It is yelling at the rain to lament that commissioners in any league aren’t stewards of the sport anymore. Look at Roger Goodell’s face and wonder if you’d trust that man to steer a fucking tricycle. But there comes a point where the commissioner is the only one who can steer a league out of a skid and away from a ditch. There has to be something where a commish has to say to his 30-32 bosses, “We have to do this and not this.”
But Gary Bettman is not that man. He doesn’t have to be, as the NHL rebounds from the pandemic with more record revenues while also managing to keep the salary cap flat. To him and his bosses, that’s job done.
The story yesterday isn’t much different than it’s been for weeks, ever since Ivan Provorov refused to wear the Flyers Pride jerseys. The latest to reveal themselves as cowards and liars were the Chicago Blackhawks. Admittedly, this one hits closer to home than the rest because of my history and location.
However, if ever there was a hockey team that needed to appear to be changing its ways and being transparent and open and welcoming, it’s this fucking team. To review, we’re barely a year removed from their owner, Rocky Wirtz, shouting down two reporters who had the gall to ask about what the team had done to prevent its next Kyle Beach scandal, which was only a few months before. A scandal that sickened and shocked the entire hockey world, and essentially poisoned the team to fans and observers alike for years to come. An organization that still clings to a logo — a logo they must change — for reasons they can’t clearly state other than “history.” An organization that still has a statue of Bobby Hull outside of its arena. Down a few levels, an organization that has been icing a garbage team for five years now and looks set to be icing a garbage one for a few years more. It has basically micturated on its fanbase for years on end.
So why not look like uncaring bigots on top of it?
Oh sure, the Hawks hid behind nebulous “threats” to Russian players due to that country’s new laws regarding LGBTQ+ “propaganda.” The way around that for the Hawks, or any team using that fig leaf to get out of “disrupting the room” (we’ll circle back to this), is simply to send those players home for the night. Especially for the Hawks, who are actively not trying to win games. So what the fuck do they care if they’re undermanned for a night? No statements, no comments, and no interviews. Make those who took the ice in the Pride jerseys the focus.
The Hawks aren’t the first to use the security concerns for their Russian players as an excuse to eschew their Pride night jerseys. That was the story the Wild were telling, which came with some validity when combined with the trouble that Kirill Kaprizov had over the summer trying to get back to the States from Russia. But there are other Russian players wearing them:
Evgeni Malkin wore one. Is he not an icon back in Russia?
Even if that were a thing, wouldn’t wearing jerseys supporting the US military go against the grain of Russia’s policies?
So what’s the truth here? What threat are Russian players actually facing? It could be there, and yet there’s clear evidence that there’s not. This is something being parroted by teams and hockey media alike without anyone really knowing what they’re actually facing.
Whatever the truth is, the Hawks’ actions make their president Danny Wirtz a liar. It puts Bettman in a light, once again, where it’s clear he has no idea what to do about anything that matters. When Provorov refused to wear the Pride jersey, it was about personal choice. When players on teams want to wear it but the team opts out, it’s about what’s good in the room. Which is it? The Hawks had a few players who expressed their excitement about being an ally and forwarding the cause of making hockey a more welcoming sport. And then they couldn’t. Why is their choice the one that can be shat upon?
If Bettman had a clue or a spine, he would have nipped this in the bud after Provorov. Told every team that any player that refuses to wear the Pride jerseys will be sent home without comment and the rest of the team will carry on. The message of those jerseys is more important than that night’s result or one or two players’ bigoted beliefs. Harmony in a dressing room should not be preserved over this. Bettman could have done that. He didn’t, and what he got was this putrid mess. A putrid mess that will define this season now. A noted BarfStool podcaster festers on the national broadcast of the league, further proving what the NHL really thinks about inclusion, and Bettman just watches. Again, when anything that truly matters comes up, Bettman has no answer.
Once again, hockey runs for the fake sanctuary of “team” and “room.” Its adherence to those things is why it barely has any personalities that it could market to new fans. It’s why traditions that are abhorrent continue. It’s why it is falling behind (soccer is the fourth sport now). But even being the fifth sport still makes billions, which seems to be more than enough for Bettman and his cronies. And it doesn’t matter who they make feel like they have no place in hockey as long as they get it.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate.