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The NHL in the penalty box

Some stories are inspirational, some are heartbreaking, and the story of Brendan Burke is both. In 2007, this son of one of the most celebrated managers in hockey was a goalie for his college team but risked it all when he came out as gay. Brendan’s brother Patrick told ESPN, “I don't think it's fair the face of homosexuality in hockey should be a 20-year-old college kid, but Brendan is more than willing to be the guy, which awes me.” Over the next three years, Brendan began to change the hockey world for the better.

Brendan Burke died in a car accident in 2010. His devastated family created the You Can Play Project to continue his mission of “a true sense of belonging” for everyone who loves hockey. In the years since, more teams held Pride Nights to welcome queer fans and in 2021, Luke Prokop came out as the first openly gay NHL prospect. Brendan’s dream of hockey acceptance was coming to pass but so was a backlash.

“Hockey is for everyone,” boasts the NHL above a photo of a hockey blade wrapped in rainbow tape
Another sad example of inclusion used in marketing but not in practice

While most NHL players were enthusiastic (or at least willing) to wear Pride warm-up jerseys in support of queer fans, a few refused, citing Russian anti-gay laws or their Christian faith. Some teams cancelled Pride nights altogether, irritating Brian Burke as he explained that dressing hockey sticks in rainbow tape is not a political statement: “This fragmentation is dangerous…We want to say everyone is welcome here.” Edmonton Oilers player Zach Hyman said, “To show that we care and that we're ready and willing to include them in our game and in our sport is incredibly important to me,” while the New York Rangers insisted on their players’ right to not participate: “We support everyone’s individual right to respectfully express their beliefs.”

These are exactly the kind of workplace diversity and inclusion conversations that Breakfast Culture handles, navigating conflicts between competing beliefs and promoting inclusion and mutual respect. Many organizations have faced a backlash to their diversity and inclusion efforts but those who resisted the pressure to abandon the people they support came out ahead by adhering to our “three bees” of Woke Marketing: being authentic, being prepared, and being present.

Unfortunately, the National Hockey League is none of those. Faced with these conflicts, they’ve now announced a ban on any show of support for any group, be it gay people, cancer patients or military veterans. Their marketing slogan, “Hockey is for everyone,” has been revealed as inauthentic, once again reminding us of James Baldwin famously saying, “I can't believe what you say because I see what you do.” Several top players said they felt muzzled by the NHL (in the video below):

Again, Brian Burke voiced his frustration in a public statement and tweeting, “This decision has stripped clubs of a powerful community outreach tool and removed meaningful support for Special Initiatives, all to protect a select few who do not want to answer any questions about their choices. I hope the NHL reconsiders in order to remain a leader in DEI.” All this is especially necessary for a sport that is still 93% white. While they talk about not “distracting” with political issues, they’ve censored their own players and teams, potentially undoing years of progress on creating a sense of belonging in the sport. It’s sad, shameful, and a slap in the face to Brian Burke, still working to give young hockey players and fans the life his son never had.

Breakfast Culture's approach improves workplace cultures and drives new sources of revenue. Schedule a talk on Calendly with Jefferson Darrell today to learn more:

Let's Break Some Eggs! – scott dagostino, JEDI Consultant, Breakfast Culture™ Inc.

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