The Seattle Pride Hockey Association (SPHA) has a sticky origin story. 

In 2019, Joey Gale, who had recently moved to Seattle from the Midwest, hit the ice to play in a local rec league game. But his stick stood out among the rest, as he’d wrapped his in Pride Tape, a rainbow-colored departure from the black adhesive players typically use. The tape set off queer hockey peer Steven Thompson’s gaydar.

“Steven… emailed me the next day and was like, ‘Hey, I don’t see that rainbow tape a lot, fellow “community member,”’” Gale told me, laughing at Thompson’s friend-of-Dorothy-esque euphemism. “So that was our beginning: Steven clocked my Pride Tape.” 

Gale and Thompson went on to co-found the SPHA in the basement of a local hockey arena. They had one eye on the institutional gaps Seattle’s LGBTQ+ hockey players and fans faced, and the other eye on timing. The impending launch of an NHL expansion team in Seattle promised infrastructure, programming, and funding. 

Now five years old, the SPHA serves as the region’s leading queer- and trans-focused hockey org. It also puts on the country’s largest LGBTQ+ hockey tournament, the Seattle Pride Classic, which will see 300 players from across the gender and sexuality spectra—it’s not a masc4masc bacchanal!—compete in June.

Gale and Thompson were right to expect an infrastructural and monetary windfall from the local arrival of an NHL franchise: The Seattle Kraken and Symetra (an insurance company and Kraken corporate sponsor) both provide financial support to the SPHA and its tournament. The Kraken’s annual Pride Night, which takes place on Thursday against the Anaheim Ducks, is core to those efforts. Player-worn Pride-themed jerseys will be auctioned off at the event, with proceeds going to the SPHA as well as to the One Roof Foundation, which is the Kraken’s philanthropic arm.

But while the SPHA proudly traces its origins to a platonic tape-inspired meet-cute, and while Gale describes the Kraken as setting the “gold standard” in financial and institutional support for LGBTQ+ hockey communities—albeit through a classically byzantine patchwork of for-profit and nonprofit work, auctions, corporate sponsors, and the like—the NHL as a governing body cannot rest on inclusive laurels in the same way. If anything, the NHL is brooding in the homophobia penalty box. 


In June of 2023—during Pride month—NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced a ban on players wearing special edition warm-up jerseys on the ice for events such as Black History Night, Military Appreciation Night, and Hockey Fights Cancer Night. 

The real controversy and impetus for the ban surrounded Pride Nights; a handful of players across the league refused to wear Pride-themed gear, citing religious beliefs, the anti-gay laws of their home countries, and/or ideological differences. 

The NHL framed a blanket ban of on-ice regalia as a way to prevent individual player disagreements from overshadowing the ethos of themed nights. 

“It’s become a distraction,” Bettman said at the time to justify the nix on warm-up gear.

I spoke with Andrew Ference, the NHL’s director of youth strategy, to understand how the policy squared with the League’s trademarked initiative, “Hockey is for Everyone.” In our conversation, he was more comfortable speaking to his subjective experiences—an NHL veteran with 16 seasons and a Stanley Cup under his belt, in addition to many years as a prominent ally to queer people in hockey—than functioning as a League spokesperson. 

Ference said he could understand why critics saw the policy as “frustrating,” but he also believed in the “power in non-mandated initiatives.” The ban shouldn’t distract from the progress that’s been made programmatically and culturally within the NHL, he said, where inclusive locker rooms beget winning records. 

“We live in North America and we can celebrate the fact that we don't always have to agree on everything,” Ference continued. “As long as people aren't hurting others, and [aren’t] being bigots or being damaging with things that they're saying and are doing, I think it is important to respect the fact that they can disagree.”

But to Luke Prokop, who played with the Seattle Thunderbirds last season before joining the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals as a defenseman, and who became the first openly gay person signed to an NHL team when he came out publicly in 2021, the ban was “mind-boggling.” He argued the decision lets Pride-naysaying players, of which there were less than ten, effectively dictate League-wide policy. There are more than 700 players on active NHL rosters. 

“They kind of put the spotlight on those players rather than actually focusing on the night itself and… showcasing the queer hockey community,” Prokop said.

