At least one 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 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 Russian President Vladimir Putin signed in December to expand restrictions on supporting LGBTQ2S+ rights.
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 to the AP on Wednesday. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the move.
Chicago coach Luke Richardson said he and his players were disappointed in the decision.
“It’s an unfortunate situation, but that’s just what we have to deal with,” Richardson said after his team’s gameday skate in Washington. “I don’t think we can control the world issues, so that takes it out of our hands. We’re just making decisions as best we can as an organization and for everybody.”
The league declined to comment through a spokesperson, as did agent Dan Milstein, who represents Russian players on the Blackhawks and other teams.
The decision comes at a time when Russian players have walked 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 travelled 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 defenceman Nikita Zaitsev is a Moscow native, and there are other players with family in Russia or other connections to the country. Zaitsev was not made available to reporters in Washington.
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 defenceman 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.
Kurt Weaver, chief operating officer of the You Can Play Project, which advocates for LGBTQ2S+ participation in sports, said he was upset to learn 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.
The Blackhawks have previously worn Pride warmup jerseys and donned special warmup jerseys on some other themed nights this season. There had been ongoing conversations with players about Pride jerseys prior to the decision, according to the person who talked to the AP.
The Florida Panthers — whose star goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky, is Russian — planned to go forward with plans to wear the jerseys Thursday night before their home game against Toronto.
The jerseys are just one part of many initiatives Florida built into its annual event. The Panthers will also auction off the jerseys, then match whatever money is raised and donate to nonprofits that work with the LGBTQ2S+ community.
“As an organization, we’ve decided, and rightfully so, to move forward with it and support it and celebrate it,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “Teams around the league and players around the league, they’ve got the right to their opinion, and we’ve got the right to ours.”
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 par t because 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.
Blackhawks defenceman Connor Murphy said he could understand why people might be upset “when things are announced one way and then changed.”
The Blackhawks have planned a variety of activities in conjunction with Sunday’s game. DJs from the LGBTQ2S+ 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 LGBTQ2S+ community.
“We don’t want the jerseys to represent the entirety of the night,” Blackhawks defenceman 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. We know the organization puts the players on the team first.”
AP Sports Writers John Wawrow, Josh Dubow and Tim Reynolds contributed to this report.
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