Over the course of four years, ice hockey in Britain has built an impressive reputation on LGBTQ+ inclusion – and one of the driving forces behind it has been the EIHL’s media manager, Luke Fisher. To mark Pride Week, he explains what the ever-growing commitment shown by the sport in UK means to him personally, and why it’s so important…
Jay Forster is a freelance writer and podcaster who has been covering LGBTQ+ stories in ice hockey since January 2020, having previously shared his own story.
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Celebrating Pride is not a new thing in the Elite Ice Hockey League.
In 2018, the Cardiff Devils were the first UK ice hockey team to work with You Can Play, a worldwide inclusion project that strives to show everyone that LGBTQ+ people belong in sports.
The following year, Elite League fans started their own movement for the playoffs in Nottingham, turning a celebration of the best that UK hockey has to offer into a rainbow-filled weekend, demonstrating to LGBTQ+ people that hockey can be for them.
In 2020, the EIHL officially jumped fully on board, as all 10 teams in the league united for what would become Pride Weekend, a league-wide event celebrating queer people in hockey.
The event holds special meaning for Luke Fisher, who is the media and communications manager for the EIHL. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community himself, he gets to see firsthand what it’s like to have the hockey community support you wholeheartedly.
“I was in Cardiff a couple of years ago doing some pre Pride week stuff, and Evan Mosey [then YCP ambassador for the Devils] basically said, ‘yeah, hockey players don’t like it when people get picked on’,” says Fisher, recalling conversations he’s had on the topic.
The stigma is still that sports are not a welcoming place for LGBTQ+ people. However, Fisher has had the opposite experience, and talks happily and openly about how much of a non-event his sexuality is when he’s interacting with players from all over the league. “Everything has been completely normal. I think that’s probably the best thing I can say.”
The inaugural Pride Weekend two years ago was a universal hit, capped off with Zach Sullivan – defenceman for the Manchester Storm – tweeting on the morning of his team’s own Pride game to tell the world that he’s bisexual.
Fisher couldn’t have been happier with the overwhelmingly welcoming reception Sullivan received, particularly from fans. “There’s always that element of doubt – like, ‘what if this backfires? what if there are protests outside the rinks?’ You could have anything.”
But then the games started up, and photos started flooding onto Twitter of every rink decked out in rainbow colours, of players wearing their rainbow jerseys, of fans from every walk of life celebrating, of LGBTQ+ Pride flags being waved throughout the entire match.
Within just a few weeks, the pandemic hit. The EIHL didn’t play a game from March 2020 right through to the summer of 2021. Fisher wanted to keep the momentum going during this period – but how do you have a Pride weekend when your league isn’t playing?
“We decided to do a few online things,” he says. “I caught up with Zach [Sullivan] for a new interview, and I made all of the Pride games from 2020 available on YouTube. It’s not a huge thing, but it was something.”
A growing commitment
Restrictions have also complicated this year’s efforts. In 2020, Pride Weekend in the Elite League was a three-day event. In 2022, Pride games have been taking place for a week already, and there are still more to come. Manchester and Sheffield have rescheduled their games due to Covid issues, and due to the closed doors in Cardiff, they’re postponing their Pride game until fans are allowed back in the building. Pride Weekend has essentially been extended to most of January, and even beyond.
Meanwhile, restrictions in Scotland mean that there will only be approximately 200 fans at the Pride games in Dundee, Fife and Glasgow, which is disappointing for many reasons. “I think we’re going to look back and say that the photos from 2020 are better than 2022, but I don’t think that should necessarily detract from what we’re doing,” adds Fisher.
“Regardless of how many people come into a rink, the fact that 10 teams and one league are doing this in professional sports is still pretty unique on its own, and still sends an important message.”
So what’s the next step for the EIHL?
“I’d love to have 10 buildings where we can have full [capacity],” says Fisher. “But it’s hard [to know what the next step is] because the message is already so strong. Keeping that commitment every season is an incredibly powerful statement.”
This year, the EIHL have added more partners, bringing Pride Tape and Hockey is Diversity on board, as well as returning sponsor You Can Play. Both Pride Tape and Hockey is Diversity reached out to the league, wanting to get involved, and every team has a local sponsor too, to help queer people in their own community.
One other improvement on 2020’s efforts is getting the officials involved, and getting special Pride shirts made for them to wear during games too. In the aftermath of Dre Barone’s coming out – he’s a referee working in the American Hockey League as an out gay man – it’s harder now to forget that LGBTQ+ people can be found in all areas of the sport, whether it be on the ice, on the bench, in the press box, or off the ice entirely.
The most important thing for Fisher this year, though, is the English Ice Hockey Association‘s involvement. The EIHA is the governing body for hockey in England and Wales and sits directly under IHUK. It covers, among other things, youth teams and organisations – environments in which a player would likely be at the age when they first start to become aware of their sexuality or gender identity.
Fisher says having youth hockey involved in Pride Week is crucial. “Professional sports definitely have a role to play, especially as role models, but the more you get this built into the grassroots of your game, the better.”
The EIHL is only one of two leagues in Europe that has a dedicated league-wide movement for Pride, and for supporting LGBTQ+ players, employees and fans (the other being the SHL in Sweden). Fisher would love to see others on the continent do the same but for now, he’s proud of the Elite League for being trailblazers in hockey.
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