A Queer Eye on Pride Night

By: Trent Leith / March 31, 2023  

On Friday, March 31st, the Canucks hosted their annual pride night. As per usual, the Canucks pulled out all the stops by hosting a drag show, wearing a locally designed Pride warmup jersey, and making a $20,000 donation to QMUNITY – a Vancouver-based non-profit organization that supports and assists 2SLGBTQIA+ people and their allies.

They couldn’t completely stay away from the bad press when Tocchet shared with the media that Andrei Kuzmenko had opted not to wear the Pride jersey. Kuzmenko didn’t give a statement or supply a reason to the media, but coach Rick Tocchet did say it was a family decision. He did not mention the anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda laws in Russia, or religious reasons publicly. Post-game, Kuzmenko made a statement through a translator but didn’t add many details.

Around the NHL this season there has been a lot of scrutiny on how teams and players have handled their Pride nights. Ivan Provorov kicked off the season’s controversies by being the first player to refuse to wear the jersey, which caused a ripple effect throughout the NHL. James Riemer, the Staal brothers and entire teams have since chosen not to wear their Pride jerseys.

Players and teams who have decided not to wear pride jerseys have experienced a lot of criticism and pushback from fans. Meanwhile, I want to shift the attention over to those in the LGBTQ+ community using my small platform. In this article, we’ll be talking to both a die-hard Canucks fan of many years, Cody Sweet, and someone on the outside of hockey looking to get involved and become a fan, Jilly Greco.

“It’s not always the easiest and it’s a lot of knowing when to let yourself be yourself,” Cody said about being an openly gay hockey fan. Cody lives in Pittsburgh but is a Canuck fan and attends as many away games as he can to support the team.

“A lot of times it’s easier for me as someone who goes to other arenas because I get to put on a Canucks jersey and at least, in those arenas when people view me as something different, it’s because I’m a Canucks fan and not because I’m queer.”

Jilly, on the other hand, has recently moved from the U.S. to Canada to be with her wife and is interested in getting into hockey as it is so ingrained in Canadian culture. As a new Canadian, she wants to be a part of what Canada is known for.

“Hockey seems like it has such a solidly established culture and fanbase, and it is intimidating trying to break into that and start from scratch. I also feel like, as a lesbian, I don’t fit the typical demographic of a hockey fan. I’m not sure how comfortable I would feel being around such a concentration of (typically) straight white men.” Jilly told me. “My identity isn’t a political statement, and supporting people of all genders and sexualities shouldn’t be a political fight. I’m not a talking point.”

Cody faces slurs and derogatory remarks regularly as a gay NHL fan, especially when he attends games with his husband. “Going to games on my own almost feels safer sometimes than going with my husband,” he told me because then fewer people notice he is gay.

Cody was disappointed by Kuzmenko opting out of wearing a pride jersey, but he wasn’t mad.

“I’m only speaking for myself right now and not the community. He has every right not to wear the jersey. I shouldn’t say it doesn’t bother me but I support his right to make a decision. Even if it’s a decision I am not comfortable with. That’s the glory of 2023. But what it’s done in terms of the fandom [on Friday] has been so ugly online and it has empowered all of the homophobic people to come out and take stances so much stronger than what his would have [likely] been.

When the situation was explained to Jilly about a fan-favourite player like Kuzmenko opting out she said, “I feel like it’s a little bit pointless to try to break into hockey as a fan because I don’t want to be a political punching bag for these players that are too behind the times to catch up to modern life. Gay people exist. Gay hockey players exist. We have always been here and we always will be.”

Cody went on to explain that he can’t support a player who can’t support who he is.

“If I were to try to concisely put it on a one-to-one level. He said today, for whatever reasons he can’t wear a [pride] jersey supporting the queer community. And, as a result, I don’t think I can wear my Kuzmenko jersey anymore.” “The pride jersey is not saying you support the queer community, it’s saying you don’t support the exclusion of the queer community”

Many players around the NHL have been citing religious beliefs as to why they won’t wear the pride jerseys. Both Staal brothers and James Riemer said that it is due to their religion they are not comfortable wearing the pride jerseys.

“I grew up very religious, my dad is a pastor.” Cody told me “So, it’s very familiar to me how much hate can be in religion. I also know that religion can be used to justify any number of things. There is religious justification for the enslavement of African-Americans. There are major American religions that did not believe black people went to heaven until the 1970s when they changed their doctrine. If one of the players who follow those religions said ‘you know what, religiously, I don’t believe black people are worth as much as white people.’ We wouldn’t be having this discussion, they wouldn’t be allowed to play in the league.”

