Wednesday, April 12, 2023

They Dropped the Puck This Time...

 ... and not to start the game.

2010 was a good year for me. It started when my wife and I had the opportunity to visit London for the first time. Then halfway through the year, the unthinkable happened. My favorite sports team in the world, the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. It was not the first time in my life they won the Cup, they won it when I was two years old, a little before I started caring about hockey and just about anything else. As far as hockey is concerned, it was indeed just a little bit before I started caring about the game as you can read here.

The Cup itself is one of the most emblematic and recognized trophies in all of sports. For starters, unlike other trophies such as soccer's World Cup, and whatever they call the thing they hand out to the winner of the MLB World Series, there is only one Stanley Cup; a new version of it is not recast and handed out for each championship team to keep.  

As such, the Stanley Cup gets around. The tradition is that every member of the Cup winning team gets to spend a day with the trophy, doing with it whatever he pleases, within reason. There are a couple of guys whose job it is to accompany the Cup wherever it goes to I assume, enforce the within reason part. 

Most players take the opportunity to share the cup with people who are special to them, often in their hometown which given the international nature of the game, means the Cup logs hundreds of thousands of airline miles every year. 

If the Cup could talk as they say, boy the stories it would tell.

Patrick Kane and Lord Stanley's Cup, Chicago, 2010

Another great tradition, in the days immediately following winning the NHL championship, the team shares the Cup with its community.

For example in 2015, after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup for the third time in six seasons, the team's captain both then and at this writing, Jonathan Toews*, shared it with the patients at Miserecordia Heart of Mercy, a facility in my neighborhood that serves people with developmental disabilities.

On June 26, 2010, 15 days after the Blackhawks won their first championship in 49 years, a bit of history was made when the Stanley Cup found itself in a place it had never been, and as far as I can tell, hasn't been since, as the centerpiece of an LGBTQ+ pride parade. 

It was Hawks defenseman Brent Sopel who, with the approval of the team, accepted an invitation from the Chicago Gay Hockey Association to carry the Cup while riding aboard their float in the 41st annual Chicago Pride Parade. His inspiration to participate in the parade was to honor a young hockey player, Brendan Burke who was killed in an automobile accident earlier that year. Two months before his death, Burke had come out, and while Sopel claimed his participation in the parade wasn't to advocate for anything, he added:

...if coming here helps break down walls in the meantime, so be it. 

That act did indeed break down at least a few walls. In the words of Bill Gubrud, the founder of the National Gay & Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame, spoken in 2015:

The Blackhawks organization has been very supportive of the gay community for years, starting with the Stanley Cup being in the gay pride parade in 2010 and their numerous contributions to LGBT youth organizations and programs.
Those walls Sopel spoke of were not insignificant. While much of American society by 2010 had at least tacitly come to terms with accepting people being free to be themselves, the world of men's sports, never known for its progressive leanings was an exception, especially when it came to accepting diverse sexual and gender identities and lifestyles.

Given that, Sopel's decision to participate in the Pride Parade with the Stanley Cup was a gutsy one, which paved the way for the team's and ultimately the National Hockey League's participation in several efforts in the direction of inclusion, by accepting, supporting, and to the cynical among us, selling tickets to members of the LGBTQ+ community.

By far the most visible of these outreach efforts are the Pride nights that take place annually in every NHL rink. One of many such events teams devote every season to a particular theme or cause, Pride nights feature many different activities related to the theme. In the NHL, the most noticeable of these is players on the home team donning special jerseys celebrating the theme during their 15-minute pre-game warmup. After the warmup, each jersey is signed by the player who wore it, then offered up for auction to the fans, with the proceeds going to charity. 

In the case of Pride Night, artists representing the local LGBTQ+ community are commissioned to design jerseys which incorporate the design of the team's regular jerseys with the rainbow theme, emblematic of the community.

It's with great pride that I can say the team I've been a fan of for nearly all my life, the Chicago Blackhawks, were trailblazers in this effort when Brent Sopel representing them, proudly carried the Stanley Cup on that float in the Chicago Pride Parade thirteen years ago. 

In a perfect world, this post would end here. 


NHL Pride nights had gone off pretty much without a hitch for several years until a couple months ago. The trouble began when Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ivan Provarov opted out of wearing the extra-colorful Flyer warmup jersey. Instead, he skipped the warmup, but did play in the game in January against the Anaheim Ducks. Afterwords, Provarov sited his Russian Orthodox religion as the reason for not wearing the jersey. In a brief post-game statement addressing the issue, Provarov said this: 
I respect everybody’s choices. My choice is to stay true to myself and my religion. That’s all I’m going to say.

