be part of a sport that says, ‘hey, you can be LGBTQ+, you can be whoever’ matters.
One club that said that clearly and loudly was the Cardiff Devils. Making clear that this wasn’t just a marketing ploy, managing director Todd Kelman said, “This game truly is for everyone. It’s not just a clever strapline to sell t-shirts. It really is a safe place for anyone who wants to enjoy the experience of live ice hockey.” In a society where we’re used to rainbow-washing and Pride month being a gimmick to sell t-shirts, the acknowledgment of that, and with it a pledge to be more than that is significant. That said, for the record, and if Kelman is taking notes, we really do like the rainbow t-shirts, more of that too. Because actually, sport encourages you to wear your identity on a t-shirt. If we’re told that we can bring our whole selves to that, wear rainbows to signify who we are as LGBTQ+ people (or allies), and our team affiliations, there’s a sense of belonging in that. It might just be a t-shirt but in the tribalistic, wear your allegiance world of sports, it’s more than that; its a signal you can be both. (Plus, really Todd, we like rainbows, we look good in them, keep them coming!)
When you think about it, both being part of the LGBTQ+ community and being part of a sports community hinge on identifying as part of something. But still too often, we feel like we can’t be both. As LGBTQ+ folks, we’re encouraged to keep that part of us in its own box. We are told, still in 2023, don’t bring it to work, school, or wherever. Or someone on social media tells us to keep our identities out of sport. The deep irony is that sport is about curating a sense of belonging based on club allegiance or nationality, on constructing that identity, yet some folks ask us to leave part of it at the door? So the seemingly small gestures go a long way. Saying you can wear a rainbow pride jersey, that we will put our team logo in pride colours and you can wave a pride flag at a game, sends the signal: bring your whole self to your love of the team, and that you belong if you do.
It still takes a leap of faith for sports teams to run Pride events. It shouldn’t, but it does. So there’s a particular appreciation to both the management of the Devils (and the other EIHL teams who also embrace the idea) and those who continue to support it and let it grow. As Kellman said, “Pride Night is one of my favourite events…I remember how much all of you embraced it, and you know what, I didn’t expect anything less. I knew this was something Devils fans would run with and you have for seven seasons and counting.”
That Pride in hockey is allowed to grow is something worth celebrating. There were and are dissenting voices (the classic ‘keep it out of sport’ ones), but management or fans or players haven’t caved to them, and with it, Pride is growing in hockey. Not just at the management and player level with these official nights, but at the fan grassroots level too. The Devils have an army of volunteers who do various game nights and charity initiatives and also organise participation in Cardiff’s Pride march. Overseen by volunteer Elenor Jones, who organised a fan group of around 30 people last year to march, accompanied by mascot Taz; despite suffering in the August heat, surprisingly for a devil! That fans can step up and represent their team at Pride shows that the initiative does mean something beyond just a night of rainbow jerseys.
The Devils’ hockey team also highlighted a list of local groups where LGBTQ+ fans, family, and friends can find support if needed. That’s the kind of gesture that goes beyond the symbolic or even the commercial. It would have been enough to partner with and donate to Pride Cymru. That would have been more than some sports do, but the act of someone from the team taking the time to compile that list sends a real signal. Not just to existing fans who, yes, get the message reinforced that being a Devils’ fan is a safe space for them, but in the age of social media if followers of those organisations—ranging from Pride itself to parent support groups like Fflag and BAME LGBTQ-specific groups like Glitter Cymru and Trans support group Trans aid Cymru—it sends a clear message that someone behind this team cares enough to put that together, and that maybe this sport might be a safe one. We should applaud those who do bother to take those steps because if sporting organisations continue to take small steps, perhaps bigger leaps might be taken too. It’s also something appreciated by these organisations, as Cath Harrison of Pride Cymru comments, “We are really grateful for the continued support of the Cardiff Devils for Pride Cymru. The Devils have been leaders in the sporting world standing up for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. They have been pioneering in their sport and unwavering in their commitment. It was wonderful to see such a large contingent of Devils’ fans marching in the 2022 parade”.
