A completely absurd scenario unfolded in the NHL yesterday. Before I describe it, it’s worth recapping the sequence of events that led to it. So:
- Last January, a Flyers player refused to wear the team’s pregame Pride jersey, citing his Russian Orthodox religious beliefs.
- That led to some NHL teams deciding to scrap their pregame Pride jerseys, leading to a league-wide controversy.
- The NHL, clearly wanting the issue to just go away, “solved” the problem in by banning all pregame promotional theme jerseys — Pride, military, St. Paddy’s Day, Native American, you name it. Teams could still run promotions based on those themes, and could even produce and sell themed jerseys, but the jerseys could not be worn on the ice during pregame activites. (NHL teams have never worn these themed jerseys during actual games.)
- The league then said it was banning the use of rainbow-patterned Pride stick tape — even during practices.
- After several players and teams said they would defy the Pride tape ban, the league said, “Never mind” and rescinded the ban on the tape.
It was against this backdrop that the Minnesota Wild planned their Native American Heritage Night promotion for last night. In keeping with the new rules, the team planned to auction off a bunch of player-autographed Native-themed jerseys, but the jerseys would not be worn on the ice.
In addition, the team planned to auction off a Native-themed mask made for goalie Marc-André Fleury, whose wife is Native Canadian. Here’s a video clip showing the mask’s designer, Cole Redhorse Taylor, describing the approach she took with the design:
La Fleur but make it
— Minnesota Wild (@mnwild) November 24, 2023
The mask was featured in some of the team’s advance promotion for the event:
Yesterday afternoon, reports began circulating that Fleury wanted to wear the mask during the team’s pregame skate but was being told by the league not to do so. Fleury’s agent, Allan Walsh, said Fleury was willing to pay whatever fine the league levied on him but that the league was also threatening the Wild “with an additional significant fine.”
As it turned out, Fleury wore the mask anyway:
Marc-Andre Fleury is wearing his Native American Heritage mask in warmups. pic.twitter.com/WPSITbHz5U
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 25, 2023
NEWS: Noah Ennis, who made Marc-Andre Fleury’s Native American Heritage mask, said the Wild were told a month ago by NHL that Fleury “couldn’t wear it in the game, but that he could probably wear it in warmups.”
Wild asked the NHL this week and “it was a firm no on all of that.”
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) November 25, 2023
The kicker is that Fleury didn’t even play last night, so there was no issue about him wearing the mask in the game. It was strictly a pregame thing.
This is all so asinine. The NHL has long been in favor of custom goalie mask designs — it’s one of the few corners of the uni-verse where personal expression is not just permitted but encouraged. So why get uptight about Fleury’s mask, especially when his wife is Native? What if an Irish-American goalie had a shamrock as part of his mask design, or if an American goalie just had an American flag decal on his mask’s backplate — would those now be off-limits as well?
Also: Doesn’t Chicago’s entire team brand supposedly honor and support Native Americans? I mean, that’s not how I view it, but that’s the party line from the team and league, right? So if a whole team supposedly honoring Native Americans is okay, why would one goalie’s pregame mask be a problem?
Let’s be clear: This whole mess is due to Gary Bettman being too cowardly and lazy to address the Pride issue head-on when it arose last winter. Instead, he took an overly broad “one size fits all” approach that pleased no one, and now teams and players are openly defying his authority and essentially calling his bluff — first with the Pride tape and now with Fleury’s mask.
I think it’s time for Bettman to have a cage match against Rob Manfred. They could both wear singlets plastered with crypto and casino ads, and the loser would have to take a job in a Fanatics sweatshop. (Also the winner.)