Shortly thereafter, also sighting religious objections, six other NHL players chose to go the same route and sit out their teams' pre-game warmups rather than wear the rainbow-colored warmup jersey.

This was followed by four teams announcing that while they would go ahead with their own Pride Night celebrations this year, their players would not be wearing the themed jerseys during their warmup. Those teams were the Minnesota Wild, the New York Rangers, the Toronto Maple Leafs and, wait for it... the Chicago Blackhawks. 

The first three teams offered no enlightening comment on their decision. The Blackhawks however came up with a doozy, citing an unlikely scapegoat, Vladimir Putin.

Putin you see, has decreed that it is now illegal for Russian citizens to promote anything LBGTQ+. On their current roster, the Blackhawks have three players either from Russia, or of Russian heritage, and out of concerns for their safety the team says, there will be no skating with the special jerseys this year.

This is a little puzzling to me for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that an American sports franchise is caving in to the demands of a hostile, sociopathic, foreign dictator. While I understand the concern for the players and perhaps most directly their families currently living in Russia, it seems to me there would have been a simple solution that didn't involve throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Simply scratch those players from that particular game (you can do that in the NHL), and replace them with three members of the Hawks' farm team ninety minutes up the road in Rockford. I'm sure those minor league players would be more than happy to warmup in a rainbow-colored jersey in exchange for a chance to skate for one night in the big show. 
So why can the event? As one of the worst teams in the NHL this year, the Hawks certainly can't be all that worried about losing yet another game. My guess is that there may have been a few more players on the team who said they wouldn't participate either, and rather than upsetting the apple cart, the Blackhawks played the Putin card. 
Not surprisingly, since Provarov's action, this issue has become red meat for the ultra-right cultural warriors among us who are using it as an example of the intolerant-woke-fascist-predator mob "co-opting" the sport of hockey and our lives in general, with their "divisive" political message of love, inclusion and acceptance. 

For them, push back to Hockey Pride Night is a great victory for freedom of speech, religion and self-expression, something gravely missing they say in our current pinko, libtard, snowflake, ANTIFA-BLM loving, multicultural mess of a society. To the ultra-right, Ivan Provarov is a valiant hero to the cause by saying nyet to the groomers.

I beg to differ. 

For starters, I believe that publicly supporting a group of people who for centuries have been marginalized, abused, persecuted and in some cases murdered just for being who they are, is NOT a political act. It is an act of human decency. If being a decent human being is "woke", then count me in.
When asked after the game in Philly if he had any intention of benching Provarov for missing the warmup, Flyers head coach, John Tortorella, said no, adding that Provarov had every right to "be true to himself" by refusing to wear the jersey and skipping the warmup. 
That's very kumbaya of Tortorella who is known for his old school, "there is no 'I' in the word 'team'" approach to his craft. It's also surprising as the same Tortorella a couple years ago emphatically declared he would bench any player who refused to stand for the anthem as a means of protesting injustice in this country.   
I guess somebody "being true to himself" counts only to some folks when they agree with what the person is being "true" about.

Retired hockey star PK Subban was featured in a FOX interview where he is quoted as saying that athletes should not be forced into to being "activists".

I agree. 

I would also argue that in this case, no one is asking that of the players. Nobody expects hockey players to march in the streets, write op-ed pieces in the New York Times, or warmup in drag, the last of which is kind of a pity as I would pay good money to see that. 

As for the players refusing to wear pride jerseys on religious grounds, I would ask them to probe deeply into their hearts as well as their heads, as they listen to these words of San Jose Sharks goalie James Reimer, one of the refuseniks, edited here for brevity and clarity: 
...everyone has value and worth. I wish people knew that wasn’t just a line... I have a heart for people. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past, (or) what you do..., I have my beliefs and things that I can’t personally endorse. But man, you love the person, you try and do whatever you can to get to know them...
Reading this, if Reimer is being honest, which I believe he is, he obviously has his heart in the right place. Which makes me think he hasn't thought the whole thing through. He mentions not being able to endorse things he doesn't believe in. That is not only his right but his obligation.

However, as with Brent Sopel in 2010, NHL players wearing the rainbow jersey is not in itself an endorsement of alternative lifestyles, but rather an expression of love and acceptance of our fellow human beings, which is EXACTLY what James Reimer says he believes in. Wearing these jerseys in public with your teammates is powerful symbol that the team and the organization flat-out reject bigotry, abuse and hatred. What kind of religion could have a problem with that? 

OK, plenty, but none I would ever associate with.