Jilly shared a similar sentiment as Cody, “As someone who was raised Christian, I don’t support the copout of blaming homophobic, outdated, bigoted views on the bible. My mom is the most devout religious person I know, and she has been a vocal supporter of the queer community before she knew that she had a lesbian daughter. We live in the future, it’s time to catch up to modern times and stop allowing bigots to hold bigoted beliefs because they are choosing to interpret the bible in a strict way.”

Jilly continued ” I don’t think people choosing to interpret religion in the most hateful way possible is a fair pass for stuff like this. Queerness and religion can coexist,”

There is some nuance to this story with reports that Russian players fear wearing Pride jerseys due to repercussions to themselves, or their families back in Russia. Bill Daley and the NHL have pushed back on those concerns saying they are not facing any material threats in Russia for wearing Pride jerseys. Several high-profile NHL players have worn pride jerseys since these new anti-LGBTQ+ laws have come into effect.

“I definitely think that [Russia’s anti-LGBTQ+ Laws] is important context to consider. I may be a lesbian, but I am white, and live in a very safe country, relatively speaking. I understand that other countries like Russia have very restrictive and violent responses to queerness, and we should allow some nuance in this conversation. At the same time, I don’t want this to become a scapegoat for avoiding tough topics.” Jilly mentioned. “As a lesbian, I know how it feels to be ostracized, but it’s another level of persecution when you come from a restrictive country. I don’t think we should be forcing these players into an unsafe situation, but I think there has to be some sort of middle ground.”

Cody said “He [Putin and his government] is kidnapping queer people, and he is arresting queer people, and he’s killing queer people. So rather than talk about this hypothetical excuse, maybe we should be talking about real Russian anti-gay laws.”

Cody mentioned the anti-gay laws in Russia are mostly fines that would have to be paid. He believes there are more important laws that need attention on them right now rather than this propaganda law “It’s, it’s very real over there. And I think that citing an anti-propaganda law and not talking about the more serious laws is doing everyone a disservice.”

It is not all about Kuzmenko and his choice to sit out on the Pride warmup. There were certainly a lot of positives to come from this Friday night, including great statements from Quinn Hughes and Ethan Bear on inclusion before Kuzmenko publicly opted out.

“We preach hockey is for everyone and certainly believe that it is. And if you say you believe in that, then you should be able to put the jersey on.” Quinn Hughes told the media on Thursday.

Ethan Bear shared a similar sentiment to the media, leaning on his experience coming from a marginalized community himself.

“Obviously, from my background and things I’ve gone through (as an Indigenous player), it’s important for everyone to be included. No matter whatever your gender, your sexuality, or your race, it doesn’t matter. Everyone’s welcome in the game. But from the point of guys not wearing that jersey… I can’t really relate to it. It is disappointing for a lot of people but for me, it’s just kind of confusing. I never think that way, so can’t really relate.”

“It feels great to know there was so much support there and reaffirms that society is evolving and that there are people who are growing and there are allies and there is support,” Cody said of Bear and Hughes’ messages. “It’s great to know that there are so many players willing to stand up and support the queer community loudly and vocally and in all the right ways.”

When I told Jilly that the majority of the NHL and the Canucks are supportive of the LGBTQ+ community and pride nights, I showed her this clip posted by the Canucks and asked her if things like this have an impact on her, a queer person interested in joining the hockey community.

“Actually yeah, seeing players come out (haha) in support of the queer community in really clear, firm language is pretty encouraging.” She continued “Sometimes it feels like my identity is being reduced to a shitty political talking point, but hearing supportive statements like this directly from the players humanizes the issue for me and makes me feel like a person instead of a hypothetical boogeyman.”

There are concerns that the NHL will drop Pride nights altogether due to the negative press, but to those in the LGBTQ+ community these nights hold value.

“It’s a sign that we need them [Pride nights] more than ever. LGBT rights are under attack at an increasing rate and voices against them are growing louder daily. I hope Gary Bettman and the NHL do the right thing and stand with the Queer community” Cody said.

Jilly mentioned it is such a small harmless gesture to wear a pride jersey that goes a long way for people like her “I feel like my presence isn’t wanted and my identity is ‘too political’ for this sport, which I don’t really understand. Colourful jerseys for a night seem like such a small issue to me, and the fact that so many players are speaking out against pride night is just really discouraging as a gay potential hockey fan.”

Whether people inside the hockey community see it or not, there is a barrier to entry for the LGBTQ+ community, as Jilly knows firsthand. “I follow baseball, softball, and soccer closely, and they all have much more welcoming communities as far as fanbases go. I have never felt out of place as a lesbian at a soccer game, but it’s a totally different feeling at a hockey game. I know there has been some effort to change things, but hockey still feels like a straight white man club from the outside looking in.”