How Seattle Thunderbirds fans made their own Pride Night

Courtesy of the Seattle Thunderbirds

Pride Nights have extra meaning for Luke Prokop.

In 2021, the Nashville Predators prospect became the first active player under NHL contract to come out as gay. This year, he has watched as Pride Nights in the NHL have met with player boycotts and teams lowering their levels of participation.

"I share the disappointment in what feels like a step back for inclusion in the NHL," he said in a statement in March.

Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov, San Jose Sharks goalie James Reimer, Montreal Canadiens forward Denis Gurianov and Florida Panthers players Eric and Marc Staal all refused to participate in warmups because their teammates wore jerseys that symbolically welcomed the LGBTQIA+ community to their games.

Some Russian players, such as Buffalo Sabres defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin, cited a recently passed anti-gay propaganda law by the Kremlin that they said could put their security at risk if they wore a Pride jersey. The New York Rangers, Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks -- all of whom have Russian players -- decided no player would wear Pride Night warmup jerseys despite previously announcing that they would.

"Everyone is entitled to their own set of beliefs, but I think it's important to recognize the difference between endorsing a community and respecting individuals within it," Prokop wrote. "Pride Nights are an essential step towards fostering greater acceptance and understanding in hockey."

Prokop is a defenseman for the Seattle Thunderbirds, a major junior hockey team in the Western Hockey League. He was acquired by Seattle -- a hockey team that did not have a Pride Night scheduled for this season -- in an October 2022 trade with the Edmonton Oil Kings for three draft picks.

"If there's a team in the WHL or anywhere right now that should be having a Pride Night, it's the team that has Luke Prokop on it," said Jarred Shelton, a Thunderbirds fan. "It just seemed like a really weird void to exist."

Thunderbirds fans decided to fill that void. At a time when some NHL teams are reconsidering their approach to Pride Night, Seattle fans approached their team with a grassroots solution to their lack of a Pride Night.

The fans would organize one on their own, creating a DIY Pride Night on March 23 that was memorable and to Prokop quite significant.

"It meant a lot to me," Prokop told ESPN in late March. "Seeing all the fans that enjoyed the night ... the night is about them, not me. It's about being able to come to a hockey game and feel like you're in a safe space to watch that game."

The NHL's dilemma with Pride Nights

Emily Kaplan joins "Outside the Lines" to discuss NHL's LBGTQIA+ Pride Nights and the player concerns that have come with them.

THERE'S NOTHING THAT gets fans' passions stoked more than a bitter rivalry with a geographic rival.

One primary catalyst for Seattle's Fan Pride Night? The fact that the Portland Winterhawks hosted one Jan. 27.

"You see Portland do something and you think, 'We're a better city than them, we're a better team than them,'" Shelton said. "I mean, I don't want to give them a ton of credit, but that was the start of it."

Seattle Thunderbirds president Colin Campbell -- no relation to the longtime NHL executive of the same name -- said the team had held a Pride Night "a number of years ago" but hadn't planned on another one this season for a variety of reasons.

"Our philosophy is when we do these things, we really want to be able to impact the cause," he said. "This year, we were still coming out of COVID from the previous two years and so we didn't put it on our promotional calendar. With the supply chain and all of these things, it really needs to be planned well ahead of time."

Campbell said the team has to order its game jerseys a year and a half before wearing them. For the 2022-23 campaign, the Thunderbirds had a specialty jersey on St. Patrick's Day to benefit the team's education fund, but "didn't do any cause-marketing ones" during the season, he said. The team's promotional calendar is mostly 2-for-1 ticket nights.

"We want to affect change in the things that we do. With the timing and everything else, we didn't think we could," Campbell said of Pride Night. "It wasn't on our radar. We didn't plan far enough in advance to do something that would be impactful. But at the end of the day, [the fan initiative] was impactful."

The planning for the fan-driven Pride Night started in late January, but the desire had been there, according to Rebecca Bower, a Thunderbirds season-ticket holder who helped steer the initiative.

