It’s enough around hockey people — coaches, general managers, scouts, fans — and one of the most frequent phrases you’ll hear is “progress isn’t linear.” Sometimes a viewer’s meteoric rise for a few games, a couple of months, an entire season. Sometimes a rebuilding team finishes higher than it did a year ago. Sometimes a step back is just the starting point.
That’s natural. Inevitable. Improving every day on the ice is the goal, but not realistic. Even the great must fail.
Social development is different. Social progress must be linear. It should be descriptive. We must always be more intelligent, more educated, more open-minded, more receptive. We must always be improving. Being better.
Which makes the NHL’s latest crackdown all the more frustrating and even more unacceptable.
Thirteen years ago, Blackhawks defenseman Brent Sopel brought the Stanley Cup to Chicago’s Pride Parade. Ten years ago, the NHL joined the You Can Play Project, a major partnership with LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations, becoming the first major U.S. professional sports league to grant same-sex couples the right to play, according to Obergefell and Hodges. Getting married in the United States (yes, that was recently). Six years ago, the NHL rebranded its long-running “Hockey is for All” campaign to promote inclusion for all sexual orientations, genders, ethnicities and socioeconomic levels. There were Pride nights, Pride jerseys, Pride tapes. Each team had an ambassador for all hockey between the team and the marginalized corners of the fans. He was a point of pride for many in the hockey world.
Hockey has always been a leader in this space, far ahead of any other North American sport. Or, at least, always was.
So how did this happen? How did a few reluctant players hijack the entire movement and undo over a decade of progress? Last season, 14 NHL teams wore rainbow-themed jerseys during warmups to show their support for LGBTQ+ fans. The jerseys were auctioned off to raise money for LGBTQ+ causes. This week, the NHL was weighing whether to fine Arizona Coyotes defenseman Travis Dermott for carrying two inches worth of rainbow-themed pride tape with his hockey stick.
Dermott’s decision put the NHL in a no-win situation of its own making. Following last season’s Pride Night controversy, commissioner Gary Bettman not only banned all themed Heat jerseys — no more purple hockey fight cancer jerseys, fatigue-themed military appreciation jerseys, don’t wear the number and name of a player playing in his 1,000th game — but on the ice. To deny support to anyone and anything for demonstrations on. And it was only a matter of time before the policy bit the NHL in the hockey pants when it became clear that it would add to the pride tape that players around the league have been using for years.
Everyone saw this coming. Well, at least everyone outside of the league offices. The NHL has painted itself into a corner with an unenforceable and ill-advised policy. The end result was the only one that could have happened – the repeal of a mind-numbingly dumb policy. The NHL announced Tuesday that the league, the NHLPA and the NHL’s Player Inclusion Coalition have reached an agreement to allow players to use the tape to represent causes they care about.
It had to end this way. If the commissioner’s office punishes Dermott — a player with a long history of support for the LGBTQ+ community and a player on a two-way contract who has very little standing and no use in the league — it looks like a bunch of monsters. Oppressive tyrants, and would have made Dermot a martyr and a folk hero. If the NHL were to ignore Dermott’s showing, it would look tired and impotent, calling into question its ability and desire to enforce any policy on the books.
What did the NHL think would happen when they came up with this nonsense? Well, maybe the leaders thought a hockey culture that strongly stifled individuality and encouraged standout would do the job for them. But Gen Z and younger millennials are built differently. These reasons are enough for them to resist internal pressure. They grew up on the personality-driven NBA and saw how the WNBA stars stood for something real. If Dermot hadn’t done it, someone else would have. And maybe someone like Connor McDavid or Kale Makar, superstars with real potential to make a real difference. We hope they have. And here’s assuming they will. And consent.
It didn’t have to be like this. He didn’t have to descend into a bitter, who-blink-first situation. Pride tape was a harmless thing, an option for those who wanted to use it. It was never mandatory. It was not forced on anyone. It was a simple, quiet, showy gesture, a nod to LGBTQ+ fans saying, hey, you’re welcome here, we want you here. But to give players something to hide their hatred for, the NHL He was willing to burn the bridges he had built with all the underserved and underrepresented sections of her fan base. The N.H.L. For the culture wars, he managed to turn an abomination like rainbow-colored tape into a new Maginot line.
“It’s easy to forget it’s a fight when it’s not in front of you,” Dermot told The Athletic’s Chris Johnston. “If you don’t see it every day, if it gets swept under the rug, hidden from view, it’s easy to forget that there are people who don’t feel it because they are so many people. They feel like they belong.
“I think that’s what becomes dangerous once we stop thinking about that.”
It should come as no surprise to anyone that the NHL caved to this and reached an agreement to allow tape-based cheerleading shows (it seems ridiculous to even type that). This was a flawed policy from the start – an unnecessary and careless decision made with malice or premeditation. But it was another blow to the league’s credibility, and it didn’t diminish the clear — and saddening — message the league had already sent to its LGBTQ+ fans and players coming to the youth and professional ranks.
It’s important to remember that Bateman’s job is not to raise the game. The league’s 32 owners are to increase revenue. The owners are clearly panicking, fearing a Bud Light-style backlash from bad-faith activists, and here’s what we got — another embarrassing incident with them in sports.
It will always be up to the players to reach out, to stand up, to step up their game. Fortunately, there are more Travis Dermotts in the league than the league thinks. No, growth is not linear. But the players eventually pull the league into the limelight, albeit kicking and screaming.
(Photo: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)