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Russian defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin throws last minute wrench into plans

By Andrew Kulyk

Let’s start by saying this. The Buffalo Sabres organization fired on all cylinders at Monday night’s Pride celebration, surrounding that night’s contest between the team and the Montreal Canadiens.

Pride warm up jerseys. The building awash in rainbows. Affirming messages of support and inclusion from all spectrums of the operation. A tribute video replete with scenes from colorful and happy people celebrating Pride at last June’s parade in the Elmwood Village. Team personnel wearing rainbow flag lapel pins. The thumpa thumpa strains of gay icons such as Lady Gaga and Cher on this night’s music bumps. The Buffalo Gay Mens Chorus performing the anthems. Moneys to support local LGBTQ service organizations from the auction of those jerseys. Pucks and even stickers available at guest services. The team nailed it.

This organization has come a long way in terms of planning and staging major events and refining their game ops functions, after having given us in the past such horrible presentations as the retirement number ceremony for Dominik Hasek a few years back, and dishing out several seasons of the execrable DJ Milk as intermission host.

So moving forward, what now?

Stop the Pride nights. Blow it up. Stop. Please stop. Full stop.

Over the past few weeks, the NHL and a number of teams have had to deal with controversy after controversy over the topic of their themed Pride Nights, as select players have opted out citing “religious objections” (side note – if your religion instills such hate and blackness in your heart over obscure biblical passages in Leviticus and Revelations, then perhaps it’s time to go shopping for a new religion). Warm up jersey presentations have been scrubbed at the last minute, players uncomfortable with wearing that swag hid in the locker rooms, planned events have been muted or cancelled, and teams have been forced to issue last minute statements offering their unwavering support for the LGBTQ community while at the same time affirming the rights of their players to make individual choices.

Seeing what was going on elsewhere, the Buffalo Sabres, specifically General Manager Kevyn Adams, went to great lengths to avoid similar controversies with Monday night’s celebration. It can be assumed that multiple conversations took place in the front office, that there was a players meeting and that everyone on the room was supportive, or at the very least on board. This past weekend the team even went to the extent of announcing that Monday night’s plans would go on as scheduled.

Then at 12:02 PM on Monday, following the morning skates, the Sabres issued this statement:

“The Buffalo Sabres are proud to continue to support the LGBTQIA+ community as allies by hosting our third annual Pride Night game. It is of the utmost importance to us to continue to use our platform to strengthen our organizational goal of making hockey for everyone. Consistent with previous years, our team feels strongly that one way to garner support is through wearing Pride jerseys and using Pride tape in warmups. That said, we are aware of general threats to certain players and understand their decision to forego risk. We continue to advocate for under-represented groups in hockey and hope that our Pride Night, like many across the league, sparks meaningful conversation and encourages support for the LGBTQIA+ community within the sport of hockey and our city.”

Those fans who follow the team closely and members of the media were able to immediately decipher the true meaning of this word salad.

Ilya Lyubushkin.

The lone Sabres player hailing from the Russian Federation is a native of Moscow, played several seasons for Yaroslavl Lokomotiv of the Russian based KHL before breaking into the NHL with the Arizona Coyotes in the 2018-2019 season. He signed with the Sabres through 2024 as a free agent this past offseason and is listed at a salary of $2,750,000.

And whatever it is that happened this past weekend and Monday morning in Lyubushkin’s head, clearly there was another internal conversation. Lyubushkin was now out as far as participating in any rainbow festooned outfits or Pride celebrations that evening.

But in an interesting twist, Lyubushkin did not reference his adherence to Russian Othrodoxy and his religious beliefs as the reasoning for his decision. Yes, that same Russian Orthodox Church who full throatedly advocates and celebrates the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, the murder and genocide of innocents, the rape of women and boys and girls, the destruction of cities and villages, unspeakable atrocities and torture, the kidnapping of children and their repatriation into distant Russian cities. That is today’s reality in the “Russian World”, and this filthy “religion” is all in.

Instead, through team spokespersons he referenced his concern for his and his family’s safety, citing recently signed (and vague) laws in Russia forbidding the spread of “LGBTQ propaganda”. Lyubushkin did not speak to the media following the morning skate. Not known to be an especially chatty type with reporters, following Monday night’s game he was out of his uniform in record time and scampering to the safety of the off limits areas of the Sabres clubhouse before any reporter could ask him a direct question.

It is poppycock. It is nonsense. Let’s call it out now. Lyubushkin is a homophobe. Surely he finds the idea of two men or two women holding hands or kissing icky. Surely he finds the concept of a same sex couple building a happy life together, living, worshiping, raising children, grotesque. Is this bold statement inaccurate? Fine. Step up to the microphone, Ilya, and affirm your support of LGBTQ individuals. Better yet, spend an afternoon with patients in the AIDS wing of Hospice, make a contribution to the Trevor Project, an organization offering support to homeless gay teens, or stick around Buffalo and bring your family to this year’s Pride parade in June (Spoiler alert – you’ll have a blast and you will be embraced and welcomed.) This corner will happily issue a retraction and apology.

In today’s Russia, no athlete is facing arrest or retribution for anything to do with LGBTQ issues. It just isn’t happening, and a number of the almost 50 Russian athletes playing in the NHL currently have participated in their teams’ Pride events without incident. If anything, Russian citizens there and abroad have faced consequences for speaking out against Putin’s war of choice. Oligarchs mysteriously falling to their deaths out of upper floor windows? Journalists and pacifists being poisoned? These are real things happening today. And it why the NHL and team clubhouses are tip toeing around discussions and statements regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is why no Russian player has the temerity to speak out in the name of decency and civility in the face of such horror. The personal consequences of such advocacy could be catastrophic.

