This weekend the Elite Ice Hockey League are holding their first ever Pride Weekend, with teams up and down the country taking to the ice in rainbow colours and specially designed pucks being used in matches.
All 10 of the sides in the division are hosting at least one Pride match, with the first taking place last night pitting the Dundee Stars against the Glasgow Clan on national television, with Dundee taking the points courtesy of a 6-3 victory.
It is a rare show of solidarity from an entire league with the LGBT+ community, with a united front from all of the franchises, that is not often seen in any sport.
Glasgow Clan host their own Pride match tomorrow, hosting the Fife Flyers, and off-ice commercial manager Gerry McLaughlin says it is an exciting event for everyone involved.
“It’s the first time in my memory that the whole league has come together behind one purpose, and it’s a great purpose,” McLaughlin said.
“I can’t think of any professional sport that has done anything like this. It’s fantastic, I know other teams have had their own Pride weekends – Cardiff does a great one – but a lot of it came from the Clan fans at the play-offs last year.
“The play-offs are a bit special as well, all the fans buy tickets throughout the year whether their team is going to make it there or not, and if your team does make it a few tickets change hands at that point. It’s a bit of a rarity to have the whole league in attendance, representatives of all the fans filling out the arena in Nottingham, which holds about 9,000 people.
“Usually there are about 1000 Clan fans, even if the team isn’t there. The fans took it upon themselves last year to bring rainbow colours and do a ‘hockey is for everyone’ display which captured the imagination of the fanbase. Cardiff already do a great Pride weekend, but to do it all together has been great.
“We’ve got representatives from Pride doing the puck drop, which is always an exciting moment for them. In fact, I think it’s a drag queen that’s doing it, which is the first time I can remember a drag queen doing the puck drop. We’ve got all sorts of merchandise too for the fans, and we’ll be making a donation to Pride too for it. The league are putting together a video message which will be distributed as well. That’s the main things, and hopefully the Clan will get a nice win as well.”
A connection with the local Pride movement is something that the Dundee Stars are very proud of. They took part in the city’s first ever march two years ago, and auctioned off the rainbow jerseys worn in last night’s match with the intention of making a donation to Dundee Pride ahead of this year’s march in September.
Stars’ head coach and general manager Omar Pacha says other teams have done their own initiatives, like signing up to the inclusive You Can Play campaign, but that this weekend represents an opportunity to open up that aspect of the game to a wider audience.
“It’s great exposure when you’re on national TV, but to mix that in with the Pride Weekend that we’re doing as a league, it’s good that we have that awareness,” Pacha said.
“When it’s on TV, maybe non-hockey fans or non-sports fans will see what we’re doing with the weekend. It would be selfish to say that it’s just the Stars that are doing it, because it’s the whole league, but we wanted to be one of those teams that are proactive and try to have a great night and get some great exposure.
“It’s important to do things like this in 2020. I think hockey is a sport that has been working on it for the last few years. I think Cardiff installed the first You Can Play campaign in the UK and Manchester last year hosted a Pride night, so the fact that the league is taking this on board now shows how much it has progressed.
“It’s interesting that it was well received in Scotland too. I was happy by the response from the people, our fans, the media and everybody. Everybody is on board with this. In Dundee Pride made a big difference two years ago, it’s more visible.
“Maybe it was my naivety, I don’t think I was really expecting anything but I was surprised by the positivity around it, which is good. It’s important that if people play a sport, if people want to do things, it doesn’t matter. I want it to get to a stage where it doesn’t matter. To be honest, I don’t care. I think a lot of people participating in Pride want it to get to that feeling where sport is for everybody, where it’s a case of ‘who cares’. That’s where I think the awareness part comes in, so that we can eventually get to that.”
While the Stars have been involved in the local Pride movement over the last couple of years, that relationship is one that the Clan are looking to develop.
It may not seem like a natural partnership – what could stand out to many non-hockey fans is the aggression and fighting that appears to be at odds with the welcoming mantra of the Pride community.
That perception has possibly been backed up by a lack of openly high-profile LGBT+ players in the game, but it is initiatives like Pride Weekend that could start to change things.
