Vancouver Canucks forward Andrei Kuzmenko is the latest NHL player to get embroiled in the league's Pride jersey controversy.
The Russian winger skipped warm-ups ahead of the Canucks' annual Pride game against the Calgary Flames on Friday. His teammates took to the ice wearing a themed jersey celebrating the LGBTQ community.
Speaking through a translator — teammate Vitali Kravtsov — Kuzmenko declined to explain the decision after Vancouver lost 5-4 in overtime.
"He respects everybody and everybody's choices," said Kravtsov, who was a healthy scratch for the game. "And he asks can you respect his choice, too, and his family."
Coach Rick Tocchet said earlier in the day that Kuzmenko decided not to wear the special uniform following discussions with his family.
“I'm not going to get into it because we don't know the deals that happen over there. So I respect his decision," Tocchet said.
Kuzmenko, 27, has become a fan favourite in his first NHL season due to his wide smile and outgoing personality.
He has 37 goals and 31 assists in 73 games, and leads the Canucks in goals.
Designed by local artist Christin Hryc, the jerseys featured a rainbow, flowers and butterflies across the Canucks' orca logo. The shoulders included rainbow patches on the shoulders and, on the back, the words "You Can Play" replaced each player's last name.
Several players publicly committed to wearing the uniforms ahead of Friday's game.
"I think everyone in this room is looking forward to it," defenceman Quinn Hughes said Wednesday. "And I know in our organization, everyone's welcome.
"Every time we've done Pride night, I've worn the jersey and celebrated the night."
Star centre Elias Pettersson said Friday that he, too, is in support of the annual event.
“I think it's important to show that everyone is welcome here," he said. "And I’ll wear the jersey tonight.”
Vancouver has a number of other initiatives planned for Friday, including a pre-game drag show outside Rogers Arena and in-game performances. A $20,000 donation is also being made to QMUNITY, a Vancouver non-profit that supports LGBTQ people and their allies.
Kuzmenko joins a handful of NHL players who've declined to wear Pride jerseys this season, including Philadelphia Flyers defenceman Ivan Provorov, San Jose Sharks goalie James Reimer, Eric and Marc Staal of the Florida Panthers, and Buffalo Sabres blue liner Ilya Lyubushkin.
Whether a player wears the themed jersey comes down to individual rights, new NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh said in Toronto on Thursday.
"The LGBTQ community shouldn't feel that the NHL hockey players are turning their back on that community. The majority of the players have worn the jersey," said Walsh, who has been a strong advocate for LGBTQ rights during his political career.
He added the league will likely have more conversations about the issue moving forward.
"But I think it's really important that as a league and as locker rooms, we're inclusive and that we support all people's right to support the game," Walsh said.
— With files from Joshua Clipperton in Toronto.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2023.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press