"Fans had been wanting a Pride Night for a while. This season, just having Luke on the team, the issues with the NHL and seeing our rival Portland have a Pride Night ... I think all of that played a factor into actually doing it," she said.

Bower said the current Pride Night controversies in the NHL were a significant motivator for fans to create one for the Thunderbirds.

"I definitely think it had a large impact. As more things happen in the NHL, the more frustrating and disheartening it was for all of us," she said. "As an ally, I never want to speak for the community but I want to speak in support of them. It's awful. The NHL has this whole 'hockey is for everyone' motto. Well, you're letting individuals have their beliefs by not wearing it, but then you're not also letting players wear it if they want to. So it's very hypocritical."

The NHL said in January that, "Clubs decide whom to celebrate, when and how -- with League counsel and support. Players are free to decide which initiatives to support, and we continue to encourage their voices and perspectives on social and cultural issues."

Bower was on a group chat of Thunderbirds fans that discussed these issues and had addressed the lack of a Pride Night in Seattle. Erica Kiesler underscored those conversations on social media, asking, "Is every team except Seattle having a Pride Night?"

A Thunderbirds fan Twitter account run by Shelton called @TBirdTidbits suggested that March 21 could be a target date for a fan Pride Night.

"I originally picked March 21 because it was International Colors Day," Shelton told ESPN. "So, you know, wear your favorite colors. I posted a picture of the LGBTQ+ flag and said these are some color suggestions for you."

Shelton left for Europe for a trip and returned to find there was still buzz for a fan-driven Pride Night. His wife made a graphic to formally announce March 21 as the Fan Pride Night.

Bower would serve as a liaison between the fans and the team, having been an intern with the Thunderbirds a few years ago. But before getting down to details and making a big social media push for the event, Bower wanted to make sure Prokop was OK with it all.

"He was going to be my first priority," she said. "No one wanted him to feel like there was a spotlight on him or that he was singled out. We didn't want him to feel like it was like 'Luke's pride night' or that we're only having one because he's on the team."

She said she realized Prokop was aware of their plans when he retweeted a promotion for the event.

"I told him there was still time to kill this if you're not comfortable with it. He responded that he was all for it and was like, 'Just try not to piss off the organization too much,'" Bower said with a laugh.

Luckily, she found Seattle management was enthusiastic about a fan-led Pride initiative. It discussed logistics, including everything from the fans' plans for the night to any security concerns. The Thunderbirds offered permission to the fans to use rainbow versions of the team's logos -- as long as it wasn't to create merch for profit.

"We're a minor league team," Campbell said. "When they wanted to create the initiative, I didn't want to do a bunch of things that we were making money on it. So if they could do something that was cost-effective for them to get behind and we approved them using our logo, it just seemed like a natural progression in this fan-led initiative."

THE MARCH 21 GAME would feature the Thunderbirds against the Kamloops Blazers. The Blazers wore their first Pride Night jerseys the following night against the Thunderbirds back in Kamloops. The jerseys, featuring the rainbow flag but with added colors representing marginalized communities, were auctioned off for charity.

The fan-driven Pride Night for the Thunderbirds had neither player jerseys nor a charity component. Any profits made were intended to cover costs.

Bower ordered 100 shirts with the rainbow Thunderbirds logo on it before cutting off requests. She made decals people could iron on themselves and emailed the logo to others. Fans began to game-plan what they'd bring to the arena, from signs to light-up flags to temporary tattoos. Some dyed their hair in rainbow colors to prepare for the game.

"It was crazy how much it blew up, honestly," Bower said. "I don't think any of us expected it to be this big. It was really cool to see what people brought."

The organizers weren't sure how much participation there would be from the Thunderbirds themselves. Their social channels hadn't pushed Pride Night. It wasn't clear if the players would participate.

Shelton said a Thunderbirds fan provided rainbow Pride tape to the team trainer, who gave the players the option to use it.

