BUFFALO – Out of concern for his safety, Russian-born defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin did not participate in the pregame warm-up Monday when the Sabres wore Pride-themed jerseys to celebrate the LGBTQ community.
Lyubushkin, 28, did play in the Sabres’4-3 shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens. He did not speak to the media following the team’s morning skate.
In December, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill that makes it illegal to spread “LGBTQ propaganda.” Lyubushkin returns to Russia with his family during the offseason.
In a statement, the Sabres said “it is of the utmost importance 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 warm-ups,” the statement reads. “That said, we are aware of general threats to certain players and understand their decision to forego the risk.
“We continue to advocate for under-represented groups in hockey and hope that our Pride Night, like many across the league, spark meaningful conversation and encourages support for the LGBTQIA+ community within the sport of hockey and our community.”
Sabres captain Kyle Okposo said Lyubushkin has the full support of his teammates.
“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.
“I think that passing judgment on him without trying to understand the full scope of his decision would be unwise. We support him.”
Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, an alternate captain, called Lyubushkin “an unreal guy, one of the best guys I’ve ever met.”
“So we support him,” he said. “I can’t imagine what he’s going through.”
Okposo said “having an honest discussion and having a difficult conversation as a group is not going to be something that ostracizes one player.”
“From a group standpoint, that’s not going to be an issue at all,” he said.
Coach Don Granato the Sabres have “a deep care … for more understanding.”
“Understanding of consciousness, I guess,” he said. “This brings consciousness of, ‘OK, let’s talk about how we think or feel or believe and is it right?’ I think it’s good. I think that’s why we need to take initiatives as organizations where you can, when you can, for good causes.”
Pride Nights have been annual events throughout the NHL for years. This season, however, four players – the Florida Panthers’ Eric and Marc Staal, San Jose Sharks goalie James Reimer and Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov – have cited their religious beliefs and refused to wear to the Pride jerseys.
Instead, they did not warm up.
The Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild and New York Rangers did not wear Pride-themed jerseys during warm-ups for their Pride nights.
Okposo said someone who works on diversity issues recently told him, “I know you have empathy.”
“I have empathy for my teammate, for Boosh, in the situation that he’s in, but think about it if there’s a closeted gay member of a team and you have to have empathy for that person too in that situation,” he said. “I think that really struck a cord for me because we have to realize that and that’s part of being accepting and that’s why we want to be accepting. That’s why we want to be open, that’s why we want to be able to have these conversations and I think in this forum, which is in the public, so many people are afraid to say the wrong things or scared that they’re going to be judged for what they say.
“And I think the real change and real positive conversations and the way that we’re going to be able to move the needle forward happens behind closed doors and happens when everybody is able to share opinions and feel valued and not be scared to share what they have to say, and everybody is going to listen.”
Dahlin said he doesn’t agree with anyone who questions the culture of hockey and suggests it might not be for everyone.
“I have all sorts of friends,” he said. “The way people are seeing hockey from the outside is not true. We are brothers in here and everyone can be themselves. No one is judging. We are kind people.”
The Sabres will be auctioning off the Pride jerseys worn in warm-ups. Proceeds will benefit GLYS WNY, Niagara Pride, Pride Center of WNY and Upstate New York Black & Latino Pride.
Sabres winger Vinnie Hinostroza, who left the team late last week for personal reasons, skated with his teammates Monday morning.
“It’s going to take a little bit,” Granato said of Hinostroza playing. “… It’s not a position you should throw a guy into yet. He’ll need a couple days before we consider it.”
Meanwhile, winger Jordan Greenway (upper body) skated but missed his fourth straight game.
Granato said he expects goalie Craig Anderson, who hasn’t skated with his teammates since he was pulled from last Tuesday’s game, to be on the ice today or Wednesday. The Sabres have said Anderson has been absent for maintenance.