Connor McDavid isn’t a fan of the NHL’s new policy on themed warmup jerseys.
The league decided last week teams won’t wear special pre-game threads next season — the result of a handful of players refusing to sport rainbow-coloured Pride jerseys in 2022-23, which in turn caused unwelcome distractions.
“It’s disappointing to see,” McDavid, the face of the NHL and the superstar captain of the Edmonton Oilers, said at Monday night’s awards ceremony.
“It’s not my call, but obviously it’s disappointing.”
The league’s board of governors agreed with commissioner Gary Bettman’s view that the jersey refusals overshadowed teams’ efforts in hosting Pride nights.
All 32 franchises held a Pride or “Hockey is for Everyone” night in support of the LGBTQ+ community.
“I certainly can’t speak for every organization,” said McDavid, who won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. “I know in Edmonton, we were one of the first teams to use the Pride tape.
“We strongly feel hockey is for everybody, and that includes the Pride nights.”
Teams will still celebrate Pride and other theme nights, including military appreciation and Hockey Fights Cancer. Clubs are also expected to continue designing and producing jerseys to be autographed and sold to raise money, even though players won’t wear them during warmups.
Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said it was disappointing that the story this season was the few players who decided against wearing Pride jerseys.
“It was 98 per cent or 99 per cent of other players that wore the jersey and enjoyed wearing it and were proud wearing it — whatever jersey it was — whether it was the Pride, the military night, the cancer nights,” said Stamkos, who won the Mark Messier Leadership Award. “The story shouldn’t be about the guy that didn’t wear it — the one guy or the two guys.
“I understand that’s what gets the clicks and that’s what gets the views, but the word ‘distraction’ gets thrown around. I don’t think it had to have been a distraction. It could have been a non-issue while focusing on the good that was coming out of those nights.”
Bettman defended the league and teams’ handling of the situations at NHL all-star weekend in February, saying tolerance of varying viewpoints was part of being “open, welcoming and inclusive.”
Seven players decided not to take part in warmups when their teams sported Pride jerseys before games. A few teams also chose to not have players wear them after planning to do so.
“All the attention was taken away from the right reasons,” said Calgary Flames forward Mikael Backlund, who won the King Clancy Award. “All of us were wearing the jerseys … everyone was looking (at), ‘Who’s not and why not?’
“I understand the decision the NHL made to take that distraction away. Teams can still have their nights — their special nights — and I think that’s a good thing.”
Ivan Provorov, a Russian defenceman then with Philadelphia, was the first NHLer to refuse to wear a Pride-themed warmup jersey in January, citing his religion.
San Jose goaltender James Reimer, and brothers Eric and Marc Staal of Florida, who are all Canadian, also cited religious beliefs. Russian players Ilya Lyubushkin of Buffalo, Denis Gurianov of Montreal and Andrei Kuzmenko of Vancouver all opted out of their teams’ Pride night warmups.
Lyubushkin pointed to an anti-gay Kremlin law, which was also why the Chicago Blackhawks decided against Pride night jerseys. The New York Rangers and Minnesota Wild earlier opted against the jerseys after previously advertising they would have them.
“Everyone has their beliefs, and I can’t speak on those,” McDavid said. “All I can speak for is myself and us in Edmonton. I know we strongly support those type of nights.”
Sergei Bobrovsky, who is Russian, took part in warmups the night the Staal brothers declined and in the aftermath of several countrymen deciding not to wear Pride jerseys.
“It was tough to see that some guys didn’t,” said Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Kris Letang, who won the Bill Masterton Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication. “I understand sometimes why they didn’t, but to me, it doesn’t mean that you’re fully supporting or not supporting it.
“It’s just to make our sport accessible to everybody.”