Visibility matters, and Devils fans being visible at pride sends a message to the community; you will be welcome here.
Suppose we think too, of hockey as a big family sport particularly in the UK. Many families with kids may not know their sexual or gender orientation yet. They may or may not be out yet. But if they look at the players they adore (and yes, kids adore even the sweatiest of hockey players…perhaps the sweatier, the better…), if they see them in rainbow jerseys playing with rainbow tape-wrapped sticks, they’ll grow up in a sport where they can be themselves. Every rink is on the same ice the Devils play on; kids’ hockey teams practice and play on it. Statistically, many queer kids are skating across that ice every week. Even if only for one game a season, their team stands up and says, ‘we see you, we support you’ and by the time some of those kids are playing for that team (as lots of them dream of doing), maybe they can wear that rainbow jersey themsleves and at the same time feel comfortable doing so as an LGBTQ+ player. That’s what it’s for, wrap sticks and wear rainbow jerseys today so that future players can metaphorically wear a rainbow jersey for any game. That’s the dream.
There’s a long way to go for professional sports to feel genuine inclusive and safe, as battles over armbands range, or homophobic chants are heard in stands. Those who object to Pride games, who tell us to keep identity out of sport, have likely never feared walking into a sporting space. They’ve never stayed away from a sport they might love because they fear not being welcome there. For LGBTQ+ people that’s still a reality. For LGBTQ+ hockey fans to know that the majority of fellow fans are happy to wave a rainbow flag, cheer on a team wearing rainbow jerseys, and buy pride merchandise is significant.
Of course, leadership is an important element and Todd Kelman stepping in and stepping up was vital. Ahead of the Pride game, he said: “If you see me Sunday night, stop me and tell me what Pride means to you. I will be the guy in the suit, holding the mic with the rainbow on my face. Proud as always.”
Fans certainly embraced Pride, as these rainbow-filled photos from the night show:
I didn’t see Todd Kelman in person that night, and being the shy, awkward being I am, I probably wouldn’t have said anything if I had, but I’ll say it here instead:
Pride feels like belonging, like acceptance. Pride feels like a space for being myself. Pride feels like showing up as my whole self, not some half-hidden version. And I’ve always done that since game one at the Devils.
Suppose I’d told myself even a year ago that I’d be at a sports match, head in hand, despairing at the current situation (sorry boys) and desperately willing a piece of rubber to get hit by a man in knife-shoes, past another man in knife shoes and a lot of padding, into a net. I’d have called you crazy. Sports wasn’t for me. Ever. I grew up in the land of rugby and football. I was taught football crowds were to be feared, and rugby ones, while safer, were best avoided too. Growing into a queer adult I learned to fear crowds of sports fans who would make an easy target of people like me. There was also a sense that just wasn’t a space for people like me.
Last weekend, while I was willing one knife-shoed man to hit that piece of rubber past another (for the love of God and maple syrup, one of you Canadians score), never ever did I think that would happen in an arena of people waving rainbow flags. While the, at that point, non-scoring but trying really hard, large men in knife shoes, wore rainbow jerseys in solidarity with my community.
I didn’t think I’d be sitting next to some guys I met while marching at Pride. Despite being a loud, proud queer activist for over a decade, I didn’t think my first time marching in a pride parade would be with sports fans, and yet it was. I turned up to that Pride march knowing nobody. I marched proudly with my asexual flag over me, knowing I’d be welcome as the ‘A’ in that LGBTQIA+ group. I skate every week on that ice, and every now and then, I glance up at the ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ banner we marched behind at Pride which hangs above the arena now, and I’m reminded that I’m welcome, I belong.
I didn’t think any of that was possible in sports. I didn’t think I’d ever be asking The Queer Review to give me space to talk about sports. I didn’t think I’d cry writing an article about sport. But here we are. It might just be rainbow jerseys and one night a year. There might be a long way to go. But if person by person it’s making one sport more inclusive, then Pride week and ‘Hockey is For Everyone’ is doing its job. And if any of my LGBTQ+ friends think hockey might be for them, I’ll be your first match buddy.
By Dr Emily Garside