“For me, it’s great for us to be able to reach out to Pride Glasgow,” Mclaughlin explained.
“Obviously there are people within our fanbase and our volunteer group that work with Pride Glasgow anyway, but I think they’ve been saying to their colleagues that they need to get down to this. It’s such an all-inclusive atmosphere, it’s competitive, it’s exciting.
“From a selfish point of view, it’s good to spread the word that this is a good environment to come and watch sport. We have a 51% female fanbase, and that used to be the marker that stood out as being unusual. You’ve got couples coming, elderly couples and then young groups of friends. We’re hoping that word will spread with this type of event as well, and get that message out of acceptance and the fact that tolerance isn’t an option anymore, it’s just the way things should be. Acceptance is for everyone, and I think that’s what the Pride movement seems to be increasingly about.
“It shouldn’t be that big news. It shouldn’t be such a surprise that all the teams have got together, because there’s nothing controversial about it. For us it has been a brilliant thing to bring everyone together, it has been a no-brainer. Some teams pay for their own arenas, some teams own their own arenas, some teams are very local and some teams are cities. They’ve all got different directions, but to have this message is a bit of a no-brainer. Hockey is for everyone.
“Do I know of people who keep their sexuality quiet that are professional sportspeople? Yes is the sad truth. Hopefully things like this, seeing the wide acceptance out there, will make a difference.
“It’s a hard one for me to comment on, it’s the individual that has to make that decision. Do I hope that things like this will make a difference? Yes, I really do. If anything will, surely a league-wide message will make things easier for people to live the lives that they want to. It’s quite a big event, for all the teams to physically change the uniforms that they’re wearing isn’t something we’ve ever done before. Hopefully it will make a difference.”
One thing that certainly does not seem to be an issue is support from those within the sport. Pacha has spent seven years in the British game, spending two seasons at Hull, another two at Manchester and is now in his third campaign with the Stars.
He has seen nothing but strong team spirits at each of those franchises, and he expects similar levels of support for people that might come out at any level – all the way up to the National Hockey League.
“I’m one of those guys that I don’t think is nosey about my players, but I don’t think in hockey in general there has been many out,” Pacha added.
“I can only speak for certain groups, and for our group it wouldn’t be an issue.
“Hockey is maybe a different sport, and this is not to be critical of other sports, but I think hockey has been active in this movement for a few years.
“If it ever comes to a day in the National Hockey League, where you would have more exposure, I think it would be widely accepted and even seen as a sign of courage. I think hockey is really advanced, and it’s only my opinion but I think it would be accepted.
“In our dressing room, I know there wouldn’t be an issue because everyone is treated equally whether that’s to do with race or sexual orientation.”
That someone may feel comfortable enough to come out in the Elite Ice Hockey League is part of the idea behind a Pride Weekend happening in the first place, but it is also about encouraging active participation across sport in general.
From McLaughlin’s point of view with the Clan, it would be fantastic if other sports adopted similar ideas to promote LGBT+ inclusion in sport. But there is also a hope that it might just bring more eyes to British ice hockey, as for the most part it is not a sport that receives all that much mainstream media attention.
“Ice hockey doesn’t get the coverage we think it deserves, you don’t even see the NHL covered on Sky Sports, even though the NFL gets a lot of coverage,” McLaughlin reasoned.
“For us, we’re looking for increased coverage. I don’t think people quite realise what a welcoming sport it is. I know elderly couples that come together to games, I know groups of young friends that come as a Friday night out. I think we’re quite a hidden sport sometimes, but things like Pride Weekend, I hope it does have a knock-on effect.
“I hope people say to each other ‘have you heard about this? That’s really interesting, why haven’t we done that before’ and have a wee look and ask themselves some interesting questions.
“We just want people to take the opportunity to come to a hockey game. One of the nice things we’ve seen as well is that the hockey for everyone message is so strong. It’s one of those things where you can bring anyone to it, so I do recommend it if anyone is thinking about something they want to experience with their friends and family, and they maybe haven’t felt all that welcome in other sports – hopefully that will change, but for now hockey is a great place to see if you can find a home.”