Even in this season’s 56-game Covid-shortened National Hockey League slate, there has been room for Pride events. Saturday’s tilt in Buffalo between the host Sabres and the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins was the latest Pride event of the season, and it was an NHL first: The matchup was the league’s first-ever joint Pride Game.
The battle between NHL East Division rivals, televised nationally on NBC, mattered in the standings for both teams. The Penguins are fighting to improve their position in the upcoming Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Sabres entered the game needing a win to stay in the playoff picture.
Prior to the first puck, the teams were together in common cause. Rainbow tape adorned the sticks that fired special commemorative pucks toward goal. Practice jerseys featured rainbow numbers with the Daniel Quasar-designed Progress Pride Flag stitched on each sleeve. All articles, including a special commemorative hat designed by Penguins forward Jason Zucker, were part of a silent auction to benefit the You Can Play Project.
You Can Play had a special link in this game through Penguins president of hockey operations Brian Burke. The longtime NHL executive is a co-founder of the project along with his son, NHL director of player safety Patrick Burke.
The effort was started in 2012 in honor of Brian’s late son, Brendan Burke, who died in a car accident in 2010 shortly after coming out to family as gay.
Since its founding, the project has sought to foster inclusion in sports opening with a simple, direct mantra — “If you can play, you can play.”
“While it’s a sports message, it’s a much broader message to people who are gay, particularly young athletes in team sports that you belong here,” Brian Burke noted in an interview with NBC Sports anchor Anson Carter prior to the game. “It’s helped a lot of people. All the major sports have jumped on board with it. The NHL has been a fantastic ally in a great venture.”
After the Buffalo Gay Men’s Chorus performed both “O, Canada” and “The Star Spangled Banner” outdoors from a distance, there was still a game to play. Bolstered by 28 saves by goalie Tristan Jarry, the Penguins kept the Sabres at bay to win, 3-2. For the Pens, the win moved them up to second in the NHL East Division. The loss eliminated the Sabres from playoff contention.
For at least one day in the season, the stats, standings, and the Stanley Cup chase took a back seat to a greater mission. For Brian Burke, the day was about a succinct message that needed to be sent.
“To the LGBTQ+ community, you are welcome in our building, you are welcome on our teams, you are welcome to come watch our games,” Burke said. “We don’t care who you go home with, we don’t care what church you go to, we don’t care what color you are. If you can play and help our team win, you can play.”
For more information about this historic game, the featured nonprofits for both teams, to purchase commemorative game gear, or put a bid in for the silent auction which runs through Saturday April 24, click here.