The NHL Stares Down Bigotry—and Blinks

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James Reimer of the San Jose Sharks skates to the goal after a time out on November 3, 2022, in San Jose, Calif. (Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

James Reimer’s refusal to wear a Pride jersey during warm-ups of a game was not religious. It was political.

Hockey is a sport that demands team fealty. To resort to a cliché, you play for the name on the front of the uniform, not the back.

That’s what makes the recent actions of James Reimer all the more jarring. On March 18, the San Jose Sharks goalie refused to wear a pregame warm-up jersey that bears a Pride crest and a patch reading “Love Wins” in support of the LGBTQ community as part of the team’s “Pride Night” festivities.

But Reimer, and this is going to sound extremely familiar, cited Christianity as his reason for not wearing the jersey. Before I quote his reasoning in full, we need to be clear about something: Using Christianity as an excuse for bigotry is a typical fraudulent dodge by right-wing political extremists, but many Christians, many pastors, and many churches have been on the front lines of the LGBTQ movement for as long as there has been an LGBTQ movement. Considering the support Reimer has received from the right-wing commentariat, this is nothing more than a political stunt. The people Reimer is courting aren’t Christian leaders issuing benign statements of support. They’re talking heads intent on abolishing not only trans rights but also repealing settled laws like that regarding same-sex marriage. They want to abolish the very idea of LGBTQ equality, no matter how many families are violently disrupted in the process. It’s impossible to divorce Reimer’s actions from this broader political context.

And Reimer knows he has powerful allies. Only someone with utter confidence in their impunity would commit to words what Reimer did in a prewritten statement:

“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.

“I have no hate in my heart for anyone, and I have always strived to treat everyone that I encounter with respect and kindness.

“In this specific instance, I am choosing not to endorse something that is counter to my personal convictions which are based on the bible, the highest authority in my life.

“I strongly believe that every person has value and worth, and the LGBTQIA+ community, like all others, should be welcomed in all aspects of the game of hockey.”

First, I double dare Reimer to tell us what LGBTQIA+ stands for. If he could, it’d be an Easter miracle. Second, you cannot say that you “strive to treat everyone with kindness” or that everyone “should be welcomed in all aspects of the game of hockey” while also making it clear that you believe there are some people who just shouldn’t be welcome.

According to Evan F. Moore, coauthor of the seminal book Game Misconduct: Hockey’s Toxic Culture and How to Fix It, the NHL has struggled with this for a long time. He told me: “The NHL published their first-ever diversity and inclusion report from last fall. It outlined what many of us in hockey spaces already knew: The sport needs to expand its reach outside of straight white males…. But for some players like James Reimer, and Ivan Provorov, [a defenseman for the Philadelphia Flyers] before him, supporting LGBTQIA+ folks by making them welcome at games is a bridge too far. Notice how the sport historically tempers individuality but a few players are making things about themselves.”

Moore then raises a trenchant point. “What would happen if a NHLer—particularly a Black player—cited religious/personal beliefs when taking a pass on first responders/military appreciation night? The energy would be much different; the league’s traditional fanbase wouldn’t dare to wax poetic regarding ‘fascism.’”

I would love to see someone pose that question to Sharks management—which, while making a gesture toward “inclusivity,” also supported Reimer, saying, “As we promote these standards, we also acknowledge and accept the rights of individuals to express themselves, including how or whether they choose to express their beliefs, regardless of the cause or topic.” All this belief in individuality would change if the anthem played and a player’s knee hit the ice. It’s the same as when corporations trot out branded, business-friendly efforts at inclusivity: no commitment, only dollars and cents. (Mercedes-Benz, for example, is no longer saying that Black Lives Matter.)

Reimer, 35 this season, will be a free agent when the season ends. And he’s already setting himself up as a political martyr if he doesn’t get signed. “Here I am standing up for what I believe in,” he said. “I’m sure there’s people in management or ownership that won’t look favorably on this. At the same time, I hope that there’s another handful of people in management or ownership that respect me for standing up for what I believe in and that’s a big part of who I am.”

In 34 games started this season—for a last-place team—he is 10-17-7. If Reimer’s not on a team next year, it won’t be his politics keeping him off the ice.

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