Sports

NHL makings progress with LGBTQ+2S community: Ference

TORONTO –

Andrew Ference feels the NHL has made progress in its support of the LGBTQ+ community. 

The former defenceman and the NHL’s director of social impact, growth and fan development was in attendance for the first Pride Cup at the league’s all-star weekend. The NHL, Scotiabank and Pride Tape hosted players from the Toronto Gay Hockey Association competing in a ball hockey game at Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Saturday morning.

“The overwhelming majority of hockey players and people in the locker rooms are incredibly supportive and incredibly proud to support causes like this and many great positive causes within the hockey community,” he said, adding that “there’s always a social cost” with freedom to have one’s own views regarding the continued ban on theme-night pre-game jerseys.

“So I think like anything in life when you live in a free country, and in North America, you’re going to have different viewpoints. You’re not always going to agree with them and that’s OK. 

“But I think within hockey, we see the overwhelming support for this community and that’s incredibly encouraging for me.”

The NHL received backlash last year when it halted the theme-night pre-game jerseys for the 2023-24 season last June. It was a result of a handful of players refusing to wear Pride jerseys for differing reasons and that causing a distraction from the league’s view.

It then issued an updated memo last October which included a ban on Pride Night tape for pre-game warm-ups that brought along further criticism. The NHL then rescinded the ban on the tape, saying players had the choice to support causes with stick tape throughout the season. 

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Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid and Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly were among those who spoke out in disagreement to the league’s moves in 2023.

Arizona Coyotes defenceman Travis Dermott proceeded to go against the ban on Oct. 21, leading to the league rescinding the ban on the stick tape three days later.

“There’s always going to be more to be done, there’s always going to be room for more support, more progress,” Ference said. “But sometimes it’s baby steps. Culture changes, sometimes, frustratingly slow and especially sometimes in sports.

“You deal with that and I think if you do the right thing, you support good people and you support proud, strong communities in hockey, you’re always on the right side of history.”

Longtime NHL executive and current executive director of the Professional Women’s Hockey League Players’ Association, Brian Burke, who has long been a strong supporter of the LGBTQ+ community, had called the bans a “surprising and serious setback” at the time.

On Saturday, however, he had a different tune. 

“(NHL Commissioner) Gary Bettman’s been a great ally. I think people are focused on the fact that they got rid of Pride sweaters,” Burke said Saturday. “They still do Pride Nights, just not the Pride sweaters. The league’s been an ally. We haven’t got everything we’d like from the league but we get great support.

“I think we just keep going the way we’re going and keep adding events, keep adding awareness, keep changing and breaking down the barriers that constrict us,” he added. “I see the world as a very different place than when my son came out. … We’ve made great gains and we got to keep focusing on that and not what hasn’t happened.”

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Pride Tape co-founder Dr. Kristopher Wells found Saturday’s event to be a way of fixing the NHL’s standing with the community.

“This is about repairing harm that has been done to the community,” Wells said. “The Pride Tape ban hurt a lot of people and that’s why you saw the worldwide response about that decision. 

“So I hope that Pride Cup is a start of building a new relationship. One where we’re all working together because at the end of the day, the young people who love hockey, they want the game to love them back.”

Bettman was on hand Saturday to present the Pride Cup trophy to the winning side and a $25,000 cheque to the Toronto Gay Hockey Association. 

Burke and Ference served as coaches to the teams, while PWHL players Alex Carpenter, Emily Clark, Emerance Maschmeyer and Erin Ambrose competed in the game.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2024

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