In case you missed it, at the beginning of February the NHL announced that it would be teaming up with You Can Play for a month of celebrating diversity in sport and promoting inclusion of LGBTQ+, non-white, disabled and female members of the hockey community. It’s a cause that many fans have wanted the NHL to speak out about for a very long time, and it’s nice to see the league finally making an effort. However, two weeks in, the execution of the idea has been sorely lacking to say the least.
If you’re an Ottawa Senators fan, it wouldn’t be hard to forget that Hockey Is For Everyone month is happening altogether: the team has yet to write so much as a Tweet promoting the initiative. Leading up to their league-mandated Hockey Is For Everyone night, which took place last night, there was nothing on their website about You Can Play, or about Dion Phaneuf being chosen as ambassador. The only reason I even knew about any of this stuff was because of the official press release from the NHL.
Is there a better metaphor for exclusivity in the NHL than a team halfheartedly throwing a “Hockey Is For Everyone” night while doing absolutely nothing to help make hockey, you know, accessible to everyone?
“Hockey Is For Everyone” month comes off as a disingenuous attempt by the NHL to respond to criticism about its lack of respect for minorities while doing nothing to actually rectify that problem. Selling rainbow tape does nothing to change the fact that no NHL player has ever felt comfortable publicly coming out as gay. Those Hockey Is For Everyone games each team is hosting will surely be full of fans screaming sexist or homophobic insults from the stands. The CWHL’s Clarkson Cup final will take place in Ottawa during a month literally dedicated to celebrating inclusiveness in hockey and, if last year is any indication, most of the city will have no idea it’s happening.
Supporting the NHL has become increasingly difficult over the years for people like me who often don’t feel welcome in sports fandom. Offensive comments by players, coaches, commentators and just about anyone involved with the sport are the norm rather than the anomalies I want to believe they are. Just look at how many players spoke out in support of Donald Trump after the American election, or the Tweets Bobby Ryan has liked recently. Only a few seasons ago, Patrick Kane was lauded for his supposed bravery in continuing to play hockey while under investigation for rape. Just last season Andrew Shaw uttered a homophobic slur on the ice, which though it came in a moment of frustration was telling of how casually homophobic hockey players can be.
As someone who tries to advocate for social justice in sports fandom, I’ve repeatedly asked myself if I’m being hypocritical when I buy tickets and merchandise from an organisation that has made it very clear that it does not prioritize my support, nor that of any person who is not a straight, white, able-bodied, cisgender man.
I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that I don’t care about the NHL’s month of patting itself on the back. I don’t want the extent of the effort to end at pride tape or halfhearted discussions about how accessible the NHL is. What I want is for the league to stop promoting players who have been accused or convicted of sexual assault or domestic violence. I want the hockey media to make it clear that “Sedin Sisters” or “Cindy Crysby” jokes are neither funny nor acceptable. I want to be able to attend a hockey game knowing that if I feel threatened by another fan, I can count on that person being thrown out of the arena, and quickly. Mostly, I want the NHL to show at least a little bit of concern for real world issues that concern its players, like Black Lives Matter or Trump’s travel ban.
If that last point is too political, the very least the league could do is acknowledge that it has a problem. Why have I never seen a conversation in mainstream media about this stuff? Why have so few of the You Can Play ambassadors been asked about how to make hockey a safer environment for LGBTQ+ athletes? What about asking black or muslim NHLers about racism or Islamophobia in hockey and the challenges they have faced playing such a predominantly white sport?
Progress is impossible if you insist on pretending the issue doesn’t exist; and there is a problem. A big one. As a woman, I have been harassed at hockey games before and never felt like the arena staff was particularly concerned with my safety. I’ve also been asked which man I’m trying to impress by enjoying sports, pretended not to find players attractive so that people would take me seriously, and had ridiculously simple concepts mansplained to me. That’s just my experience, as a white, able-bodied, cishet woman. People far less privileged than me have much more horrific stories. If hockey is for everyone, why is this stuff still happening?
The truth is that hockey is still not for everyone, and it won’t be until the NHL decides to take concrete action.