NHL's commitment to diversity, inclusion under microscope again at All-Star game

The NHL must decide if it's prepared to adhere to its dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Signed into law in 2022 by Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis, the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill prohibits educators in the state from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity with students. DeSantis, who has “espoused anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and policies” throughout his political career, claims Florida “is where woke goes to die.”

The timing seems ominous for the NHL, which is set to host its annual All-Star celebrations in Sunrise, Fla., from Feb. 3-4, and has been dealing with a wave of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment from fans, players, and organizations within the league. Not only because the league’s "Hockey is For Everyone" campaign is increasingly being called into question, but also because DeSantis himself has targeted the NHL’s own diversity efforts.

In January, DeSantis spoke against a proposed NHL job fair to be held in conjunction with the league’s "Pathways to Hockey" summit on Feb. 2 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The job fair originally sought to recruit participants who “identify as female, Black, Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latino, Indigenous, LGBTQIA+, and/or a person with a disability,” while also encouraging veterans to apply. DeSantis immediately reacted by calling the NHL’s search “discrimination.”

“Discrimination of any sort is not welcome in the state of Florida, and we do not abide by the woke notion that discrimination should be overlooked if applied in a politically popular manner or against a politically unpopular demographic,” DeSantis’s press secretary Bryan Griffin said in a statement.

“We are fighting all discrimination in our schools and our workplaces, and we will fight it in publicly accessible places of meeting or activity. We call upon the National Hockey League to immediately remove and denounce the discriminatory prohibitions it has imposed on attendance to the 2023 ‘Pathway to Hockey’ summit.”

Gary Bettman and the NHL will be under the microscope again at this weekend's All-Star game. (Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Gary Bettman and the NHL will be under the microscope again at this weekend's All-Star game. (Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The NHL was aiming to increase diversity within the league, specifically within hiring practices following the release of the league’s first-ever diversity report, which found 83.6 percent of NHL employees are white, and only 36.81 percent of league employees identify as women, while less than 4 percent identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman did not respond to DeSantis. Rather, the NHL removed all wording related to diverse candidates from its posting and as Bettman told The Athletic, the NHL was looking to move forward with the All-Star Game without conflict between the league and Florida’s governor.

“The answer is we’re planning to be in Sunrise and celebrate our sport at the All-Star Game,” Bettman said. “I don’t want to get way into all of this, but the fact is what the summit is, and was, has been mischaracterized. It’s not a job fair. It was an informational session so that people could learn more about us.”

The NHL’s run-in with DeSantis and the removal of wording from its posting was the first of a sequence of events involving the league drawing criticism from advocates and allies alike.

The timeline of events, and timeliness of the NHL’s visit to Florida, alongside the ongoing attack on LGBTQ+ populations in sports, will thrust the league’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion under a spotlight. Were it an isolated incident, DeSantis alone could be pinpointed as the excluding force, but All-Star weekend, and the NHL’s back-peddling away from inclusive language in promoting their "Pathway to Hockey" summit, is another moment in a growing timeline of contentious decisions involving the NHL’s commitment to supporting the LGBTQ+ community.

In November, Jordan Peterson, a well-known anti-LGBTQ+ bigot and misogynist directly confronted the NHL on Twitter after the league posted a message celebrating Team Trans, an all-transgender hockey organization. The post received hundreds of anti-trans replies, prompting the NHL to defend the transgender community, tweeting “Trans women are women. Trans men are men. Nonbinary identity is real.”

Peterson quoted the NHL’s statement, saying “Not hockey too…. Canada is doomed.” Peterson also misgendered participants of the Team Trans event and spread disinformation, which Team Trans later clarified directly to Yahoo. While the NHL’s response to Peterson was clear, the controversial speaker still appeared Jan. 30 at Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre, a facility owned by the same group that operates the Ottawa Senators. He will visit FLA Live Arena, home to the Florida Panthers and the 2023 NHL All-Star Game, in March.

Peterson’s claims were followed by DeSantis’s demands, which were succeeded shortly thereafter by Philadelphia Flyers blueliner Ivan Provorov refusing to take warm-ups while wearing a Pride-themed jersey. Instead of standing up for the LGBTQ+ community and equity, the NHL, in response to Provorov’s decision, which was supported by Flyers coach John Tortorella, gave permission to clubs to decide how to celebrate groups under the “Hockey is For Everyone” umbrella.

“Clubs decide whom to celebrate, when and how,” the NHL said in a statement. “Players decide which initiatives to support, and we continue to encourage their voices and perspectives on social and cultural issues.”

Less than two weeks later, the New York Rangers completely abandoned their planned Pride-themed warmup jerseys and the use of rainbow hockey tape.

In response, the Rangers released a statement saying, "Our organization respects the LGBTQ+ community, and we are proud to bring attention to important local community organizations as part of another great Pride Night. In keeping with our organization’s core values, we support everyone’s individual right to respectfully express their beliefs."

One of those “important local community organizations,” NYC Pride, which was invited to participate in the Rangers’ Pride Night, was reportedly not informed of the team’s decision to not wear the jerseys or use rainbow tape.

"NYC Pride has been honored to take part in these celebrations, including as recently as last night at Madison Square Garden. NYC Pride was not made aware in advance of our participation in last night's ceremonial puck drop that Pride jerseys and rainbow tape would not be worn as advertised,” the organization told ESPN. “We understand and appreciate that this has been a major disappointment to the LGBTQ+ community in New York and beyond.

"We are communicating these concerns with NY Rangers and NHL leadership as we continue to discuss the ways these organizations can work toward inclusion. NYC Pride has a duty to both support our partners and hold them accountable. We are committed to continuing our relationships with the NY Rangers and the NHL and maintaining substantive dialogue with them about meaningful allyship with the LGBTQ+ community."

Families, educators, and human rights groups have actively fought Florida’s anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, filing numerous lawsuits hoping to have the law overturned in the courts. In the past, other leagues, including Major League Baseball in 2021, have moved their All-Star events following the creation of laws impacting marginalized groups.

But the NHL, as Bettman said, does not want to “increase the debate on it,” referring to DeSantis targeting the league’s attempt to increase diverse representation among NHL employees.

“We’re just looking forward to the All-Star Game,” Bettman told The Athletic.

Whether it becomes a topic of discussion among media, fans, league officials, and players at 2023 NHL All-Star weekend, in a state where "Don’t Say Gay" is the law, the NHL is facing a tipping point. With growing dissent among players and teams, and pressure from politicians like DeSantis, the NHL must decide if it's prepared to adhere to its own commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and how, or if, the league will stand in support of universal human rights for LGBTQ+ athletes, fans, employees, and citizens.

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