CHICAGO – A National Hockey League team with a Russian player has decided against wearing special warmup jerseys to commemorate Pride night, citing an anti-gay Kremlin law that could imperil Russian athletes when they return home.
The Chicago Blackhawks, who have at least two more players with connections to Russia, will not wear Pride-themed warmup jerseys before Sunday's game against Vancouver, a person with knowledge of the matter told The Associated Press, because of security concerns involving the law, which expands restrictions on supporting LGBTQ rights. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed it in December.
The decision was made by the Blackhawks following discussions with security officials within and outside the franchise, according to a person familiar with the situation who spoke Wednesday to the AP on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the move.
Chicago coach Luke Richardson said Thursday that he and his players were disappointed and called it “an unfortunate situation.”
“I don’t think we can control the world issues, so that takes it out of our hands,” Richardson said. "We’re just making decisions as best we can as an organization and for everybody.”
The league declined to comment through a spokesperson.
The decision comes amid increasing threats to freedom of expression in the U.S. and abroad. Conservative political forces have sought to ban LGBTQ-themed books from American school libraries and to forbid classroom lessons that mention sexuality and some aspects of race relations.
Similar pressures have forced Russian players to walk a careful line since the invasion of Ukraine, with some cautiously speaking out against the war even with family members still living in Russia. Last year, Minnesota Wild star Kirill Kaprizov ran into several roadblocks as he traveled back to the U.S., raising concerns about his safety.
“There’s such a sensitivity to the topic, and you have concerns for the Russians, especially,” Buffalo Sabres captain Kyle Okposo said, emphasizing that he does not “understand what it’s like to be in Russia and to grow up there. And I don’t think we’re able to speak about the psychology of those players because we don’t understand."
Chicago defenseman Nikita Zaitsev is a Moscow native, and there are other players with family in Russia or other connections to the country.
The Florida Panthers — whose star goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky, is Russian — went forward with plans to wear Pride-themed jerseys Thursday night before their home game against Toronto. Bobrovsky took part, while brothers Eric and Marc Staal did not, and cited religion as the reason.
“We carry no judgement on how people choose to live their lives, and believe that all people should be welcome in all aspects of the game of hockey,” the Staal brothers said in a statement. “Having said that, we feel that by us wearing a Pride jersey it goes against our Christian beliefs.”
The jerseys are just one part of many initiatives the Panthers built into the annual event, including auctioning off the jerseys, matching the money raised and donating it to nonprofits that work with the LGBTQ community.
Speaking after Florida's 6-2 loss, Panthers coach Paul Maurice described the Staal brothers as men of faith, and then noted how the rest of the team wore the warmup jerseys.
“I love both of those men and they have the right to their opinion. I stand by that right,” he said. “But everyone else in the room has the right to put that sweater on proudly and wear it and be welcoming to all people in our community.”
The Sabres and Vancouver Canucks have Pride nights upcoming. The Canucks have not announced specific plans for the event. Sabres management was scheduled to hold discussions Thursday with its player leadership group on the matter, amid concern over whether defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin will participate because he is from Moscow, where he still has family and returns in the offseason to visit.
Lyubushkin and his family members could face a backlash in Russia, according to a Sabres employee with knowledge of the issue. The person spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions.
In other sports, members of Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays decided last season not to wear rainbow-colored logos on their uniforms as part of their Pride night. Women's basketball star Brittney Griner, an American citizen who is gay, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport last year after Russian authorities said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil. She was imprisoned for eight months until a high-profile prisoner swap with the U.S.
Kurt Weaver, chief operating officer of the You Can Play Project, which advocates for LGBTQ participation in sports, said he was upset when he learned of the Blackhawks’ decision, but he called the conversation an indicator of progress.
“We are certainly disappointed that the jerseys aren’t worn, because that’s the No. 1 visual representation from the athletes themselves, and I know a lot of the athletes do support this effort and support their community that comes to watch them,” Weaver said, adding praise for the Blackhawks’ commitment to Pride causes dating back more than a decade.
Ivan Provorov of the Philadelphia Flyers declined to take part in pregame warmups during the team’s Pride night in January, citing his Russian Orthodox religion. Russians Nikolai Knyzhov and Alexander Barabanov wore the Pride-themed jerseys for the San Jose Sharks Sharks on Saturday, when Canadian goaltender James Reimer refused to take part because, like the Staals, he said it conflicted with his religious beliefs.
The New York Rangers and Minnesota Wild opted not to wear Pride jerseys or use Pride stick tape as part of their events despite previously advertising they would.
The Blackhawks planned a variety of LGBT-related activities in conjunction with Sunday's game. DJs from the LGBTQ community will play before the game and during an intermission, and the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus is slated to perform. There also are plans to highlight a couple of area businesses with ties to the gay community.
“We don’t want the jerseys to represent the entirety of the night," Blackhawks defenseman Seth Jones said. “We’re still doing a lot for the LGBTQ community, and us as players respect that. We just thought that this was best for our team."
AP Sports Writers John Wawrow, Josh Dubow and Tim Reynolds, and AP freelance reporter George Richards contributed to this report.
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