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Gabriel scores big win for inclusion with use of Pride Tape in NHL game

Devils forward's support of LGBTQ community lauded by co-founder of rainbow-colored adhesive

by William Douglas @WDouglasNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- To Kurtis Gabriel, it was a simple gesture, no big deal at the time. But to Jeff McLean, it was a moment in LGBTQ history.

Gabriel, a forward for the New Jersey Devils, had rainbow-colored Pride Tape wrapped around the top of his stick on Feb. 25, when he scored the winning goal against the Montreal Canadiens in a game that was nationally-televised in Canada.

He became the first NHL player to use Pride Tape in the game, sending a visible message of support of the LGBTQ community's quest for inclusion and acceptance in society.

"I had goosebumps," said McLean, a co-founder Pride Tape. "Kurtis had just single-handedly scored for acceptance, equality and inclusion in sport."

Gabriel thought it would be "kind of nice and people might appreciate" that he had the Pride Tape on his stick after fellow Devils players wrapped their stick blades with it for warmups on their Pride Night game at the Prudential Center, but switched back to their usual black or white tape for the game.

He quickly learned how powerful his gesture was when he returned to the locker room following the Devils' 2-1 win against the Canadiens.

"Coming back in the locker room, seeing my phone, I got messages not only from friends and family about the goal, but messages from social media, all sorts of different people and platforms about how I was using the tape and that I was advocating gay rights and how it's good for a hockey player to be doing that," Gabriel said.

The 26-year-old forward kept the tape on his stick for the rest of the season, not out of superstition -- he didn't score another goal after that -- but as a continuous message of support for the LGBTQ community.

The message is also personal. Gabriel and his girlfriend are friends with a lesbian couple with one partner whose family wasn't supportive of her coming out and being in a same-sex relationship.

"I can see how that can really be hard," Gabriel said. "If I wasn't supported by my family, because my mom is everything to me, if she didn't support me in something like that I would be devastated. It kind of made me more aware of the [LGBTQ] issue."

So much so that Gabriel, who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, said he'll keep Pride Tape on the top of his sticks next season.

"I've got it on all my stick-handling sticks, my off-ice sticks that I use home in London [Ontario]," he said. "I'm never going to run out of tape. Now that I know Jeff, I'm going to have an endless supply of Pride Tape."

Video: The Power of Pride Tape: Devils' Kurtis Gabriel

McLean and Gabriel have formed a friendship, a solid bond held together by hockey tape. The two first met in March when the Devils were in Vancouver to play the Canucks.

They got together again at a Toronto diner in May to talk about the tape for a video that's part of the NHL's and NHL Players' Association's Pride Month observance in June.

"I was compelled to meet Kurtis in person because I needed to tell him that his use of Pride Tape is making a positive impact around the world," McLean said. "Kurtis has made himself so available. We go back and forth talking about various things now and I think we've struck up a friendship through this, which I think is really great."

McLean didn't know much about Gabriel before Dean Petruk, another Pride Tape co-founder who was based in Vancouver, telephoned him and urged him to turn on the Devils-Canadiens game in February.  

"He said 'I think there's a guy who still has Pride tape on the end of his stick from warmup,'" McLean said. "I was freaking out. I was trying to get the right picture of it on my phone, trying to rewind and fast forward. Then Kurtis was in the penalty box and I'm, like, 'Oh I can see the stick while he's in the penalty box. They keyed in on him and there was the stick leaning against the glass with all the colors and it was, like' 'Wow, this is so surreal.' It still is.'"

McLean, Petruk and Kris Wells, who was then the faculty director of the University of Alberta's Sexual Minority Studies Services, helped create Pride tape in 2016 as a response to homophobic statements made in society, on social media and particularly in sports.

"We discovered that there were kids leaving sports at early ages, they were coming into their own sexuality, because they didn't feel safe in a locker room environment," McLean said. 

 

[RELATED: NHL, NHLPA to celebrate Pride Month]

 

McLean, a hockey fan, said they decided to focus on hockey and decided that rainbow-colored tape would be the perfect product to convey a message "which speaks volumes without having (its users) say a word."

The questions were could they actually make a functional multi-colored tape that looked good on a stick and who would use it?

They raised more than $50,000 to manufacture the first 10,000 rolls of tape through a Kickstarter campaign that included contributions from Brian Burke, who was then the president of hockey operations for the Calgary Flames. 

His son, Brendan Burke, was an openly gay hockey player who died in a car accident in February 2010 at the age of 21. 

The Edmonton Oilers were the first professional team to embrace Pride Tape. Players had it on their sticks during an Oilers team skills competition in 2016.

A stick with Pride Tape from then-Oilers forward Beniot Pouliot is on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Soon afterwards, pro leagues in Great Britain and Australia asked for the tape, McLean said.

For the past two years, all 31 NHL teams have used Pride Tape in public service announcements or in warmups during Pride nights or You Can Play events, but never in a game.

Then came Gabriel.

"What he did was a game-changer," Wells said. 

Gabriel said putting rainbow-colored tape on a stick proves that a little gesture can grow into something special and meaningful. But he longs for the day when the tape isn't necessary.

"Hopefully, one day we won't need the tape and we'll look back on a time and say, 'Isn't that silly that we needed tape on a stick to let everyone know it's okay that we accept everyone from different types of backgrounds, religions and sexual orientation, everything.'"

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