Heading into Friday night's nationally-televised tilt between the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche, the big story wasn't a desperate Wild team trying to claw some points from a Stanley Cup contender. It wasn't about the Avs trying to climb into the top spot of the Central Division.
Instead, all eyes were on the backup goalie's mask.
The Wild hosted their Native American Heritage Night, which typically comes with players wearing these very cool and good Native American Heritage Wild jerseys in warm-ups. Of course, that is against league rules now, thanks to the NHL's short-sighted and reactionary rule about barring player participation in such 'special initiatives.'
This rule was born out of the "distraction" caused by seven players opting out of wearing LGBTQIA+ Pride jerseys in warmups last year, followed by a rash of cancellations by other organizations to avoid similar "distraction." The NHL issued a blanket ban on player involvement in any of these initiatives in order to avoid such a "distraction."
Instead, Friday night not only served up a "distraction" from a showcase game to the nation, it also served as a giant embarrassment to the NHL. Marc-Andre Fleury wished to wear a mask designed by Prairie Island Indian Community member Cole Redhorse Taylor in warm-ups. The design honored both Fleury's wife Veronique, who is an Indigenous Canadian, while also paying tribute to other family members.
Fleury was willing to accept a fine for wearing the mask in warmups. However, he seemed to change his plans after the NHL threatened the Minnesota Wild organization with a hefty fine. Regardless of the consequences, Fleury decided to wear his mask in warm-ups, a decision that garnered universal praise from the hockey community.
As of Saturday morning, it turns out that the consequences Fleury and the Wild will face for this are: nothing, at least as communicated to The Athletic's Michael Russo via NHL and team sources.
So this rule is not only unpopular, enforced confusingly, and ineffective at prevent players from wearing 'special initiative' equipment in warm-ups. It's also toothless. Fining Fleury or the Wild for doing this, or players supporting Hockey Fights Cancer, or Travis Dermott using Pride Tape on his stick in warmups, would only create a bigger "distraction." One that highlights how, in Fleury's words, "stupid" the NHL is.
Not that they need any help highlighting that. Even without the fine, this is a massive PR loss for the NHL. Google "Minnesota Wild" on Saturday morning and this is what you'll find:
Oops! All Fleurys!
The NHL's decision was entirely ridiculous and entirely avoidable. They made the choice to not uplift players like Fleury when they want to honor members of their (and the hockey world's) communities to protect the players who would rather not.
Mission accomplished, I guess, as Ivan Provorov and Marc Staal haven't had to field any uncomfortable questions this year. But in saving seven players from embarrassment, the entire league looks foolish on a near-weekly basis. Their rule has only served to take the focus off the game and transferring it to the league's repeated humiliations. The only way forward is to reverse their decision on 'special initiatives' altogether.
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