It’s not a word you would expect Jeff McLean to be using in light of the NHL’s decision to ban players from displaying Pride-themed tape on their sticks this season.
But on Tuesday evening, McLean, a co-founder of Pride Tape, actually characterized his mood as “optimistic.”
The reason for McLean’s enthusiasm?
Several NHL teams have contacted McLean directly to see how they can respond to the league’s decision to prohibit players from using Pride-themed tape this season. According to McLean, one NHL team even phoned his office on Tuesday to place an order for an entire case of Pride Tape.
“We are talking with teams this week about what we can do. We want to talk about what more we can do on Pride Night. And I’m really optimistic about that,” McLean said Tuesday. “And if we have this conversation a week from now, there will be more teams on board.”
Behind the scenes, Pride Tape employees say there has been a groundswell of support through backchannels. The pushback to the NHL’s new directive — which states that NHL players won’t be allowed to put Pride-themed tape on their sticks on the ice this season — has also been coming directly from the players themselves. Pride Tape’s other co-founder, Dr. Kristopher Wells, believes there might even be enough traction to force the NHL to reverse its policy.
“I don’t think the door is closed. We’ve certainly had players wanting to order Pride Tape and telling us they’re going to look for ways to use it themselves,” says Wells. “They’re not going to let the NHL deter them from showing support.”
Wells says the NHL’s decision shows a generational gap between the athletes on the ice and the decision makers in the boardrooms. He believes the younger generation of players have grown up in an era where inclusivity was often promoted. And he believes the NHL’s decision is short-sighted and doesn’t grasp the powerful image of players using Pride-themed tape on their sticks.
“We’ve had hundreds of message from young people all over the world but nothing more powerful than the young person who wrote to us and said, ‘Pride Tape saved my life. I was going to end my life until I saw there were allies and people who supported me,’” says Wells. “And that’s what the NHL is taking away. And I get emotional thinking about that.”
There was widespread disappointment around the league’s decision, which included some of the biggest stars in the sport weighing in on the issue.
“Is it something that I’d like to see put back into place one day? Certainly. You know, but that’s not the way it is right now,” Connor McDavid told reporters in Edmonton.
If the NHL holds the line and enforces this policy throughout the 2023-24 season, league executives should anticipate a deluge of criticisms in their direction in the months ahead, particularly when teams host scaled-back Pride-themed nights this season. On Wednesday morning, longtime general manager and league executive Brian Burke — whose son Brendan came out as gay in 2009 — delivered a blistering statement on social media about the NHL’s new policy.
“This new league policy strips clubs and players of one of the most important and visible ways of supporting causes they are about. Let’s be clear: This is not inclusion or progress,” Burke wrote. “This decision does not grow the game and does not make our fans feel welcome. Fans look to teams and the league to show they are welcome and this directives closes a door that’s been open for the last decade.”
Wells believes this sudden directive from the NHL will actually reveal which players are true allies versus the ones who were simply using Pride-themed tape as a token gesture.
“Allyship is fine when it’s easy. But it’s most impactful when the work gets hard. That’s when we know in our community who the true allies are,” explains Wells. “True allies don’t back down. They double down.”
Toronto defenceman Morgan Reilly seemed to embody Wells’ words, stating his intention this season is to find alternative avenues to demonstrate allyship to the LGBTQ+ community.
“We’re going to continue to support those people and those causes that we think need it or are worthy and very deserving of it,” Reilly said on Tuesday. “Whatever statement was made is fine, but as players, we’re going to continue to offer support and be allies. We want to be a part of this community.”
“If the league continues with this ban, teams and players will take this into their own hands,” adds Wells. “They will find ways to authentically show their allyship in different forms.”
The new league policy does not restrict players from hosting “meet-and-greets” with people from marginalized communities before or after games and practices. Last season, for example, the efforts of Flyers forwards Scott Laughton and James van Riemsdyk were largely overshadowed by Ivan Provorov, who created headlines by refusing to wear a Pride-themed jersey in warmups. But on that same evening, Laughton and van Riemsdyk personally met with approximately 50 members of the LGBTQ+ community for a post-game meet-and-greet.
On Wednesday, Laughton told reporters that he would likely ignore the NHL’s ban on Pride tape.
Scott Laughton says “you’ll probably see me with the pride tape on that night anyway.”
“If they want to say something, they can.”
— Charlie O’Connor (@charlieo_conn) October 11, 2023
Brock McGillis, a former OHL goalie turned LGBTQ+ advocate, expressed his frustration at the league’s decision. McGillis came out in 2016 and has spent the past several years delivering workshops aimed at educating hockey players on topics such as homophobia. Removing Pride-themed tape from players’ sticks means allies to the LGBTQ+ community will be less visible in NHL arenas this season — a decision McGillis hopes can still be reversed.
“I genuinely hope they reconsider allowing players to show allyship or their identities,” says McGillis. “The support from those players is needed for vulnerable groups to feel welcome to work, play or be a fan of hockey.”
In the absence of being allowed to use Pride-themed tape, McGillis says there are other ways NHL players can show their allyship to the LGBTQ+ community. He laid out three simple things players that players like McDavid and Reilly can do to demonstrate their genuine willingness to be an advocate despite the new restrictions in place.
“You can start by curbing homophobic language in your locker rooms. You can become an ambassador and work with organizations in your community. And use your social media platforms,” says McGillis.
McGillis is hopeful that more NHL players might be urged to join his Alphabet Sports Collective initiative, which already counts the likes of Reilly, Laughton and van Riemsdyk as ambassadors.
“We are launching our ambassador program and our programing is starting soon,” says McGillis. “We are going to create safe spaces that are welcoming to marginalized people — specifically the Queer community and its allies.”
McGillis says he would love to have hockey personnel from all levels join his Alphabet Sports Collective.
“Not just NHL players. Everyone from the entire hockey ecosystem,” he says.
McGillis likely won’t have an issue finding new recruits from the PWHL, the professional women’s league that is set to launch in January.
On Tuesday, McLean said Pride Tape received several direct messages on Tuesday from players from the PWHL and he believes that players in that league will make sure to show their allyship to the LGBTQ+ community when they’re on the ice.
“So many PWHL players have reached out to express their support in the last 24 hours,” says McLean.
McLean believes the negativity around this storyline will ultimately have a positive outcome. He says shortly after Provorov’s decision to not wear the Flyers Pride-themed jersey, sales of his product skyrocketed.
And while he declined to give specifics about the spike in Pride Tape sales this week, McLean sounded like he was in for a similar uptick in business.
“Let’s just say we have seen a busy day (Tuesday),” says McLean. “And I suspect that will continue.”
(Top photo: Joe Sargent / NHLI via Getty Images)