Montreal Canadiens Habs Denis Gurianov Pride jersey

Of course, one of the Habs (from Russia) chose not to wear the Pride jersey

“Denis Gurianov opting out of warmups on the Habs’ Pride Night is another example of a depressingly common trend in the antiquated NHL.”

The more people say “hockey is for everyone,” the more those four words ring hollow. Given how frequently NHL players are declining to participate in warmups while wearing Pride-themed jerseys before their team’s Pride Night games (and how some teams are declining to hold those nights or have players wear those jerseys altogether), that statement can feel like a flat-out empty gesture.

Here in Montreal — known for being one of the most queer-friendly cities in North America, even having an entire neighbourhood dedicated to that community — the Canadiens have become the newest team to see a player, Russian forward Denis Gurianov, opt out from wearing Pride jerseys before tonight’s home game against the Washington Capitals. Head coach Martin St. Louis attributes Gurianov’s decision to fear of repercussions toward loved ones back home to not wear the jerseys (designed by local 2SLGBTQIA+ community member Amélie Lehoux) during warmup.

This is another example of a depressingly common trend in this league for players to opt out of wearing rainbow jerseys during warmups; one that began with Philadelphia Flyers defenseman/fellow Russian Ivan Provorov, who cited his Russian Orthodox faith as justification. Worse still, multiple NHL organizations have either declined to host their own Pride Night festivities or wear pre-game jerseys — including the Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Toronto Maple Leafs.

Such a gesture has seemingly emboldened other NHLers to do the same, including other Russian players (Ilya Samsonov, Andrei Kuzmenko, Ilya Lyubushkin) and Canadian players citing their own Christian faith (James Reimer, former Hab Eric Staal and his brother Marc). Reimer and the two elder Staal brothers also claimed to have respect for others’ “lifestyle choices,” as if being gay, bisexual and/or transgender was ever a choice to begin with.

All of this has been met with justified outrage, but plenty of apologists have also come out of the woodwork (read: tell on themselves) to defend those refusing to participate. Case in point: two weeks ago, I tweeted a list of players and teams who declined to participate in Pride Night. That tweet went viral, being viewed no less than 466,000 times. It attracted plenty of support, but also a whole lot of anger, vitriol and personal attacks aimed in my direction by those who view bold-faced homophobia as nothing more than a “difference of opinion or political beliefs.”

For pointing out how many NHLers and organizations in the league are refusing to do the bare minimum for the LGBTQ+ community, I’ve been called “incest Ed Sheeran”; told by at least one troll that they’d rather “gouge their own eyes out” than read my journalism; accused of being “authoritarian” and promoting a “cult-like ideology”; and insulted for listing my pronouns in my Twitter bio — among all kinds of other abuse hurled while hiding behind a keyboard.

While I’m no stranger to disparaging and mean-spirited remarks toward either my opinions or my work, it’s still a grotesque sign of how this bigoted gatekeeper mentality remains alive and well in hockey culture. (My usage of the block button on that cursed bird app has also never been higher.)

But enough about me. The point remains that, on the surface, it feels pretty gross that a player for the Montreal Canadiens would refuse to wear a Pride jersey given the city’s strong connection to the LGBTQ+ community. This is especially true when François Legault’s government is providing funding to PDF Québec, an organization notorious for targeting — and promoting misinformation about — the transgender community. 

In November, the provincial government transferred justice minister Simon Jolin-Barrette’s responsibility of fighting homophobia and transphobia to the Secrétariat à la Condition féminine, led by Martine Biron — a decision made without the knowledge or consent of the affected communities. Locally, a court case was recently thrown out regarding a transgender man’s oppressive and dehumanizing interrogation by Montreal police officers.

Decisions like Gurianov’s also come at a time where the LGBTQ+ population is increasingly under attack by the political right. This includes the banning of gender-affirming care in multiple U.S. states and baseless accusations of grooming and pedophilia against members of the community. Concerns within the United Nations about LGBTQ+ rights eroding in the U.S. were also expressed last August. In multiple countries worldwide, being gay is still punishable by death. Even drag shows have incited recent uproar, including in Canada.

The hockey community hasn’t been fully innocent either, after Teemu Selanne recently attacked the trans community by tweeting that they don’t deserve to be felt sorry for after six children were murdered at a Christian school in Nashville by a transgender woman — staining an otherwise glittering reputation as an all-time great NHL goalscorer.

There is indeed plenty of nuance in this situation with regards to Russian players specifically, and the topic absolutely becomes more complicated given that context. The Kremlin passed an anti-gay propaganda bill in November, where people can be jailed for publicly promoting LGBTQ+ rights (at least one gay couple there has already faced arrest). Anti-gay “purges” have also transpired in the republic of Chechnya since 2017. In the cases of the Russian players declining to participate, they’ve typically cited safety concerns for their families, which are generally valid ones given their country’s stance on the topic.

Numerous Habs fans are giving Gurianov a pass for him skipping the warmups, some even citing the recent tragic passing of top 2023 NHL Draft prospect Matvei Michkov’s father under mysterious circumstances — a death that has triggered plenty of speculation and conspiracy theories from hockey fans on social media about the exact cause — as reason not to poke the Russian bear, so to speak.

All of this seems understandable, but it’s important to remember that multiple other Russian NHLers — Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Bobrovsky among them — have worn the pre-game Pride jerseys. I have yet to hear of any stories where a Russian player and/or their loved ones have been threatened in any way by Vladimir Putin’s government, and neither has the league itself. In that sense, it’s difficult not to feel a bit like the NHL — led since 1993 by their own Napoleonic figure in Gary Bettman — is acquiescing to a country’s intimidation tactics and antiquated societal views, using religion as a cop-out.

Furthermore, if a player refused to wear jerseys during nights themed around appreciation for military veterans or law enforcement (both of which are mostly careers one can choose to have), quite a few of those same people supporting the decisions of Gurianov, Provorov, Reimer, the Staals et al would probably cry foul over that. Such a double standard would be hard not to notice.

Equally disappointing are the recent remarks made by beloved former Hab P.K. Subban, who bemoaned the idea of fans pressuring players to be “activists” for the LGBTQ+ community. But this situation isn’t about activism, per se — it’s about doing the bare minimum to show that community that they belong in hockey, and that they are welcome to play and/or be a fan of the sport. Given how there’s only one openly gay player signed with an NHL team (Nashville Predators prospect Luke Prokop), the importance of having Pride Night in the NHL is underlined even further.

Hockey fans can recognize the complications for Russian players given the blatantly homophobic stance of their country’s government while also acknowledging the importance of hosting a Pride Night during the regular season. Both of these truths can hold weight at once (Habs player Brendan Gallagher said as much today), and it isn’t fair to simply view either of them in a vacuum.

But wearing those jerseys isn’t necessarily activism or brazenly pushing “propaganda” (or “authoritarian tolerance,” as Jordan Peterson might say) — it’s a gesture of respect and inclusion toward that community. Therefore, it’s completely valid to also feel disheartened and disappointed by certain players declining to wear Pride jerseys.

Martin St. Louis gave a fairly measured response to this issue, admitting that he “hasn’t walked a day in [Gurianov’s] shoes” and that he can’t be quick to judge someone for wanting to keep their family safe. He also preached compassion and empathy for others, especially on events such as Pride Night. But it’s also hard not to notice St. Louis responding this way to Gurianov’s refusal to wear the jersey without remembering him recently benching Jonathan Drouin for an entire game after missing a team meeting. St. Louis also could’ve avoided this entire kerfuffle by dressing young rookie Sean Farrell instead of Gurianov for tonight’s game (even if there are financial implications for doing so), as the curtain closes on a second straight bottom-dwelling season for the Habs.

There should also be serious consideration by team brass as to whether Gurianov, a restricted free agent going into next season, should even be given a qualifying offer to stay with the Habs — not just for this, but also in hockey terms, having only racked up eight points in 19 games in a Canadiens sweater. It’s possible that they weren’t planning on re-signing him to start with, and this may have just accelerated that process.

Safety for Russian players and their families is a very fair concern that should be taken into serious consideration for teams and players, and it’s understandable that some players may be reluctant to take that risk. But it’s also fully understandable to feel dismay toward players and teams not demonstrating basic forms of allyship to the LGBTQ+ community when multiple Russian players have already done so.

Even with that context in mind, it’s hard not to feel disappointed on a human level by Gurianov’s decision (and the decision of various players and teams before him), or to feel that progress for the inclusivity in the game still seems frustratingly far away. If nothing else, it’s proof that the fight must continue to ensure hockey truly can be for everyone. ■

If you or someone you know is a member of the LGBTQ+ community and needs help and/or support, contact Interligne (formerly Gai Écoute) at 1-888-505-1010, or GRIS-Montréal at 514-590-0016.

Of course, one of the Habs (from Russia) chose not to wear the Pride jersey today

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