When most people think of LGBT-affirming professional sports organizations, the fast-paced and rough sports like hockey are probably not at the top of the list. Yet in recent years professional hockey has seen some of its major voices become vocal LGBT allies, and more and more organizations within the National Hockey League (NHL) are stepping up to support LGBT fans and athletes at all levels.
This isn’t necessarily anything particularly new for professional hockey. A 2006 Sports Illustrated poll of the four major North American sports leagues—the NHL, the NFL, the MBA, and MLB—found that 80% of professional hockey players would accept a gay teammate, making it the most accepting of any league. In 2015, during the lead-up to the current NHL season, USA Today asked 35 players whether they would welcome a gay teammate, and invited anonymous response. Only one of the players asked responded that he would not.
Large-scale initiatives, like You Can Play—which encourages athletes and organizations to send the message that all that should matter is how you play the game, not who you are—have grown up out of the world of hockey.
Other efforts to send a similar message include efforts like the “Pride Tape” initiative of the Institute of Sexual Minority Studies and Services (ISMSS) at the University of Alberta, which is seeking to produce and distribute rainbow tape for hockey sticks. “This tape will be a badge of support from the hockey world to LGBTQ youth in Canada and other countries,” says Kris Wells of ISMSS. “It will say ‘You are welcome on the ice. Come and join us in our sport and be proud of who you are’.”
This initiative has received significant support from NHL player Andrew Ference of the Edmonton Oilers, who garnered a great deal of attention for marching in Edmonton’s LGBT Pride parade. When asked why he had done so, Ference said, “whether it’s a teammate who might be thinking about coming out, or whatever—we want to make sure that it’s an accepting environment for everyone.”
Local hockey organizations around the world have shown support in their own ways. Last year the Swedish Orebro hockey team played in rainbow jerseys to honor pride, encouraging fans to wear pride gear and participating as a team in the city’s pride parade. And teams around the NHL are just beginning to add “Pride Nights” to their schedule of special fan event nights, as the Nashville Predators have on February 2 in partnership with Nashville’s LGBT Chamber of Commerce.
Back in December the Chamber announced that, in support of the LGBTQ and ally community of Middle Tennessee, the Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce would collaborate with the Nashville Predators to organize an event publicly acknowledging this usually invisible fan base, on the night the Predators would play the St. Louis Blues. In addition to the Pride Night event, the LGBT Chamber held their February Brewing Up Business event for members at Bridgestone Arena.
According to Lisa Howe, executive director of the LGBT Chamber, this opportunity isn’t only important for the LGBT community but for the Predators organization as well, as it encourages the loyalty of a sometimes marginalized fan base. "We are excited to work with the Nashville Predators and encourage the community to support a local team and an organization, like the NHL, who truly supports the LGBT community,” said Howe. “I am very appreciative of the Nashville Predators and their public support of the LGBT community.”
Additionally, the way that the organization has approached the event is noteworthy, she said. “I am pleased about how transparent the Predators have been in their attempt to market to LGBT and ally ticket buyers. We have seen other local groups pander to the LGBT community without taking ownership of the occasion and without making any kind of public statement to express their support of their LGBT customers or employees. The Nashville Predators announced Pride Night on their Facebook page with a graphic they designed. They have posted the event on other websites and news outlets.”
Indeed the Predators have a proud history of leadership on LGBT issues. As detailed below, Predators’ co-owner W. Brett Wilson and star Shea Weber were early supporters of the You Can Play Foundation, and Weber was a vocal supporter of LGBT rights and against Russian anti-LGBT laws during the lead-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics.
Local LGBT and ally leaders and Predators fans have reacted to the event, and the team’s broader embrace of the LGBT community, with great excitement. Chris Robinette, a straight ally and board member on the LGBT Chamber of Commerce, credits the Predators’ support for the LGBT and other minority communities for the team’s increasing popularity.
“The Nashville Predators partnering with the LGBT community, along with other great local minorities and communities, has helped propel the Bridgestone Arena and the team to a much broader fan base,” Robinette said. “With our hockey club only being 16 years old we have a ton of great opportunity to reach out to several segments of our community and invite them to fall in love with a fast-paced, hard hitting sport, all while the team grows with the community. In order for us to fill the stadium with gold and keep the red (Chicago) out we have to continue to grow our fan base…. It is my belief that the Predators organization and President Sean Henry are making a lot of great decision to grow this fan base with full inclusion of everyone!”
The Predators, in hosting this Pride night, are following in the footsteps of other NHL franchises (Phoenix for instance hosted a similar event with its local Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce), as well as other professional sports teams in Nashville. “Our city’s sports teams, including the Nashville Sounds, Tennessee Titans and most recently Nashville Predators, have hosted Pride nights with great success,” said past president of Nashville Pride and avid Predators fan Claudia Huskey.
But even though it’s been done before, it remains important. She added, “Professional sports teams hosting a Pride night to welcome the LGBT community is a tremendous step forward for acceptance and equality. These events mean a great deal to those in the LGBT community who have experienced discrimination related to sports. Events like this go beyond a sales campaign and become something truly meaningful. Our city is known for being a warm and welcoming place for all and I am glad the Nashville Predators embrace this culture. “
Huskey also pointed out that these events are also great opportunities for allies, the Predators included, to show how broad support for the LGBT community is. “They also allow sports fans the opportunity to see firsthand,” she said, “that you don’t have to be a gay person to have Pride, there are many straight allies who are proud of their gay family members, friends, and colleagues.”
For local hockey fans in the LGBT community, it’s deeply personal. “For a sports team and one in the South,” said Michael Flanery, “having a PRIDE night is groundbreaking to say the least… Being able to sit in the arena such as Bridgestone with my partner Chris Gray and watch one of my favorite sport teams, who are inclusive of our community creates a deeper love and admiration for the Predators!”
Others, like Nashville resident Jeffrey Burton, are cautiously optimistic that events like this can contribute to LGBT normalization. “Living in conservative Tennessee,” Burton said, “I really don’t know what to expect. I hope this shows that hockey is an all-inclusive sport that respects the diversity of its fans. I hope this is the start of having the feeling of being included every day versus waiting for one night a year. It will show that we are individuals who enjoy hockey, we just happen to be LGBT, and it really isn’t a big deal.”
Ultimately, Lisa Howe of the LGBT Chamber of Commerce also hopes that through this event the Predators become a model. “I hope the next time an entertainment group tries to take make money off of the local LGBT community, they use the Nashville Predators for exemplary best practices:
1) Take ownership of the event
2) Be prepared to deliver a consistent message of being inclusive of all customers
3) Have a diverse employee base that represents a diverse customer base
4) Have inclusive workplace policies and culture, and
5) Don't be like the Detroit Lions!”