Following Lyubushkin’s abrupt about face, teammates and head coach Don Granato offered words of support. As they should do in the interests of team building and cohesion. Captain Kyle Okposo offered these words: “As an American and as a North American, I don’t think I’m able to understand the psychological decisions that he’s going through and some of the psychological burdens that he goes through being from a different part of the world,” he said Monday morning in KeyBank Center. “I don’t think it’s fair to judge him in an apples-to-apples sense. We support ‘Boosh’ in this room, and we want to make sure that he’s comfortable and we respect his decisions.”

Fair enough. Most Americans and Canadians can’t fathom the constructs within Russian society that Lyubushkin and others grew up in.  So here is a quick tutorial from those in the know…

Russian athletes who are shown to possess extraordinary skills are almost always placed in special status levels within their country. Hockey players in particular are signed up into sports collectives at a very young age, where they are given gold glove treatment in terms of training, nutrition, housing, all the while being conscripted into the Red Army. That is where the propaganda and indoctrination steps into high gear. That Imperial Russia needs to win on the world stage. At all costs. This is why they cheat. This is why doping of their Olympic athletes is a regular occurrence.  Hockey players in particular are propaganda tools of the State. The presence (and success) of Russian players at the NHL level are proof of their superiority and dominance as a race of people. It is sick, twisted, and convoluted thinking. But this is where we are.

1980’s “Miracle On Ice” at the Winter Olympic Games at Lake Placid? Good luck finding any mention of that seminal sports event inside any sports museum in the Russian Federation. Or nothing more than a passing mention in a sports encyclopedia.

So while Lyubushkin selfishly bails on the very employer who pays him obscene amounts of money to play hockey, the bigger picture here is that “Hockey Is For Everyone” is actually a big fraud.

The NHL and its two affiliated minor leagues, the AHL and ECHL employ roughly 3000 players, coaches, trainers, scouts and other hockey personnel, across a swath of franchises that spans across the United States and Canada and touches every geographic market.

Of those 3000 individuals, how many publicly identify as LGBTQ? ZERO.

Let that sink in for a moment. It is a statistical impossibility that not one of these athletes or in many cases former athletes are gay or bi. Yet not a single one has the courage to just be themselves and live their lives in the sunlight of transparency? Why is that?

Listen closely to the stories of former athletes, who came out, but only after their playing careers were finished. Football’s David Kopay and Ezra Tuaolo. Baseball’s Billy Beane.  All shared the same heartbreaking story. How they had to go to extreme lengths to hide their sexuality, knowing that being outed would surely spell doom for their careers. Some invented imaginary girlfriends for appearances sake, hyper masculinized their locker room presence, yucked it up in the clubhouse when the laughter and the jokes and the word “faggot” was regularly thrown about. And a piece of their souls died a little bit each day while they simply tried to excel at the sport they loved.

Does today’s NHL openly recruit athletes who might be gay, and offer them a safe place to thrive and flourish, to bring their boyfriends, husbands or partners to be part of their organizations, their clubhouses, their communities? Doubtful.

What would former coach and TV personality Don Cherry have to offer on such a topic? Ever listen to the late Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk on the topic of Pride nights. He would rant and spew venom about the gays in full earshot of staffers. Go across the border to Marcel Dionne’s restaurant in Niagara Falls and you’ll probably find this NHL Hall of Famer running his place and greeting patrons. He has no problem spewing the word “nigger”, repeatedly, at hockey luncheons he hosts. Imagine his take on “showering with fags”.

Times might be changing. In 2020, the Nashville Predators drafted a prospect named Luke Prokop. He currently plays in the juniors as a member of the WHL Seattle Thunderbirds. In summer of 2021, he publicly outed himself and announced that he was gay.

Since he made the announcement on social media, Prokop was traded by one Western Hockey League team to another, won that league’s championship, played in the Canadian Hockey League’s Memorial Cup tournament, wore rainbow-hued skates, received two humanitarian awards and became an inspiration and role model within the LGBTQ+ community worldwide, both inside and outside the sport.

In a 2022 interview, one year after this ground breaking announcement, Prokop spoke in superlatives of how his life has changed in amazing ways, and has staked his claim that someday he will be the first out and proud gay athlete playing in the NHL. During his stint with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL, Prokop’s teammates actually rallied around him and his courage became a lightning rod to foster team cohesiveness.

Luke Prokop, and others like him, whether they be players, coaches, trainers, broadcast members, front office personnel, and even journalists covering the league and its teams. Those are the people that will change this game for the better. Those are the people that will cement the mantra that “Hockey Is For Everyone”.

But not Pride fests. Not rainbow graphics on ribbon boards, not anthem singers who are gay, not feel good promotional nights that are in fact so phony.

So do us a favor, NHL. Scrap Pride Nights. Get your house in order. Figure out the Russians, the homophobia that still swirls in the underbelly of your clubhouses, and amongst your older guard. Take a pause, and then invite the LGBTQ community back the day that Luke Prokop, and others like him, get to don that NHL jersey and live their lives and play the game they love without fear, retribution, or career consequence.

About the author

Jamie Moses

Jamie Moses founded Artvoice in 1990

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