The NHL flip-flops on its LGBTQ+ policies

The world's premier hockey league has grappled with anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment among some of its players, and not everyone loves the response

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nick Foligno warms up with Pride tape
The NHL has banned the use of rainbow-colored Pride tape, sparking intense backlash
(Image credit: Mark Blinch / NHLI via Getty Images)

The official website of the National Hockey League says the NHL uses the sport "to celebrate fans of every race, color, religion, national origin, gender identity, age, sexual orientation and socio-economic status," adding that its "Hockey is For Everyone" initiative promotes "inclusion on the ice, in locker rooms, boardrooms and stands."

However, while the NHL has made some strides in diversity — particularly when it comes to women in the game — its commitment to LGBTQ+ inclusion appears hit-or-miss. The NHL has been besieged by a number of recent headlines about players who disagree with the league's LGBTQ+ initiatives, including its yearly Pride nights

The controversy reached a peak on Oct. 10, when LGBTQ+ sports site Outsports reported that the NHL had issued new guidance banning all theme night gear on the ice, including the use of rainbow-colored equipment and uniforms for Pride celebrations. LGBTQ+ rights groups reacted with anger, arguing the NHL's decision undermined and contradicted its "Hockey is For Everyone" initiative. Here's how the NHL become embroiled in this controversy.

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What sparked the NHL's LGBTQ+ controversy?

The NHL's adherence to its inclusivity pledges first attracted scrutiny from LGBTQ+ groups last season, after a number of players objected to wearing Pride-themed jerseys during on-ice warmups. Some players, such as San Jose Sharks goaltender James Reimer and Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov, cited religious beliefs as the reason for not wearing the jersey. 

The NHL also has numerous Russian players (including Provorov), and many of them refused to wear LGBTQ+ jerseys after Russia passed new laws making it illegal to spread "propaganda about nontraditional sexual relations." This caused issues "for teams with prominent Russian players," The Athletic reported, and at least three NHL teams backtracked on wearing Pride jerseys, citing concern for the safety of players and their families. 

Following these controversies, the league banned "caused-based" jerseys during warmups, including Pride jerseys as well as those for military appreciation and fighting cancer. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told Sportsnet in June that themed jerseys had "become a distraction," noting that all 32 teams "in some form or another host nights in honor of various groups or causes."

The controversy then cooled off — until the beginning of the 2023-24 season in October, when the NHL announced that it was banning not only theme-night jerseys, but all themed equipment. This includes a prohibition on using rainbow-colored tape on player's sticks. Outsports described the ban as "the most stifling, anti-LGBTQ policy any pro sports league in North America has ever issued."

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly confirmed the updated ban to The Associated Press, which noted that players "can voluntarily participate in themed celebrations off the ice."

What has the response been?

Following the updated ban, a number of LGTBQ+ rights groups angrily accused the NHL of backsliding. "In just 10 months, years of important, positive advancements in the NHL and men's hockey at large have been eclipsed by disastrous choices marginalizing or outright erasing the LGBTQ community," Outsports said. Some critics on social media also noted that the ban seemed to go against the NHL's official rulebook, which states that "tape of any color may be wrapped around the stick."

Pride Tape, which manufactures rainbow athletic tape, said it was "extremely disappointed" in the NHL. "We hope the league — and teams — will again show commitment to this important symbol of combating homophobia," the company wrote on X, previously known as Twitter. 

The NHL has previously partnered with You Can Play, a group working to fight homophobia in sports. The organization, co-founded by NHL executive Brian Burke, wrote on X that the NHL "was stepping back from its longstanding commitment to inclusion." 

Bettman said in February that the NHL does value diversity and inclusion, but that it cuts both ways. "Some people are more comfortable embracing themselves in causes than others," he said. "And part of being diverse and welcoming is understanding those differences."

Several players have pledged to circumvent the NHL's new rule this season. Philadelphia Flyers center Scott Laughton told reporters they will "probably see me with the Pride tape," The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Laughton added that the ban was "not going to make a difference on what I do every night for the Pride community," and that he would use the rainbow tape even if fined. 

"If I have to buy it myself, I will," Laughton added.

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