Before the Penguins and the Sabres co-hosted the NHL's first-ever joint Pride Game on Saturday at KeyBank Center, a celebratory video featuring players from both teams aired both in the arena and on the national NBC broadcast.
Penguins forward Jared McCann was one of those players, voicing his support for the LGBTQ+ community with some powerful words.
"I think who you love or how you identify, it doesn't change who you are as a person," McCann said. "We want to serve as allies and help create confidence and comfort for everybody."
A short while later, McCann ended up opening the scoring in the first period in an eventual 3-2 Pittsburgh win.
"It's great to see Jared McCann up there speaking on these issues, and then banking a shot in off Dustin Tokarski's pad," said Adam Knoerzer, who cofounded the Pittsburgh Tigers as an LGBTQ+ friendly team back in 2011, and was in attendance at the game. "We're grateful for both (laughs). It means a lot."
For Knoerzer, today felt like a paradigm shift of sorts with how it was a complete joint effort between the two organizations to promote teamwork, inclusion, respect and acceptance in the sport of hockey.
From the players to the front office staff, the Penguins and the Sabres worked together every step of the way on every single initiative (which can be found here) to raise awareness and raise funds for LGBTQ+ communities.
"It was great just to see both teams collaborating and the sportsmanship on all sides about bringing this to light," Knoerzer said.
For as much as they battle on the ice - and today's game certainly was a back-and-forth affair - this event showed that they are all united when it comes to the fight against inequality.
"This is something bigger than hockey," Penguins winger Bryan Rust said. "Hockey is not the end all, be all. With things like this, I think we've got to come together. Whether we're teammates or not, we're all human beings and we're all fighting for the same thing."
And Penguins forward Jason Zucker, who designed a special Pride hat for his Give16 campaign, believes that more teams will follow their lead and adopt a similar model for future Pride Games.
"It just shows that we can come together for a common cause and try to make sure that we're shining a light on something that needs to be spoken about and needs to be brought up in multiple conversations," Zucker said. "I know it's something that's come up in our locker room and been discussed, and I think it needs to continue to be that way in our room and throughout dressing rooms in the league."
With the condensed schedule and limited capacities, the Penguins and the Sabres identified this afternoon as an opportunity to unite their teams to spotlight this event through the national TV broadcast. It ended up turning into something bigger than anyone could have hoped, and having a bigger platform to make positive change was something that the players appreciated.
"I think for myself, the ability to use my platform as a professional athlete and as a Pittsburgh Penguin - not only in the city but hopefully nationwide - to have my voice be heard is special," Rust said. "Whether it reaches one person or reaches a thousand people, if it can help somebody, that's the goal."
Rust and the rest of the players on both teams took the ice for warmups wearing commemorative jerseys featuring the Progress Pride Flag, using pucks with a distinct colorful design with sticks sporting rainbow tape.
"Even just us in the stands, we were like, wow - seeing both teams with rainbow numbers on their jerseys and stuff like that - it just wasn't happening before," Knoerzer said. "Small, symbolic gestures like that let folks like us who are sometimes a little bit shy or maybe hiding in the wings know that we're seen, we're there, it's okay."
Those will be among the items featured in a seven-day online auction that will conclude on April 24 at noon. It is co-hosted by the Penguins and the Sabres, with the proceeds benefiting LGBTQ+ nonprofits in both communities.
Pittsburgh's fundraising will benefit the Tigers and the You Can Play project, which was founded by Penguins president of hockey operations Brian Burke and his son Patrick in honor of the late Brendan Burke.
Brendan, Brian's son and Patrick's brother, tragically passed away in a 2010 car accident after becoming one of the first people closely affiliated with the NHL to come out as gay. So in 2012, Brian and Patrick helped launch the You Can Play project with a goal of ensuring the safety and inclusion for all who participate in sports, including LGBTQ+ athletes, coaches and fans.
"To the LGBTQ+ community, you are welcome in our building, you are welcome on our teams, you are welcome to come watch our games," Burke said. "The message is much broader than sports. We don't care who you go home with, we don't care what church you go to, we don't care what color you are. If you can play and help our team win, you can play."
That's a message which is incredibly important to Knoerzer, as the Tigers' goal is to create an open and supportive environment for anyone and everyone that loves the game of hockey.
He went to the game with his husband and cofounder of the Tigers, Mike Marsico, along with a couple of their teammates. There are many moments that Knoerzer will remember from today, but one that sticks out is something he saw on the concourse: a father with his young daughter, who was completely decked out in rainbow Pride gear.
"She was super excited to be there, waving her flag, and he's just walking with her through the concourse," Knoezer said. "You know, that's what matters about this. It's one of those things where you see that this is learned behavior, and it's so nice to see that there are folks who are not just supportive, but also folks who are excited about this. We were talking to other people in the concourse about it. It was just super cool to see all that kind of stuff coming together."