In 2013, the National Hockey League partnered with The ‘You Can Play’ Project, founded in 2012 by Patrick Burke, son of Brian Burke, former NHL executive and current hockey analyst. Since then, YCP nights have become an annual occurrence across the League, mandatory, with varied participation from each club. Most team celebrations consist of rainbow tape on the sticks and special jerseys during warm-ups, with limited edition merchandise available for purchase. Up until 2019, the NHL has only celebrated diversity in the month of February, labeled ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ month, confining Black history, LGBT celebrations and women’s sports to the shortest month on the calendar. While the NHL is slowly shifting to a broader practice of inclusion across the entire year, there’s an argument that this is alone is not enough to make hockey truly welcoming for everyone. Inequality is the result of institutional oppression that goes deeper than hockey locker rooms. Still, there is also a position that political agendas should be kept out of the NHL. While I question how equality is a political motive, that is a valid question at its core. In what capacity do sports intertwine with politics?
Throughout history, sports have been intrinsically tied to politics, such as the Miracle on Ice, representing more than an endearing underdog story during the Cold War. In 2010, Rick Perry used the platform of a NASCAR vehicle to promote his campaign for governor. Beyond campaigning, athletics have been a platform used to promote social justice. From Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fist during the United States National Anthem on the podium at the 1968 Olympics, to Muhammad Ali publicly protesting the Vietnam War, to Billie Jean King winning the “Battle of the Sexes”, to Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the anthem, there are countless instances of athletes using their platform to bring attention to important issues.
More recently, with the reigning Stanley Cup Champions, the Washington Capitals were invited to the White House to celebrate their victory. Brett Connolly, Braden Holtby, and Devante Smith-Pelly declined to visit the home of the current president, citing a difference in values. Hockey is perceived as a conservative sport with a conservative fan base, so the actions of these three players not only made a statement to the president, but to underrepresented fans who may initially feel alienated by the hockey world.
Frankly, a desire for politics to be kept out of sports is not to find relief from the news cycle, but a desire to stay ignorant to real issues affecting real people. Rather than being complicit in continued oppression, athletes have a history of making statements beyond the sport itself. Proclamations to “Shut up and dribble”, not only strip athletes of their right as citizens, but display a complete disregard for the history of sport involvement in political and cultural moments.
‘You Can Play’ nights represent more than colorful tape usage, but a display of support for any hockey player who doesn’t fit the hyper-masculine, overtly heterosexual, and cisgender typecast of a hockey player. That rainbow represents inclusion.
Stories like racist taunts towards Jonathan Diaby throughout a hockey game in Quebec to Nazi salutes and anti-semitic remarks being the subject of jokes for a young player are not exceptions to an otherwise tolerant society, they are symptoms of a historically faulted system. Hockey provides a platform to express bigoted and discriminatory opinions, so why are expressing ideals of equality and inclusion persecuted?
When players like JT Brown take a stand against police violence against Black men, it’s a display of the long-standing tradition of using a large platform for the betterment of society, not something worthy of severe retaliation. Pretending the realm of professional sports is a separate entity to current culture only enables a continuation of apathetic behavior that is complicit in the continuation of an oppressive, intolerant society. Tackling the taboo issues of racism and homophobia in sports create room for discourse, and potentially progress. Whether raising a fist or using rainbow tape, athletes have and continue to bring attention to important issues that go beyond the field, court, or rink.
Currently, NHL is making progress in recognizing its role in society. Events like the American Legacy Bus Tour, the NHL’s involvement with World Pride, and the growing role of Black Girl Hockey Club enrich the game as a whole. Not only does representation appeal to a wider audience of potential fans, but it begins a dialogue around issues plaguing the world. Regardless of outspoken opponents, the NHL must continue on its path of celebrating diversity and inclusion not just to grow the game, but as a necessity to utilize their platform for good.