Every player used it in warmups that night. It was on their sticks and on their socks. Coaches made pocket squares from the tape.

All of it touched Prokop.

"Being on a new team this year, with a whole different group of guys, is always a little nerve-wracking," he said. "But they all put the tape on by choice. I didn't ask them to. Some of them even kept it on for the actual game instead of just in warmups."

Inside the arena, the team changed its scoreboard graphics for Pride Night and made announcements to highlight the event. After the game, Seattle acknowledged the fans' Pride Night with images shared on social media and on recap videos.

"I think that made a really big statement: Look at this team that came together to support not only their teammate, but then the community themselves," Bower said. "I think that had a really big impact. This is a team that didn't have to do anything because it was the fans doing it. But they still did it anyways. No one was forcing them to do anything."

Seth Kosmach, who said he's "a longtime gay fan of the Thunderbirds and hockey in general," was part of the group chat that helped organize the event.

"I know several other LGBTQ+ fans that either regularly go on their own, or have gone to games with me multiple times. I'd been expressing discontent for years that the team, with the diverse fan base they have, hasn't had a Pride Night," Kosmach said.

He admitted to getting emotional as he walked into Seattle's arena on Pride Night and saw rainbows on the video screens and heard the event formally announced to the crowd.

"The crowds of people walking around with flags large and small, homemade shirts and other rainbow items made me feel even more welcome than I'd already felt in my entire time as a T-Bird fan," he said. "Suffice to say, I was overcome with absolute joy that night."

Something Shelton anticipated he might see at the game but didn't: backlash from fans who didn't realize they were attending Pride Night or disagreed with it.

"I don't know how much you know about Kent [where the team plays], but we're not exactly Seattle. As you get further south or get further east, it becomes a little more purple than Seattle proper would be. So I'm sure there were some people that weren't expecting this or would have preferred that it wasn't there," he said. "But there wasn't a single person that I interacted with or heard that was negative."

Campbell said the current controversies over Pride Nights in the NHL weren't a concern for him or the Thunderbirds.

"We support 'hockey is for everyone' and it being all-inclusive. It's all about creating a conversation so that people can voice their concerns and support and all of those things. So it didn't cross our minds," he said. "We're 100 percent behind getting everybody involved and being able to be a part of the game of hockey."

Of course, there's a different dynamic at play for the Thunderbirds in that they have an openly gay player on their roster. But Campbell said that doesn't necessarily change the conversation about Pride Night in his market.

"Luke wants to be a hockey player, right? So that's really what we support. He's a leader on our team. So yes, it's part of a conversation, but it really isn't something that changes our approach or anything that we're doing," he said. "We support him. He's a tremendous leader on our team, a pretty good squad that has a chance to make a run in the playoffs. He's a huge part of that."

Prokop said Seattle "did a great job organizing our Pride Night" with the fans.

"We've got a very passionate fan base here," Campbell said. "It made it a lot more special than what it would've been if it was one of our initiatives. We thought it created a conversation, which is really what you're trying to do with this stuff. And so we were extremely happy at how it came together."

Hockey fan Michaela Gray tweeted images from the game that went viral around the hockey world, with Seattle's players and fans getting lauded on social media:

CAMPBELL SAID THE TEAM will discuss how to approach Pride Night for next season, taking this fan-led approach under consideration.

Shelton said this approach might work elsewhere in hockey, especially as NHL teams navigate how to amplify the progressive benefits to Pride Night over the negative attention from players boycotting pregame skates during them.

"A fan-led thing just makes it seem so much more authentic, right? The team isn't checking a box. It's not one of those 35 nights that get lost in the calendar. It doesn't have to be in the absence of the team doing anything, but I would just love to see more fan-led initiatives like this," Shelton said.

"Pride is a very important one, but there are lots of them under that 'hockey is for everyone' banner. If the fans were to do it, that might spread the message even further than when the team does it."