Tonight, the New Jersey Devils will host their first ever Pride Night as they play the Montreal Canadiens. It was originally scheduled to be earlier in the year, but it’s now here. While heritage nights are not new to the organization, as far as I know this is the first that the Devils are doing that’s specifically for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning communities. I’m glad the Devils are having such a night as it expands their outreach and shows, at a minimum, that the organization cares. And my quick reading of what the team has planned shows it has a little more to it than other heritage nights. No, putting rainbow tape on a stick doesn’t make a shot faster, a pass more precise, or magically tell some players how to not screen their goalie (oh, how I wish it could). But it shows a message of support to those communities - and that’s really the point. (And if you’d like to learn more about that, then head onto Outsports, run by Jim Buzinski and Cyd Ziegler, who gave me the OK to use the picture from this post you see in the headline.)
You may have noticed that other teams have done or will do such nights and have had other such outreach initiatives in this past month. It’s all part of a larger league initiative: Hockey is for Everyone. How into this is the league? Even the Las Vegas Golden Knights, who has yet to play a game or sign a player, are on board and have events planned. So I’m really happy to see this.
I can’t help but think this is the logical step from the You Can Play Project. I was and continue to be happy that You Can Play has been such a success. Sure, the initial endorsement by Hockey Guy and (I think) NHL Board of Governor member, Brian Burke, helped. But it’s grown across multiple sports and organizations at the amateur, youth, collegiate, and professional levels. It’s an important project and I absolutely love its message. It speaks to egalitarianism that sport should have. The game itself does not care where you come from, what you believe, who you love. It only asks: can you play. And if you can play, then you can play. It’s fantastic.
I think Hockey is for Everyone is also fantastic for the same reasoning. Reality has shown that it is. Arenas have code of conduct policies, they do not discriminate among who goes through the turnstiles. The racial and ethnic diversity of the NHL continues to increase. Broadcasts are available, albeit that depends on where you are at. If you want to play the game, yes, you’ll need a rink and equipment and to learn how to skate and more, but those are all available. Even if you just want to blog or Tweet or write on Facebook or visit message boards and type up loads of words about hockey games, then the Internet awaits your involvement. The perception is that hockey isn’t for everyone for a myriad of reasons. The perception depends on where you are, but common ones I’ve heard over the years New Jersey include (but are not limited to): this is a foreign sport, this is not a sport for minorities, this is not a sport for the South, this is not a sport for warm-weather areas, this is not a sport for individuals, etc.. While you and I can come up with facts and/or counter-examples to prove each as demonstrably false, these persist in some way or form. Unfortunately, perception can be and often is more persuasive than reality. So it is imperative that the NHL is taking this initiative if only to combat the perceptions and welcome more to the game of hockey, if not the NHL game itself.
However, I think the concept of Hockey is for Everyone needs to be embraced by the fans to make it work. It needs more than all 31 NHL teams. It needs me. It needs you.
Take a step back and consider how most people are exposed to hockey. It is largely through games, whether its playing them or following your favorite team. The organizations can do plenty to encourage people to be welcoming and inclusive and so forth, but that’s largely up to the people themselves to actually provide that environment. All 31 NHL franchises can support the initiative, release PSAs, make public statements, and more. It can and does encourage people who may not consider attending to actually attend. But if/when they hear slurs or something hateful against what they look like or who they love or what they believe by fan(s) around them, then what are they to think? That the team is welcoming but the fans aren’t? That they just have to deal with other fans? Why should they bother attending games if it’s going to involve this kind of junk they may or may not have to deal with already?
Consider another situation. Say someone gets on social media and wants to join in discussing hockey. In the process, someone else who doesn’t like what they have to say tells them is told that they’re not a real fan for X, Y, and Z reasons - even if those reasons have nothing to do with hockey. What is that first person supposed to think? Do you think they’ll want to keep on conversing about the greatest game in the world? I don’t think so - and I wouldn’t blame them.
Also consider someone trying to learn to play the game. I understand trash talk and banter happens. That’s fine. But there are lines that get crossed and it only takes one word or an insult or a bully to turn people away from the game (or anything else). As great and popular the You Can Play project is and how much I want the Hockey is f
The point is that as much good as these initiatives by teams, leagues, players, and others do to make the sport welcoming to all kinds of people, it can all be easily ruined if we, the fans, are not welcoming. Personal experiences at games, in discussions, at pick-up hockey, and so forth can be just as memorable as witnessing a big win, a massive hit, a sweet goal, or a championship. That’s what we impact. We are, in effect, the hockey community. Therefore, we need to embrace the concept that if you can play, then you can play; and that hockey is for everyone. Otherwise, it may not work at all despite the best effort of the organizations that support it. And that hurts hockey as a whole.
