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NHL drops theme-night jerseys after Pride refusals cause distractions

Bettman: ‘(It’s) more of a distraction from really the essence of what the purpose of these nights are’
FILE - Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (72) and defenseman Radko Gudas (7) warm up while wearing a Pride Night hockey jersey before playing the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 23, 2023, in Sunrise, Fla. Bobrovsky, who is Russian, did take part in warmups the night the Staal brothers declined and in the aftermath of several countrymen deciding not to wear Pride jerseys. (AP Photo/Michael Laughlin, File)

NHL teams won’t wear special jerseys for pregame warmups during themed nights next season, the result of a handful of players refusing to use rainbow-colored Pride jerseys this past season and causing unwelcome distractions.

The league’s Board of Governors agreed Thursday with Commissioner Gary Bettman’s view that the refusals overshadowed teams’ efforts in hosting Pride nights that in some cases included auctioning off the warmup jerseys. All 32 teams held Pride or Hockey is for Everyone night.

Bettman, in an interview with Sportsnet following the Board of Governors meeting in New York, said he suggested teams stop having special warmup jerseys because themed nights were being undermined by chatter over certain players declining to participate.

“That’s just become more of a distraction from really the essence of what the purpose of these nights are,” Bettman said. “We’re keeping the focus on the game. And on these specialty nights, we’re going to be focused on the cause.”

Teams will still celebrate Pride and other theme nights, including military appreciation and Hockey Fights Cancer. They’re also expected to still design and produce jerseys to be autographed and sold to raise money, even though players won’t skate around with them on during warmups.

You Can Play, which has worked with sports and leagues – including the NHL – to help them grow more inclusive for members of the LGBTQ+ community, said it was “concerned and disappointed” by the decision.

“Today’s decision means that the over 95% of players who chose to wear a Pride jersey to support the community will now not get an opportunity to do so,” the organization said in a statement. “The work to make locker rooms, board rooms and arenas safer, more diverse, and more inclusive needs to be ongoing and purposeful, and we will continue to work with our partners at the NHL, including individual teams, players, agents and the NHLPA to ensure this critical work continues.”

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.”

“You know what our goals, our values and our intentions are across the league, whether it’s at the league level or at the club level,” Bettman said at the time. “But we also have to respect some individual choice, and some people are more comfortable embracing themselves in causes than others. And part of being diverse and welcoming is understanding those differences.”

Seven players, citing various reasons, decided not to take part in pregame warmups when their teams donned Pride jerseys before games. A few teams also decided not to have players wear them after planning to do so.

Ivan Provorov, a Russian defenseman then with Philadelphia, was the first in January. Provorov cited his Russian Orthodox religion and was defended by coach John Tortorella.

James Reimer, a goaltender for San Jose, and brothers Eric and Marc Staal of Florida, who are Canadian, also cited religious beliefs. Russian players Ilya Lyubushkin of Buffalo, Denis Gurianov of Montreal and Andrei Kuzmenko of Vancouver also opted out of their teams’ Pride night warmups.

Lyubushkin cited an anti-gay Kremlin law as his reason, 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.

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.

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