My opinion on the matter that is engulfing the NHL is that the Panthers organization showed great courage in holding a night in support of the LGBTQ+ community in a state where such corporate endorsement is not always looked upon favorably by governing bodies with power to punish.
I believe captain Matthew Tkachuk’s unambiguous support of inclusivity is significantly more noteworthy than the decision of Eric and Marc Staal to defer from participating in Thursday’s pregame warmups in which all of their teammates wore Pride-themed jerseys.
“A night like tonight, for me, is really about including everybody,” Tkachuk said. “In my opinion, it’s by far the greatest game in the world, and everyone’s invited in my locker room and our locker room as an organization.”
And I believe that the unqualified endorsement of the NHL’s initiative by Connor McDavid certainly outweighs the significance of San Jose goaltender James Reimer’s decision to opt out of pregame warmups when the Sharks held their Pride Night a week ago.
“I know here in Edmonton we strongly believe hockey is for everyone and strongly support Pride Night,” McDavid said on Friday. “We’re looking forward to it. I think we were the first team to use Pride tape in warmups, so we’re firm believers in the celebration that is Pride Night.”
The NHL has put itself square in the vortex of a culture war that never abates. Every word is instantly judged, every act is immediately weaponized. This is not a reflection of toxic hockey culture, as some keyboard social warriors have been quick to frame it.
Instead, this is representative of the polluted, destructive environment in which we now live 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year where everything becomes a political statement. Hockey is the least of it.
We know that a handful of players have opted out from these pregame rituals. They have almost universally been decried and defined as bigots. We know that several organizations decided to eliminate themed-jerseys from their Pride Night programs in attempt to present team unity on the ice. These organizations have been roundly criticized.
So has the NHL, though I know of no other sport that has put its full weight behind supporting the LGBTQ+ community the way the hockey has. Show me the last Major League Baseball team to wear Pride-themed jerseys during batting practice.
I think, though, that Ninth Avenue will have to revisit the parameters of this program during the offseason so that this is not every team for itself and every man for himself. I imagine the NHLPA will become involved.
When good deeds are interpreted as counterproductive and when the message of tolerance yields intolerance to a dissenting view, well, it is time to have a frank conversation over the future of these events. The idea is not to provoke controversy. The idea is not to have this subject matter dominate the discourse.
Words of welcome from McDavid and Tkachuk and from a multitude of NHL players are important. But ensuring that hockey is indeed for everyone (who can afford it) is not necessarily a top-down endeavor. It begins at the youth level, at the grass roots, where so much on all fronts is left to be desired.
That is where the most work is to be done.
I guess that Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and LeBron James have demonstrated that life at the top of the food chain does not have to end by a pro athlete’s late 30s.
But is simply remarkable that Sidney Crosby, at age 35, was named the NHL’s most complete player in a recent vote by his peers in an NHLPA poll, and by a fairly substantial margin over runner-up Patrice Bergeron, himself age 37.
And it is Crosby who has put himself in prime position to be runner-up in the Hart voting to McDavid, who is bidding to become the second unanimously elected MVP in NHL history after Wayne Gretzky in 1981-82.
Can you come up with a big-time prospect who made such a significant impact in his rookie season before fading into obscurity — perhaps mediocrity is the more appropriate term — as rapidly as Patrik Laine?
There was at one time, or at least for a brief moment, supposedly a debate about who would go first overall in the 2016 draft … Laine or Auston Matthews, remember?
Now, a redraft seven years later would likely find the still impossibly young but oft-injured 24-year-old winger selected no higher than 11th overall, as follows:
1. Matthews; 2. Tkachuk; 3. Adam Fox; 4. Charlie McAvoy; 5. Alex DeBrincat; 6. Pierre-Luc Dubois; 7. Carter Hart; 8. Mikhail Sergachev; 9. Jakob Chychrun; 10. Clayton Keller; 11. Laine.