National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman says teams will no longer don specialty warmup sweaters in celebration of the LGBT community or other causes after some players refused on religious grounds to wear them last season.
"It's become a distraction," Bettman said in an interview with Sportsnet after an NHL board of governors meeting in New York last week.
NHL teams are still permitted to hold specialty nights like Pride Night, Black History Night, and Military Appreciation Night and can also create specialty jerseys for the benefit of various charities.
"Our clubs, in some form or another, host nights in honor of various groups or causes. We rather them continue to get the appropriate attention that they deserve and not be a distraction," Bettman said.
While the on-ice sweaters will no longer display specialty designs, teams can still create and sell specialty jerseys for charity purposes. Bettman clarified, "Players who choose to model them can do that. It's really just the question of what's on the ice."
The board of governors agreed with Bettman's viewpoint, marking a significant shift in NHL policy.
In January, Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov, recently traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets, refused to wear a pride night-themed warmup sweater, citing his Russian Orthodox religious beliefs. This stance was later echoed by San Jose Sharks goaltender James Reimer and brothers Eric and Marc Staal of the Florida Panthers.
Reimer, 35, did not play in the March 18 game against the New York Islanders after the team released a statement on his behalf. He said that while he has "no hate in my heart for anyone," he would not "endorse something that is counter to my personal convictions, which are based on the Bible, the highest authority in my life."
Reimer explained: "For all 13 years of my NHL career, I have been a Christian, not just in title but in how I choose to live my life daily. I have a personal faith in Jesus Christ who died on the cross for my sins and, in response, asks me to love everyone and follow Him."
Reimer also believes "the [LGBT] community, like all others, should be welcomed in all aspects of the game of hockey."
Russian players Ilya Lyubushkin, Denis Gurianov and Andrei Kuzmenko also declined to participate in their respective teams' pride night warmups, with Lyubushkin citing a Kremlin law.
In March, the Chicago Blackhawks did not don their pride-themed warmup sweaters, reportedly due to security concerns over the Russian law restricting the promotion of LGBT rights. The Minnesota Wild and the New York Rangers also retracted their decisions to wear special sweaters for their respective pride nights.
"In the final analysis, all of the efforts and emphasis on the importance of these various causes have been undermined by the distraction in terms of which teams, which players," Bettman said. "This way, we're keeping the focus on the game, and on these specialty nights, we're going to be focused on the cause."
In July 2021, Nashville Predators defenseman Luke Prokop became the first NHL player under contract to come out as gay.
Prokop, who the Predators selected in the third round of the 2020 NHL Draft, made the announcement in an official NHL statement, saying, "Today I am proud to publicly tell everyone that I am gay."
"It has been quite the journey to get to this point in my life, but I could not be happier with my decision to come out," he said. "From a young age I have dreamed of being an NHL player, and I believe that living my authentic life will allow me to bring my whole self to the rink and improve my chances of fulfilling my dreams."
At that time, Bettman supported the announcement, saying: "People, unless they can be their authentic true selves, can't be the best they can be. … Anybody who is connected to the NHL, whether it's front office, whether it's coaching and player development, whether it's players, we want everybody to know that whoever you are, you have a place in our family."