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San Jose Sharks goaltender James Reimer won't wear Pride-themed jerseys in support of the LGBTQIA+ community because he says it runs counter to his religious beliefs.The Associated Press

By now, an unknown number of NHLers have refused to wear Pride-themed practice jerseys. This small protest group might be called the Two Rs (Russians and the religious).

But until San Jose Sharks goalie James Reimer became a refusenik over the weekend, none had bothered to explain themselves in detail.

Everybody in Toronto remembers Reimer as a decent goalie with the Maple Leafs and an especially lovely guy. When a player first arrives in the bigs, they have a charming, can’t-believe-I-made-it-here quality.

That quality of innocence doesn’t last long. A few weeks, maybe. A few days, in some cases. A couple of years in, even the nicest guys are jaded. Their dream-come-true has become a job.

Reimer never lost that quality. That’s hard enough to do anywhere, but in Toronto it’s unheard of. He liked to talk. He liked people. He was sweet in a way you do not usually associate with professional athletes.

So when Reimer said in a statement that he believes “every person has value and worth,” that rings true. I can think of a hundred players who, if they’d written the same thing, I’d think, “Yeah. Sure.” But not Reimer.

That part was good. He ought to have left it there. But there was more. The rest of it was a rhetorical pretzel, as Reimer tried to be open- and close-minded at the same time.

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

These days, people toss off the word ‘kind’ like it doesn’t mean much. It does. ‘Kind’ is an impossibly high standard. Most of us fail to meet it every day. If you’re going to go throwing that word around in statements, the next few lines should not amount to, ‘And here’s why I disagree with you …’

Reimer eventually got around to his objection, which is religious.

“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,” Reimer wrote.

I hear you, man. I also live Biblically. I never wear clothes made of linen and wool combined (Leviticus 19:19) and only kill burglars at night (Exodus 22:2-3).

This “living Biblically” thing is a bit hard to buy from a guy making about US$2.25-million a year. How much of that money are you keeping? Because the Bible is clear about how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Were I Reimer and felt the need to make a statement here, I’d have gone shorter – “I’m a hockey player, not a candidate for political office. My beliefs are my business.”

But Reimer’s statement succeeded in doing one thing – taking the heat off his bosses. He’s the bad guy so that the people who run hockey can be the all-things-to-all-people guys.

That is what the NHL’s whack-a-mole approach to Pride events has become – a strange marketing game designed to let the league have it every which way.

It started with the Philadelphia Flyers and Ivan Provorov, the original Pride jersey refuser. Social media jumped on Provorov with both feet. Based on recent history in other entertainment businesses, the next step should have been the team and the league tripping over themselves to apologize and beg forgiveness.

But no one did that. The Flyers, through coach John Tortorella, offered a robust defence of Provorov’s right to wear whatever he likes.

The NHL went much further, washing its hands not only of this problem, but of all future problems.

“Players are free to decide which [league] initiatives to support,” was the pivotal sentence.

Given that situation – an outreach program wherein the participants have no duty to do outreach – you’d think they’d get rid of the jersey program. Do the Pride night without directly involving the players, or make participation an opt-in situation. If you want to help, great. If you don’t, no one asked you to.

Instead, the NHL has continued on with the jersey program as is.

The New York Rangers had a Pride jersey event on the calendar that didn’t come to pass. The players came out in their regular gear. No explanation was provided. One is left imagining what went down in the dressing room.

Now it’s Reimer’s turn to make a statement.

If the goal here is proclaiming the league’s commitment to inclusion, the program is having the opposite effect. A couple of dozen Sharks players wore the Pride jerseys in warm-ups. What’s everyone talking about? The one guy who didn’t.

Five years ago, that’s a PR disaster.

Not now. Now it’s the winding path through politics that the NHL has settled on. Having accepted it must engage social issues, the NHL has decided which side it’s on – every side.

The NHL is for inclusion. It has a special night for it. The NHL is also for free speech. It encourages that. The NHL is also for religious exemptions to its inclusion policy. It said that with free speech.

The NHL is left-wing, right-wing and any other wing you can come up with. If you want it to support your marginalized group, just let it know. Then it will let the players know that they can also support it or not support it. The players should do whatever they feel.

The really important thing is that whatever the players decide to do, they should personally take the heat for it. Hockey doesn’t agree with their stand, unless anyone from the other side is asking. In which case hockey might.

This is the modern equivalent of ‘Republicans buy sneakers, too’. The trick nowadays isn’t appealing to all sides. It’s seeming to agree with all sides. Or not agree with all sides. Or something.

What does the NHL actually think? Depends who’s asking. It will think whatever will stop you from being angry at it. In fact, don’t ask it. If you’re upset, yell at James Reimer. Also, remember to buy your commemorative jersey.

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