The Chicago Blackhawks won’t have players wear gay-pride-related warmup jerseys for Sunday’s Pride Night celebration before a home game against the Vancouver Canucks, citing security concerns for Russian players.
The team cited the expansion of a “gay propaganda” bill that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law in December and that prohibits any promotion of “non-traditional sexual relations and/or preferences.”
Sources told the Tribune that the Hawks, without further clarity about how the law affects any of their Russian players, aren’t willing to risk “any media” — such as a social media post depicting a player in Pride Night colors — that might put players or their families in conflict with the Russian government.
Hawks defenseman Nikita Zaitsev was born in Moscow and has represented Russia in eight major international tournaments.
Forward Philipp Kurashev grew up in Switzerland but is the son of former Russian hockey player Konstantin Kurashev.
And goaltender Anton Khudobin is a Kazakhstan-born Russian who was playing in Russia when the Minnesota Wild drafted him in 2004.
“The Chicago Blackhawks organization is proud to continue its annual Pride Night celebration, an evening — alongside year-round efforts — fueled by partnership and LGBTQIA+ community engagement,” the team said in a statement Wednesday. “Together, our activities will focus on fostering conversation and more equitable spaces in our pursuit to make hockey more inclusive. We do not condone anti-LGBTQIA+ rhetoric, and we stand firmly with the community.
“While we know gameday celebrations like these are an important way we can use our platform to bring visibility, it is the work we do together 365 days a year that can create true impact in ensuring all of our colleagues, fans and communities feel welcomed and safe within our sport.”
Hawks CEO Danny Wirtz added in a team release: “Pride Night is an important celebration of our LGBTQIA+ employees, partnerships and broader community, but it is only a small part of our commitment at the Blackhawks. As an organization, we’re working to open our doors to those who have been marginalized, to those who have felt unsupported, and to those who feel our sport is not a place for them. That’s what we’re doing every day to show those who love hockey that the Blackhawks love them back.”
In addition to the media concerns, sources also cited recent hard-line rulings by Russia regarding professional athletes, including an initial nine-year prison sentence for WNBA star Brittney Griner in a drug case; visa troubles for Wild star Kirill Kaprisov (possibly exacerbated by U.S.-Russia tensions); and the detainment of Philadelphia Flyers goaltending prospect Ivan Fedotov as an “army evader” — shortly before his planned move to the U.S. — and his assignment to a remote military base in northern Russia.
Kurt Weaver, chief operating officer of the You Can Play Project, an LGBTQ+ athlete advocacy group, said, “I can’t speak to the Russian influence, but I deeply hope that that’s not the case for this team or any team that we’re going to adjust our advocacy according to a different country’s laws.”
The You Can Play Project has a working relationship with the Hawks. Weaver said he looks at the big picture regarding the Hawks’ support of the gay community.
Weaver also referenced recent controversies sparked by NHL players — such as San Jose Sharks goaltender James Reimer and Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov — who opted out of wearing pride-themed jerseys or skipped warmups altogether.
The New York Rangers backed out of wearing pride-themed warmups before a Jan. 27 home game against the Vegas Golden Knights, saying they “support everyone’s individual right to respectfully express their beliefs.”
“The coverage of this stuff has gone to an individual or one item of a pride night being looked at as a failure,” Weaver said. “When in reality, if you looked 11 years ago when we got started, one person wearing pride tape would have been a massive success, and it would have been a massive news story when one player would have worn a little bit of a rainbow.
“And so this story now that an entire team, an entire community and entire arena goes all in on this (Pride Night) is the celebratory story. … What a victory, where we are right now, that we’re even able to talk about small items being adjusted as a failure, instead of the overall movement being a success.”
He also noted that in the summer of 2010, the Hawks became the first team to feature the Stanley Cup at a pride parade.
Coincidentally, staff from the You Can Play Project visited Hawks offices Wednesday to hear about the United Center’s Pride Night itinerary — including a Zamboni decked out as a “Glamboni” — as well as to train Hawks front-office staff on inclusion.
“Our reaction is that we deeply appreciate visibility nights like this and teams (that) take this many steps and this much work and money they give to the community to help it out,” Weaver said.
Kim Davis, NHL senior executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs, spoke to the Tribune late last month about backlash the league received over its handling of Provorov’s decision to opt out and whether it impugned the NHL’s support of the LGBTQ+ community.
“What you have to ask yourself is what is that team actually doing in their particular market to support a particular group,” Davis said, “and not get caught up in the performative nature of wearing a jersey or having a Pride Night or having a Black History Night.
“Those are important symbols. But for me — and these are the conversations I have with the clubs — what are you doing to support that community in your market? Maybe the media may not pick up on that and they may not care. And they may want to ding you for not wearing a pride jersey. … (But) when I talk to people from different communities, particularly the LGBTQ community, what they say is: ‘Who cares about a pride jersey? I want to know what you’re doing in the community to support the safety and the well-being of the community.’
“It’s easy to put a jersey on and skate around, but what happens after that?”