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LGBTQ+ representation in women’s sports

Women's hockey continues to use pride merch following failed NHL ban

In June 2023, the National Hockey League (NHL) announced that players were no longer permitted to wear jerseys or equipment that had been altered to reflect “special” theme nights or causes, including Pride tape. 

The use of pride tape, a rainbow-coloured athletic tape introduced in 2015, was used to promote inclusion and support for young LGBTQ+ athletes who may be inclined to quit playing ice hockey out of fear of homophobia and discrimination. 

The NHL supported the use of this tape in the league for seven years after its creation. However, they withdrew their support after several NHL players received negative media attention for refusing to wear pride themed warm-up jerseys, citing religious and personal reasons, during the 2022/23 season.

The ban was not immune to negative backlash, and reports that the league had taken a step backward was a common theme among critics. Many high-profile players, including Connor McDavid, Rasmus Andersson and Morgan Riley, shared their disappointment. 

These players were joined against the league’s decision by former NHL executives such as Brian Burke, who launched the “You Can Play” project in 2012, an initiative targeted at ending homophobia in sports. 

Standing up

The deepest effects of the ban were felt by LGBTQ+ identifying fans, athletes and coaches across North America. Once again they were left feeling excluded and discriminated against. 

Luke Prokop, a Nashville Predators prospect and openly gay man, shared his disappointment. 

“As someone who aspires to play on an NHL team one day, I would want to enter the locker room knowing I can share all parts of my identity with my teammates,” said Prokop in a statement on X

Many said that this new ban reinforced the idea that hockey is not for everyone. 

In October 2023, Travis Dermott, a defender for the Arizona Coyotes, became the first player to defy the leagues ban, using Pride tape on the top of his stick despite the rules against it. 

His actions sparked a huge wave of support from fans online, and the following day, the NHL lifted the Pride tape ban, stating, “Players will now have the option to voluntarily represent social causes with their stick tape throughout the season.”

This change was a huge step in the right direction for the NHL in terms of their allyship and support for the LGBTQ+ community, but this year, a new professional hockey league took things even further. 

New beginnings for hockey and representation

On Jan. 1, 2024, the narrative on LGBTQ+ representation in professional hockey was forever changed, as the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) embraced the community with open arms from the very start of their first season. 

The PWHL’s inaugural game, between Toronto and New York at the Mattamy Centre, marked the first of what will become 12 sold out games played on Toronto’s home rink this season. 

The inaugural match featured two ceremonial puck drops by two openly gay women who play major roles in the PWHL organization. 

This included Billie Jean King, an iconic name in women’s sports who now serves as a member of the PWHL board, along with Jayna Hefford, VP of hockey operations for the league. The face-off itself was taken by PWHL New York’s team captain, Micah Zandee-Hart, who also identifies as a gay woman. 

When the buzzer ended the game with a final score of 4-0 for New York, two of the game’s goals had also been scored by gay-identifying women, Alex Carpenter and Jill Saulnier. 

In its second-ever game, the PWHL delivered to fans what was likely the very first fiancée goal and assist in professional hockey history, as PWHL’s Laura Stacey made the score 2-2 Montreal, assisted by her fiance and teammate, Marie-Philip Poulin. 

A known power couple in women’s hockey, the two also won gold medals together while representing Canada in the 2022 Winter Olympics. 

The ripple effect of support

Excitement and support for the PWHL from the LGBTQ+ community extends beyond the rink. 

Veronica Saye, co-owner of Peaches, a queer-friendly Toronto sports bar, recounted how the recent PHWL viewing parties hosted by the establishment have been some of the bar’s busiest nights in history. 

Peaches is named after the famous 1940s female baseball team, the Rockford Peaches, and is located on Queen Street West, an area of Toronto that many LGBTQ+ friendly establishments call home, will be showing every game played by the PWHL this season. 

The PWHL isn’t the first time we’ve seen this type of outstanding connection exist between women’s hockey and LGBTQ+ women. Women’s hockey has paved the way for queer representation in sports for decades. 

In the Premier Hockey Federation, a league that existed for a short period prior to the announcement of the PWHL, it was announced that Pride Night jerseys wouldn’t just be for warm-ups as they were in the NHL. Instead players would wear them for the duration of the game. 

Among the many out and proud female professional hockey players, we’ve even seen not one, but two, marriages prosper between former Team Canada and Team USA on-ice rivals, including Gillian Apps and Meghan Duggan, as well as Julie Chu and Caroline Ouelette. The latter couple even serve as the head coach and associate head coach of the Concordia women’s hockey team, respectively. 

It’s not just queer athletes who’ve found a home in women’s hockey, it’s also the countless fans who have been embraced by a welcoming community of queer representation and LGBTQ+ allyship. 

From the big screen to our campus

Professional women’s hockey has had a large-scale impact on the LGBTQ+ community, but many local teams, including the Dalhousie University women’s hockey team, have also made an impact through their support. 

This November, as the Tiger’s played their annual Pride Game, the players could be seen wearing pride themed shirts to the Halifax Forum, that read “We are all Tigers.” Additionally, year-round, the women’s team’s Instagram account can be seen online with a pride-themed profile picture

Aidan Bonner, co-president of Dalhousie’s RoweOUT Society, a student-run organization dedicated to promoting the professional development of 2SLGBTQ+ students within Dalhousie’s Rowe School of Business, believes that these types of efforts within collegiate sports have a positive impact on the 2SLGBTQ+ community, both on and off campus. 

“These events can create [a] positive impact for 2SLGBTQ+ students who are already enrolled at Dalhousie, and for students considering Dalhousie as a school option and community,” he said. 

“Efforts such as pride games are also, in my eyes, beneficial to athletes who have felt excluded or struggled with their identity, who can [now] be proud of their sport, their team and their journey as an athlete.” 

The role of activism in sports

For 2SLGBTQ+ athletes, either out or closeted, these events can provide a sense of acceptance, safety and belonging within their sport. Sports have the power to play a role in advocating for social change, and this ability spans far beyond the realm of any post-secondary campus. 

“It feels like there is an unprecedented amount of athlete activism happening right now,” said Bonner.

He also feels that in what may feel like a flurry of rising anti-LGBTQ+ policies and negativity online and in communities, we have reached an inflection point where, “companies and sports figures need to decide if they want to stand tall and stand proud with the 2SLGBTQ+ community.” 

Bonner commended athletes such as Lewis Hamilton, who recently wore a rainbow helmet during a Formula 1 race, in parts of the world where anti-2SLGBTQ+ laws or legislation are especially strong, such as Florida and Qatar. He also notes the positive impact created by athletes who have pushed against, and ultimately overturned, bans of Pride symbols on gear.

“For the average fan, seeing rainbows in a sports venue and tailored onto the uniforms of athletes may not feel drastic at all, but to those within the S2LGBTQ+ community, it sends the message that we belong and that we are accepted,” he said, citing the support shown at Dal women’s hockey games as something all teams, everywhere, should strive for. 

Throughout it all, on both large and small scales, women’s hockey continues to set the standard that all professional leagues should aspire to when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation and allyship; by showing the world that hockey truly is for everyone.

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