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How the Avalanche fought back against homophobia this Pride month

Colorado have learned from past mistakes to become an example other NHL teams should follow.

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Anaheim Ducks v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

Content note: This post discusses homophobia and particularly the use of homophobic slurs in hockey. I have intentionally not repeated the slurs in this post, however, I have linked to articles that do, and have included tweets that directly address homophobia.

The last month has seen the Colorado Avalanche dedicating its focus to a run for the Stanley Cup, one which ultimately resulted in success last weekend. However, it’s not all the organization has been doing. While the attention of the players was understandably on the games they had to play; the organization at large spent a significant amount of time showing their support for something else. Pride month.

Hockey isn’t always for everyone

Hockey has a complicated relationship with Pride. More accurately, it has a complicated relationship with LGBTQ+ people, whether they are players, coaches, or fans. Former players report experiencing homophobic abuse in locker rooms and on the ice, and the casual use of slurs has been noted as a troubling feature of hockey culture. It starts with coaches and parents shouting these slurs, normalizing their use around young children who then go on to use them as players. Gay hockey players point to the use of casually homophobic language, such as saying “that’s so gay” to refer to something negative, as a barrier that prevents them from coming out.

Even amongst straight hockey players, there is a fear of being viewed as gay, or of not conforming to the image that has been constructed of what a hockey player should be. Although some NHL players use Pride tape on their sticks or equipment and have spoken out against homophobia, others have implied that doing so may result in increased chirping on the ice, including from their own teammates.

Creating change

Organizations like You Can Play aim to change this. Their goal is to make hockey and other sports more welcoming and inclusive, ensuring that anyone can play, regardless of their sexuality or gender identity. Their work is important, but I have often felt that it lacks a more radical approach to advocacy that may be needed to truly change the culture of this sport. From the sidelines it can feel a little watered down, focussing on one-off events and celebrations as opposed to shining a light on the deeper, less palatable experiences of LGBTQ+ athletes and fans.

Individual players have also worked to change hockey culture. Luke Prokop came out as gay in July of 2021. He is the first-ever player under contract with an NHL club to come out as gay. In a sport where thousands of people have played at the NHL level over the years, nobody, even a former player, has come out before him. It’s unlikely that all of these players were straight. The more realistic view is that they did not wish to attract media attention or didn’t feel safe coming out. We’ll never know how many gay hockey players there are. It can’t be assumed that the percentage of gay players within the NHL and other professional leagues is the same as within the general population, as gay men may choose to leave the sport when they are younger due to the unwelcoming environment. Luke has used his own story to educate those from outside of the LGBTQ+ community and to offer support to those who may not feel like they can be open about who they are in hockey.

Perhaps as a result of the work done by You Can Play, or because of pressure from some fans, NHL clubs have worked to change their image and the perception of hockey as a homophobic sport. Pride nights are becoming a fairly standard feature of the NHL calendar. The Colorado Avalanche held theirs in March, and fans on Twitter described it as “amazing,” thanking the organization for their support.

Where Pride nights fail

Despite these advancements, there is still a lot of work to do. Pride nights have been described as performative, taking money in the name of a community that professional sports leagues ignore for the rest of the year. Brock McGillis, a former OHL and UHL goaltender who is openly gay, explains that teams need to be educated about issues like homophobia in sport, rather than treating Pride night as a box-ticking exercise. These nights can be ineffectual as a means of creating a deeper cultural change within the sport if they only occur as a one-off event.

There is very little research examining the long-term impact of Pride nights and other diversity-themed events in sports. A collaborative study conducted by Monash University Australia and Toronto’s Ryerson University found that players who participate in Pride events use homophobic language less than those players who do not participate. Researchers interviewed players from Australia’s elite ice hockey league, so it cannot be guaranteed that the results are a reflection of the culture within the NHL. 38% of players on teams that hosted Pride events reported using homophobic language at least once during a two-week period, compared with 61% of players on teams that did not host a Pride game.

While the results indicate that Pride games may have a positive impact on the way players behave, homophobic language is still used by over a third of the players who participate in these events. Self-reported data can also be unreliable, as players may not remember or even be aware of using the language.

When Andrew Shaw shouted a homophobic slur at an on-ice official in 2016, it drew national attention and resulted in him receiving a suspension. He explained that although he knew the literal meaning of the slur he had used, he’d never even considered how it might be viewed as an attack on gay people. It was so normalized, so much a part of the culture he’d grown up in. To him, it was a casual insult used in the locker room and on the ice. Shaw made an apology that seemed extremely genuine, however, his story demonstrates that the use of homophobic slurs is something players may not even be aware of. When asked to recall times when they’ve used homophobic language, would they be able to? Would they be aware of the lasting impact of their words?

Growth of the Avalanche

The Avalanche have been called out in the past for their handling of Pride events. Their 2020 Pride night promotion was criticized for its focus on straight allies, rather than LGBTQ+ people. They failed to mention LGBTQ+ fans at all and were vague and avoided answering questions in the statement they released when questioned about their marketing around the event. Whether intentionally or not, it seems the Avalanche have worked to change their approach to not only Pride nights, but the way they talk about LGBTQ+ people and activism. This year they made sure to speak directly about gay rights at their Pride night, and shared messages of support from some team members on their social media.

This June, they continued to champion LGBTQ+ rights, being even louder in their support. While Colorado wasn’t the only team to post about Pride month on social media, the approach they took was quite different from many clubs. They knew that people would respond negatively to their posts. Instead of ignoring the negativity, they responded to it. They aren’t the first to call out homophobic language on social media. When Boston Bruins winger Brad Marchand was targeted with a homophobic slur he made sure to point out how harmful the language was.

However, it may be the first time an NHL team has committed so thoroughly to educating those who respond with negativity to their Pride-themed posts.

“People’s lives are already mixed with sports so that’s not an option,” they pointed out after receiving a comment from someone who expressed a desire to separate their activism from sports. While this reply might seem fairly mild, they were persistent in their support for LGBTQ+ people throughout the month and would respond more strongly where necessary.

They also made a conscious effort to commission and promote art by LGBTQ+ artists, as well as raise awareness of local organizations that deserved attention during Pride month. In the span of two years, they evolved from a team that centered on allies to one that loudly challenged discrimination and supported LGBTQ+ creators.

I’m not sure their advocacy last month was perfect, mostly because I’m not sure anyone can be. For most of us, it is something we work at every single day, learning and growing when we make mistakes. I believe this is what they have done and will continue to do, especially as they have committed to ensuring their actions continue to reflect what they talked about during Pride month.

While these actions might seem a bit vague, rather than being concrete steps, they demonstrate an awareness that supporting Pride goes beyond tweeting for a month or hosting an event. It is a lengthy, dedicated push to changing a culture that has viewed LGBTQ+ people as lesser for a long time. Other NHL teams could learn a lot from their approach. This isn’t to say that no other club is doing this work but rarely do I see teams challenge homophobic comments in such a public way.

The Avalanche can’t change hockey culture on their own. But they do play a part in creating the kind of change that is needed. By going beyond a single event to highlight local organizations that support LGBTQ+ people, and arguably more importantly responding to negative comments they receive, they are demonstrating that their commitment to being part of this cultural shift is genuine. It’s not enough to host an event or to say that you think homophobia is bad. You must challenge it when you see it, especially if you are afforded the kind of protection a name as the Colorado Avalanche gives you.