For the Queer hockey community, it's more than just rainbow tape

In 2022, I moved from the United States to Vancouver, and in hopes of bonding with my new Canadian coworkers, I started learning about hockey. I knew vaguely that Vancouver had an NHL team, and that my hometown of Seattle had recently established a team. 

What developed was a newfound obsession, confusing everyone in my close circles. I don’t fall into the target audience of NHL marketing being a Queer, neurodivergent femme person. But the community of other Queer hockey fans I found only nurtured my growing love for the sport.

My little bubble in the online sports fandom is ultimately pretty rare. Homophobia, sexism and racism are still spouted across sports forums like Reddit, Instagram and X (formerly Twitter). It’s easier to ignore the outpouring of hate in these spaces when you look at the league's initiatives supporting marginalized fans and communities.  

In 2013, the NHL made history by being the first major league sport to partner with an 2SLGBTQIA+ outreach program. This partnership eventually launched the “Hockey is for everyone” initiative which encouraged the diversification of hockey fans and players, hoping to redefine the stereotypical idea of who belongs. 

Within the past decade since the initial collaboration the league has seen hundreds of specialty jerseys for varying social causes, communities and holidays. But unfortunately this came to a screeching halt. 

Pride Nights became a hot topic of debate in the NHL’s 22/23 season. A handful of players across the league stated they would not wear a pride-themed warm up jersey citing various reasons, ultimately sparking the debate on if “politics” had a place in hockey. These community-themed game nights are not based in politics. 

These nights, specifically Pride Night, are meant as a statement of acceptance and inclusion within every part of the organization, serving fans, staff and athletes. What occurred through the rest of the season varied from team to team; the New York Islanders and the Minnesota Wild decided to host Pride Night but scrap their specialty jerseys. Other teams such as the Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks and Florida Panthers opted to have the non-participating players sit out for warmups. 

Of course, this was only the beginning. In the summer of 2023, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced a ban on specialty warmup jerseys, and before the season even started, he announced a ban on the use of Pride Tape.

Pride Tape is a company that makes rainbow stick tape, to promote equality and tolerance within the sport. It was quickly adopted into the NHL, being backed first by the Edmonton Oilers, and used in Pride Nights across the league. 

While the ban on specialty jerseys was not inherently anti-Queer, since it wasn't just targeted at Pride Night but at all theme night events, the ban on Pride Tape was a direct hit against the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. 

Queerness and sports have had a complicated relationship since the dawn of time, but after ten years of supposed support from the league, watching the NHL buckle as anti-Queer rhetoric is becoming louder each day, isolates fans, athletes and anyone that could be interested in hockey. The NHL’s choices echo the most toxic parts of the sport's culture, amplifying the voices that constantly say hockey is not for everyone. 

Being a Queer fan, this hurt. Seeing a sport that had previously been so vocal about accepting new fans and supporting community initiatives go back on everything was a rude awakening. This unfortunately acts as a reminder of how much work still has to be done to strive for inclusion and equity. 

But, as the league pushed this agenda, both players and teams pushed back harder. Pride Tape reported various teams were buying tape in bulk, while star players such as Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers called for the league to reverse the ban. The outrage expressed showed the NHL is not a hive-mind, and that there are individuals in these organizations who care about acceptance within the sport. 

Despite the notable endorsements and outrage, the ban on Pride Tape was not lifted. It was only a matter of time before there was an act of protest. During the Arizona Coyotes’ home opener on October 24, 2023, winger Travis Dermott was the first player to use Pride Tape despite the ban. The publicity and support for Dermott’s action forced the NHL to reassess its policy, and they ultimately reversed the decision. 

As a Queer fan, it’s still hard to identify my space within the hockey community. But seeing the protest from players and teams in the face of blatant anti-Queerness helps us hold on to the hope that maybe hockey can be for everyone.