The NHL’s hasty edict also threw teams and their LGBTQ+ community partners into confusion. Prokop, who’s also participated in the SPHA’s Pride tournament, said the teams he’s associated with reached out to him and let him know they were moving ahead with Pride-themed nights. “They wanted to make sure that… I didn't feel like I was isolated,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Seattle, following the NHL’s decision, Gale said Kraken representatives reached out to the SPHA and clarified that they did not support the policy change. The Kraken asked them how it could continue showing support for LGBTQ+ hockey players and fans while remaining “handcuffed by the league.” 

“We provided them a handful of recommendations, and they were all-in from day one,” Gale said. The SPHA recommended that (willing) Kraken players wear Pride-themed gear from the time they got to Climate Pledge Arena until they ventured out onto the ice. (The Stranger’s interview with Kyle Boyd, Kraken director of fan development, suggests that player-worn and -signed jerseys also generate higher auction winnings for nonprofit partners such as the SPHA.)

Mari Horita, executive director of the One Roof Foundation and head of the Kraken’s social impact and government relations efforts, said the policy change, while “very traumatic for a lot of people,” may have inadvertently done some good, as it proved the need for ongoing discussion around and support for LGBTQ+ communities in hockey. 

Conversations among the Kraken culminated in Assistant Athletic Trainer Justin Rogers’s blog post titled, “A Letter To My Younger Self.” The piece, a self-addressed description of Rogers’s path to becoming an openly gay athletic trainer in professional sports, framed the Kraken as an accepting organization in locker rooms, front offices, and arenas, softly rebuking the notion that hockey “is presumed to be a hypermasculine sports world“ filled with Pride-phobes. (Rogers declined to comment for this article.)

Highlighting team support for LGBTQ+ and other minoritized communities, Boyd, the director of fan development, said Kraken players were involved early this season with the design and marketing of themed jerseys as well as the programming surrounding them. The front office has also looked at ways to sustain community engagement and issues beyond one-off events, ensuring that concerns like LGBTQ+ inclusion aren’t limited to Pride Night or Pride Month; it also supports other Seattle-based groups, such as YouthCare, which provides services to youth experiencing homelessness, a disproportionately high number of whom are queer. 

At the same time, Horita said, the end result of the current Pride-related policy is “not that different” from the policy preceding the NHL’s antics, since jerseys can still be worn and sold, just not on the ice. “There seemed to be a lot of back and forth to end up at a pretty similar spot to where we started,” she said. 

Pride versions of corporate sponsors’ logos will be visible on TV coverage of the game, and broadcasters will be wearing Pride-themed pins, ties, and other accessories, getting in the way of the NHL’s desire for ice free of “controversy.” (Though it should be noted that, within this regulatory nebula, companies can full-throatedly support gay stuff, but athletes can’t.)

Ference, the NHL director, echoed Horita, saying that Pride-adjacent policies have been a “non-existent issue” within his subfield of NHL work. He saw “almost every stick” wrapped in Pride Tape at youth tournaments hosted by the NHL and its partners. “Who doesn’t love rainbow tape?” Ference asked.


Well, the League answered Ference’s question in October of 2023, when it banned Pride Tape, a symbol of LGBTQ+ inclusion on the ice for far more players than just Gale and SPHA co-founder Thompson. Arizona Coyotes defenseman Travis Dermott—not an openly gay player, just an incensed one—publicly protested the ban by using Pride Tape during the Coyotes’ home opener, forcing the NHL to quickly reverse the ban. 

“I think there's this… unique inflection point of what the Kraken are doing and sort of forging their own path,” Gale said. “And then you have the NHL sort of walking back… decisions on Pride Tape.”

I asked Boyd and Horita of the Kraken whether more Dermott-esque noncompliance could encourage the NHL to undo its Pride Night rules; they said such a decision would be up to players and their operations teams. That kind of fork in the road could present itself on Thursday, though the odds seem slim. 

Either way, Gale said the Kraken can continue to push themselves to improve the way they serve players underrepresented in hockey, especially by helping with the cost of ice time at the Kraken Iceplex. As long as cost remains a barrier to access, hockey will perpetuate differing levels of “discrimination amongst different groups,” Gale said.

The Seattle Kraken could get trounced in Thursday’s game and in every game remaining this season and still avoid being the losingest entity in the National Hockey League from the past year. And, no, I don’t mean the Ducks: The loser trophy belongs to the NHL alone.