ARLINGTON, Va. -- Candidates for the U.S. men's national hockey team for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, convened in Northern Virginia the past two days and answered questions from the media about their chances of making the team, memories of past Olympic Games and preparations for the 2013-14 NHL season.
Many were also asked about a controversial new law in Russia, which bans the "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations." It went into effect June 30, and has become known as Russia’s "anti-gay law."
The law has sparked protests and brought politics into hockey at the Olympics. NHL players will be some of the most recognizable athletes in Sochi, and players from all of the participating countries are being asked their opinions.
"I think the position of USA Hockey is hockey is for everyone," St. Louis Blues captain David Backes said. "I think as an American who believes in the freedom that we have and the way that we run our society and culture, everyone has the right to participate in sports or live their lifestyle the way that they want. I’m supportive of anyone. We had our first gay basketball professional athlete come out this year. My stance was then -- and it is now -- is anyone is welcome in my locker room with the St. Louis Blues that lives that lifestyle.
"I don’t care if you’re black, white, green, purple, gold; what you think as long as you’re committed to the team aspect and the way that we’re playing, you’re always welcome on my team. I think the guys on this team would all agree that we’re going over to play a great sport, but we don’t have to agree with everything they do and they don’t have to agree with everything we do. We’ve got our views and we’ll see how that all pans out."
Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise, part of a leadership core for the 2014 American team along with Minnesota teammate Ryan Suter, Los Angeles Kings captain Dustin Brown, New York Rangers captain Ryan Callahan and Backes, also spoke out against the law.
"With the [National Hockey League Players' Association] supporting it and USA Hockey, they are always preaching everyone has the right to play," Parise said to NHL.com. "I don’t discriminate. I don’t believe in that. I don’t think it is fair, and I don’t agree with it."
The NHL has partnered with the You Can Play Project, a non-profit organization which, according to its site, has worked to ensure "equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation."
Patrick Burke, the new Director of Player Safety for the NHL, is a co-founder of You Can Play. There are two NHL players on the advisory board. Another member of the board is Brian Burke, Patrick’s father and the director of player personnel for the 2014 men's national team.
"Our view on this is very simple. USA Hockey believes hockey is for everybody," Brian Burke said to NHL.com. "USA Hockey supports You Can Play. USA Hockey deplores this legislation. But we are not going to call for a boycott. That punishes the athlete. We expect the Russian government to guarantee the safety of our athletes, coaches, officials, families, friends. We expect that group will be immune from prosecution during the Games.
"I think until these laws are repealed, my call on the [International Olympic Committee] and the U.S. Olympic Committee is to make sure Russia is not awarded an international competition of any kind until these laws are repealed. People forget -- or if they are not aware -- that when the IOC granted these Games to Sochi, these rules were not on the book. They are relatively recent. It has to change. It's wrong. I don't think that when you go into a host country you should dictate what they do, but this is a basic human right that is being trampled and it has to change. Until it does, in my mind, no federation should be granted any games of any kind -- any competition of any kind -- in Russia."
The players know that these questions won't go away and could intensify as the tournament draws near. For the American players, there is an understanding that those questions come with the territory of being invited to represent your country. They also see it as an opportunity to spread the word about the inclusive nature of the sport they have chosen.
"It is something that when you are representing your country, people want to know your opinion on that," Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle said. "You just have to give your opinion and what you think. We all know that hockey is for everyone, and we take that pride in that. Especially guys in the NHL, we know we cater to all aspects of life and take a great deal of pride in it.
"The Russians playing in Russia might have a little more extra pressure added, but for us we just go out and play hard. Every day you get asked questions and you just have to be yourself. ... All we can control is what we can do. We know that hockey here is for everyone. Everyone can play and do what they love and we support. If you look at the NHL and what it has done with [Burke] to get the game to be like that, it is really good for our game."