So what can we do to support these initiatives? Allow me to offer my suggestion: Don’t be silent; stand up when you think something isn’t right. I’m a season ticket holder to the Devils, Red Bulls, and Rutgers Scarlet Knights football. For the most part, people know how to behave. If someone hurls a slur or epithet at a game and it’s someone nearby, I say something about it. Not a speech. Not a spiel to have the person “see the light of their ways.” Just the message saying that isn’t right. If said firmly and without rudeness, then it works. I know it because I’ve done it before. And it’s worked. The person may not suddenly decide to not be a bigot, but they at least understand to keep it in their pocket. No, I’m not sitting at games monitoring language and I’m not saying that you need to go onto a kind of Spanish Inquisition. But if you hear something, you can say something - and that encourages a better environment.
If you are by someone who may not know what is going on or they’re clearly brand new to the game or the part of the arena, then offer some help in a friendly way. I know I have a tendency to over-explain - just look at this blog - but even a simple heads up works. And if the person(s) say, tell me more, then tell them more. It’s all a part of being friendly.
In my case, social media is a part of what I do and how this site, for better or worse, is represented. So I try my best to behave even when arguing a point. The Internet is great for verbal communication but it’s awful at all of the non-verbal communication that makes up a lot of it. So your words matter. No, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. And I’m not going to tell you I’m perfect. But I do make a point of it to keep the arguments to be about the person, avoid being baited into personal attacks, and think about what you type before hitting “Send” or “Tweet” or “Post.”
Feel free to encourage people to check out a game or go to a game or watch a game. I think a lot of the reason why hockey has issues with popularity is that there isn’t enough grassroots evangelism. Even on social media, pointing out how great hockey is gets responded with a snarky “#PleaseLikeMySport.” I say ignore them. For hockey to be for everyone, then everyone should be told about hockey. Don’t assume that someone wouldn’t be into hockey or into sports in general. A simple, “How are you?” or “How was your weekend?” or “What did you do last week?” or “What plans do you have?” is an opening to talk about sport or hockey. Again, it doesn’t have to be a speech or a monologue about the greatness of hockey. Just bringing it up can open a conversation. Don’t limit those conversations because the person isn’t from a country where ice hockey isn’t popular or if you don’t know if they would be into sports or if the person does a certain thing. Bring it up! Be the invitation to the sport we all love called hockey. That will further cement that hockey is for everyone.
As a last point, we need to take this all of the way. Notice that I’ve been particularly generic throughout most of this post. That’s on purpose. Yes, this absolutely does apply with bringing marginalized people to the game. That’s why these initiatives were created and we should keep that in mind. But I think that’s too narrow and we can do even better. We really need to understand that everyone means everyone. It doesn’t do me, you, or the game any good to promote inclusiveness in the game and then not fully practice it. We can’t say we want hockey arenas to be welcoming but then call people who sit in the lower bowl and/or who get compensated tickets not real fans. We can’t say we support the You Can Play Project, then, say, call a gay man a sellout because they don’t share the politics you’d expect him to have. (Aside: As this this isn’t a political post, this and the preceding sentence was the only one involving politics. Do note that.) We can’t say we’re fighting fascism and then intimidate anyone who doesn’t wear the right jersey or support the right team. We can’t say we support that hockey should be and is for everyone and then pick on people for who they are - marginalized or otherwise. This isn’t a hockey game where succeeding is at the expense of the other team. This isn’t something where we need to declare a demographic as an “other” and denigrate them while championing other groups. This doesn’t mean that promoting acceptance means you get to be non-accepting of others for other reasons. That doesn’t mean you get to try to ruin someone’s career or their lives for making a mistake. Sure, you may feel that you have to pick on the “bros,” or believe that the “true fans” are in the upper sections, or that certain people won’t take to ice hockey. That all undercuts the cause.
I can only control what I can control: what I do, what I say what I type, and what I post. I can promise you that I will try to be understanding and I will make a point of it to keep this site as welcoming as possible for all Devils fans. All of the Devils fans. Every one of the Devils fans. (It’s why there are so many rules here.) I can only ask that my fellow hockey bloggers, writers, and fans - we are all fans, right? - to follow and support the initiatives in their actions, in the arenas, at the rinks, in the locker rooms, on public transportation, on blogs, on social media, on message boards, and anywhere where hockey is the focus. Hockey can be for everyone. Hockey should be for everyone. Together, we can work to say that hockey is for everyone just as the NHL franchises are doing so. As fans, we can make it happen - and I believe we must to make it happen. Tonight is a good night as any to begin.