LOS ANGELES — Travis Dermott was not out to create some sort of firestorm, but he was fully intent on staying true to being an ally for the LGBTQ+ community. On Saturday, in a game against the Anaheim Ducks, the Arizona Coyotes defenseman played with rainbow-colored tape on his stick in a quiet, defiant act of a rule the NHL had installed prohibiting players from displaying “cause messaging” on their equipment.
The operating word now is had. The league reversed course on Tuesday, stating that players “will now have the option to voluntarily represent social causes with their stick tape throughout the season” after consulting with the NHL players’ union and the NHL Player Inclusion Coalition.
In the morning prior to the Coyotes’ game against Los Angeles at Crypto.com Arena on Tuesday night, Dermott beamed at the change that now allows him and others to express a small sign of visible support for a cause they strongly believe in while they ply their trade.
“It’s amazing,” said Dermott, a long supporter of LGBTQ+ and Pride-themed causes and initiatives. “You really become proud for who you’re working for when people are able to second-guess their choices and just kind of take a step back and see who they’re affecting and how they’re affecting (them). To be able to have them really take a step in the right direction here in my eyes is unbelievable. It really makes me proud of the spot that I’m working in.
“Hopefully going forward, not just myself and the team but the whole league gets kind of a better game plan going forward with this. We’re not singling guys out for their religious beliefs and all that stuff. But if guys want to go out of their way to support a cause that is impactful to a lot of people, then why not give us that voice? I really respect and honor the work that the league has put in for this.”
As he explained his reasons for defying the initial league ban to Chris Johnston of The Athletic, the 26-year-old Dermott understood his status as a player in the sport’s foremost hockey league gives him a platform most in society don’t have. He can speak about a cause dear to him in interviews or through social media. But a visual sign to represent support for LGBTQ+ hockey fans could have the most impact.
The NHL changed course after widespread criticism — some of it coming from players, along with LGBTQ+ advocates throughout sports — that Pride-themed tape could not be used for any on-ice activities. Now that the league did away with the ban, does Dermott feel what he did forced a review of its original stance?
“We’ll see,” he told The Athletic. “Just them rescinding that choice, I think, speaks wonders. It’s just given the players their voice back. If everyone wants to wear it, if one guy wants to wear it — no one is going to be forced to wear it — but now just having that voice, I think, really speaks volumes into what the league thinks of us, what the league thinks of the community and really backs up their line that hockey is for everyone.
“It was tough to kind of see that before. But their game plan now with this little change I think can really beat that line home.”
Had the ban stayed in place, Dermott said he would have found another way to express his Pride support or pay a fine if the league ever levied one. He said he thought about wearing a T-shirt as he walked into locker room before the game. Now he feels free to do what he always intended. “If the league’s on board, we’re all gung-ho,” Dermott said.
Coyotes coach Andre Tourigny called Dermott courageous for taking his stance and said it was important to provide an environment for his defenseman to feel comfortable expressing himself. Tourigny talked with the team’s leadership core and said everyone was on board with supporting Dermott.
“We all have causes in our lives,” Tourigny said. “Whatever it is. Can be health-related. Can be religion. Whatever it is. Those causes are important. We are, as a society — I wouldn’t say we are in the curve — but it’s changing and it’s important to bring awareness. And I think athletes like Travis have a platform. I think he used it respectfully. It’s important for us as a team to do it the right way. But we’re supporting our player.
“I want to be the kind of coach, the kind of organization who supports their player. It’s important for Travis. I had a chat with the leadership. I was really clear in the head that we were there to support Travis whatever it was. I’m really proud of our leaders for that. I’m really proud of Travis for that. We want to do it in collaboration with him, with the league and do it inside the rules. I’m happy our players feel they’re in a safe environment so they can share their views.”
Arizona defenseman Matt Dumba, a co-founder of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, said he isn’t surprised with the NHL flip-flopping on the issue.
“The league’s going to do whatever it wants to do and they don’t really think about the meaning behind things,” he said. “I think they try to lay it out in whatever format it works out best for the league.”
While he understood the league’s corrective measure in responding to the criticism it was getting, Dumba said, “Yeah, but why did it even need to be?”
“Why is that even a thing?” he continued. “Why did they have to do that in the first place? You’ll never get the answers from them. You’ll never get the answers for that. That’s just something I’ve come to understand. They don’t have answers for a lot of things that they do. They follow and try to save face.”
Dermott said shifting league policy “was definitely not the goal” when he put the rainbow-colored tape on, and that he wasn’t attacking the league by displaying his support for a marginalized community. “It was (done) quietly. I wasn’t tweeting out, ‘Watch what happens tonight,’ or anything like that.”
The Coyotes are scheduled to hold their Pride night on Friday when they host the Kings, but the defenseman wasn’t planning what he did around that night. But he’s now thrilled at what he saw was a “first step” for the NHL.
“You really look at the consequences and for myself, it was worth it,” Dermott said. “Not really nervous but excited to see how it unfolds and what type of waves you do create. It’s been nothing but positive. Coming from my team, coming from the entire organization from top the bottom, the public. Really made me feel that this was the right decision.”
(Photo of Travis Dermott: Zac BonDurant / Getty Images)