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NHL Faces Criticism for Email Reveal of Controversial Theme Night Policy

  • The rule change will affect Pride Night, indigenous, Black, Asian, cancer, and military nonprofit themes.
  • The league has remained mum on the ban on pregame jerseys worn by players on theme nights.
NHL Theme Nights
Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL should not have revealed its new theme night policy change in an email.

That’s the consensus of those interviewed by Front Office Sports this week after a recent memo sent to the NHL’s 32 to clarify the rules for theme nights for the 2023-24 season that commenced on Tuesday. Commissioner Gary Bettman called how some teams and players handled Pride Night last season “a distraction” — and the solution was a blanket ban on warmup jerseys for any cause. 

But the league didn’t consult with the NHL Player Inclusion Coalition — which has openly gay, Black, Asian, and indigenous members — and there were no formal talks with the NHL Players Association, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. Team sources also said they didn’t learn of the policy change until the latest email from the league. 

“You can’t say this is the whole NHL,” said Kurt Weaver, COO of You Can Play that advocates for inclusiveness in sports and has been a longtime NHL partner. “Quick decisions like this, made without external input will always be problematic. Our challenge is the NHL has done such a good job courting our community of people and showing them authentic love that by removing these visuals you’re in danger of now chasing out the people that were pulled into the sport over the years.”

Front Office Sports asked the NHL media reps Gary Meagher, John Dellapina, Jamey Horan, and Jennifer Moad didn’t respond to inquiries from FOS on who within the league made the decision and who the NHL consulted with — if anyone — before the change. 

“This was not a decision we were involved in,” NHL Player Inclusion Coalition co-chair and former NHL player Anson Carter told FOS. ” Our NHL PIC is focused on ways to use our platforms to empower and welcome all in this game.”

And the decision impacts more than just Pride Nights. Players won’t be able to wear warmup jerseys — sold afterward to raise funds for charity — indigenous, Black, Asian American, Pacific Islander, and military nonprofit organizations. But some theme nights, like Hockey Fights Cancer, don’t rely as heavily on jersey fundraisers.

“While the on-ice element of the Hockey Fights Cancer program will be discontinued, it reflects only one aspect our longstanding partnership with the league and the players’ association,” the American Cancer Society said in a statement to FOS.

Teams can still hold theme nights but minus player participation. In response to a few players who refused to wear Pride jerseys last season, with teams like the Minnesota Wild and the New York Rangers adjusting or canceling their Pride Nights, they made the change.

“Players shall not be put in the position of having to demonstrate (or where they may be appearing to demonstrate) personal support for any Special Initiatives,” the memo first obtained by ESPN stated. “A factor that may be considered in this regard includes, for example, whether a Player (or Players) is required to be in close proximity to any groups or individuals visibly or otherwise clearly associated with such Special Initiative(s).”

Outsports was the first outlet to report the ban includes the use of Pride Tape on sticks on the ice — even at practice. 

“This is the direction that the NHL has been headed in, so it’s not surprising,” Pride Tape co-founder Kristopher Wells told FOS. “It’s incredibly disappointing. Now, it’s up to the teams and the players to continue to find innovative ways to show their support.”

Wells said one of those ways would be for players to defy the ban. The first memo in June and the one released before the season don’t spell out player or team punishments for the new theme night rules violations. 

“The league needs to do a better job being accountable to its fans,” Wells said. “This isn’t the way to grow the game. And, you know, at the end of the day, what it if Conor McDavid shows up and he wants to use Pride Tape? Is the league really going to fine him?”

While the NHLPA hasn’t spoken publicly about the new league theme night mandate, the union would likely take issue with fines to players for using Pride Tape. 

That outcome would undoubtedly keep the issue in the news, which has already overshadowed the start of the season. Another memo may be in the offing. 

“There’s nothing wrong with walking back these decisions and doing the right thing,” Wells said. “At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.”

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