As such, wearing a pride jersey in the pre-game skate is no more an automatic endorsement of queerness than wearing a green jersey on St. Patrick's Day (which NHL teams routinely do), is an automatic endorsement of the Irish Republican Army.

Thirteen years after the Stanley Cup made its one and only appearance at a pride parade, some things have changed, but not much. At this writing, there is still only one current male North American professional ice hockey player who has come out, and zero in the NHL, which reflects the numbers in other men's sports.

There's no reason to believe that the proportion of gay people in sports would be much different from that of the general population, meaning there are probably at least a couple dozen closeted pro hockey players. Given that, I don't think it's farfetched to claim that male sports culture is still toxic when it comes to gay and trans people. If you don't believe me, check out the article: "Nashville Predators hold Pride Night after mass killing carried out by transgender shooter", its ludicrous premise, and the hate-filled comments it inspired, brought to us by the fine folks at FOX Sports. 

I bring that up because unlike many other fields, when the sports community takes a stand reaching out to the LBGTQ community, they are clearly NOT preaching to the choir. This means their efforts actually can change attitudes, especially among young people. 

Despite the detractors, lost in all this is the fact that there has been overwhelming support of NHL Pride nights among the players. Sadly because of the detractors, there is speculation that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is considering mothballing Hockey Pride Night after this season. That would be a real shame.

In my view, if they are able to reach a handful of kids who by seeing their heroes wearing the rainbow colors, might think twice about their own negative views of people who are different from themselves, if they reach a handful of LGBTQ athletes to let them know they are welcome members of the community, and most important, if their efforts help make lives just a little better for a handful of gay and trans kids who are suffering with depression and suicidal thoughts, then the effort will have been worth it, in spades. 

Let's face it, haters are going to hate, that's been the story of human existence since time immemorial. It's high time we stop letting them have the final say.

On Thursday, April 13, Jonathan Toews most likely played his last game as a Chicago Blackhawk, capping off his brilliant 15-year career with the team.


Saturday, April 1, 2023

Opening Day

Breaking with tradition, although not for the first time, this year I let opening day of baseball in Chicago pass without note for two whole days. Perhaps because for the life of me, I can't understand why baseball should played be in March, at least in this part of the country where the temperatures are still hovering around freezing. 

It's still cold outside, but today is the first day of April and I'm ready to think about baseball. 

That said, I've already sat through an entire ballgame this year. One day before MLB opening day, my son's college team came to town to play the team from the University of Chicago. It was a thrilling game with many scoring opportunities, yet scoreless until the top of the seventh inning when one of my son's teammates, the best player on the team, with no one on base, hit an opposite field home run. 

Then the game got really interesting in the bottom of the ninth. With nobody on and the home team down to their last strike, AND everybody ready to leave because it was SO damn cold, their batter managed to poke the ball between our first and second basemen for a single, then stole second on the first pitch to the next batter. He advanced to third on an infield hit and before we knew it, the tying and winning runs were on base. But after a seemingly endless at bat, the next batter popped to second ending the game, our good guys winning 1-0.

Why I'll never be a sports photographer.
This is the pitch before the pitch this batter hit over the right field fence.
Being superstitious, I photographed every subsequent batter on our team but to no avail.
That home run would be our team's only run, but it proved to be enough.
How can anyone not love this game?

My son didn't play, nor has he played all season. In fact, in this his final year of college, he's only had a few at bats these last four years, mostly during scrimmage games or fall ball where the games don't count. 

Yet unlike the majority of kids he played baseball with and against in his life, from tee ball to Little League, from travel ball to Pony League and high school, he can honestly say he was a member of a college baseball team. He even managed to hit a legitimate fence-clearing home run in a scrimmage game last fall, perhaps the single greatest moment of his baseball career. 

That's something he'll be able to tell his children and grandchildren.

Last month my cousin Betty and I were talking about the fickle fate of being a ballplayer and I mentioned to her that at times I feel guilty for setting my boy up for perpetual heartache by not warning him years ago that the chances against life as a professional baseball player are astronomical. My cousin, one of the wisest people I know told me no, that was something he had to discover for himself. Otherwise he'd forever have the question in the back of his mind that maybe he could have made it, if only his father hadn't discouraged him.

That made me feel better, if only for a moment. 

As a senior, he may be hanging up the cleats for good at the end of this season, but I've said that before.

The look on his face when he saw us show up in the near-freezing cold for a game in which he was certain not to play, was priceless. If only I could bottle it.

My son loves baseball more than words can describe. Somehow, I imagine he will continue to be involved in the game in one way or other.

God bless him. 

So, throwing all caution to the wind, I continue to encourage him as best I can.

Play ball Theo!