SUNRISE — The story on Thursday night should have been about the Florida Panthers, a team in a playoff chase, playing host to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Had Eric and Marc Staal slipped on the team’s special Pride Night jerseys and warmed up with their team, the game would have been the story.
Well, perhaps the Staal brothers did the Panthers a favor.
Few are talking about the way Florida got run out of its own building by the Maple Leafs.
Had the Dallas Stars not beaten the Penguins later Thursday night, Florida would find itself three points out of both wild card spots in the East.
The minute word got out on Florida Hockey Now that Eric and Marc Staal decided against joining their teammates for warmups because of the rainbow-adorned practice jersey and what it stood for, the story was always going to be about them.
Win, lose or shootout, the postgame would be focused on the Staals — and why they refused to wear a jersey.
The brothers put out a statement saying they would not wear the Pride jerseys due to their religious beliefs. Regardless, Thursday night ended up becoming all about Pride Night.
Was Florida’s game against Nashville back on March 2 about Star Wars Night?
How about Military Appreciation Night against Minnesota on Jan 21?
Was anyone talking about Grateful Dead Night once that was over?
Thursday night, however, the story was about inclusion.
And, the perceived lack thereof.
The Staals took a stand on the issue. While some liked it and others did not, it still took away from the game at hand.
“There was a little bit of talk and they voiced their opinion,’’ said Matthew Tkachuk, who spoke passionately after the game.
“They have the right to their opinion, whichever way they want to go. For myself, personally, I wore the jersey and I enjoyed being out there and embraced a night like this. We only have so many of these nights throughout the season whether it is Military Night or Hockey Fights Cancer Night.
”A night like tonight, for me, is just about including everyone. It is, in my opinion, the greatest game in the world and everyone is welcome in our locker room and into our organization. I think our organization has done an unbelievable job of showing that and embracing that starting from (owner) Vinnie Viola all the way down to the players. It all started here, we were the first to use the tape and we continue the tradition every year. We want to show hockey is for every single person and we welcome everybody.”
As Florida coach Paul Maurice, Tkachuk and captain Sasha Barkov said, the Staals have every right to not wear something they are uncomfortable with.
If they felt they are being hypocritical by wearing something that pushes a lifestyle they do not believe in, hey, that is their call. No one is saying it is not.
But that right does not absolve them from criticism, either.
Especially since both have worn similar jerseys for other teams in the past.
The Staal brothers, it should be noted, have not rebelled against gay Pride jerseys with other teams.
Although Eric Staal denied it, there is video of him charging out of the tunnel at the Bell Center as a member of the Montreal Canadiens wearing a Pride jersey in 2021.
It was an empty arena due to Covid, so, perhaps it was not such a big deal.
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) May 1, 2021
Marc Staal took part in the New York Rangers’ Pride Night in 2020. Madison Square Garden was anything but empty that night.
This is not a ‘Gotcha!’ Moment, but it obviously was not a problem in the past.
It was on Thursday.
So, what changed?
Was it as simple as they changed their mind on being part of such an event?
Or, did Philadelphia defenseman Ivan Provorov and San Jose goalie James Reimer declining to take part in their team’s Pride Nights citing religious beliefs give them the idea that they, too, should back out?
Perhaps that gets cleared up down the road. Maybe not.
Neither player would address it Thursday.
Eric Staal was standing by his stall on Thursday waiting for the media to come in. He did not say much but appeared to be on the verge of breaking down.
Although he would not answer any direct questions — aside from denying he ever wore a Pride jersey despite evidence from Montreal to the contrary — he would only reference the message their agent likely wrote on an iPhone before it was released to the media.
The truth is, the Staals and the attention they brought did not cost the Panthers this game against the Maple Leafs.
Florida simply got outplayed.
Did the Staals play well in the game? Not particularly. They were definitely not alone.
But the story did become about them. And, by deciding they were not going to slip on that jersey and go out and shoot some pucks around before the game, they knew it would be.
Want to talk about the game? Florida was not good for a lot of it. While the score was tied early, Toronto never trailed. The Maple Leafs came off a 7-2 shellacking on Long Island, regrouped, and blew out the Panthers.
The Panthers will practice this afternoon in Sunrise and the conversation will turn back to the team figuring out a way to beat the New York Rangers on Saturday.
Maybe the team will thank the Staals for taking the attention off the Toronto game and placing it on themselves.
Probably not though.
The Panthers did a nice job on their Pride Night regardless of what you may think about it. One that would have gone on, without much mention, had the Staals not made it the focal point.
“My thought is, the story is not about them,’’ Maurice said. “The story is about the rest of the group being excited, the organization and the fans being excited to celebrate a great night.
“These are grown men who have lived in their faith their whole lives. This is not new to them. They have the right to take that stand. The rest of the players wore that sweater proudly and I hope we conveyed that message of ‘welcome to our building, welcome to our franchise and welcome to the great game of hockey.’ ‘
“I love both of those men and they have the right to their opinion. I stand by that right. But everyone else in the room has the right to put that sweater on proudly and wear it and be welcoming to all people in our community. Hopefully we can win the next one for you.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
NEW YORK RANGERS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Saturday, 5 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Rangers won 2-1
- This season (New York leads 2-0): Rangers 5, Panthers 3 (Jan. 1); Rangers 6, Panthers 2 (Jan. 23)
- All-time regular season series: Rangers lead 59-32-8, 6 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Florida at Ottawa Senators, Monday, 7 p.m.