Johnston: Why Travis Dermott decided to defy the NHL’s Pride tape ban, and why he’s dropping it for now

When Travis Dermott takes the ice in Los Angeles on Tuesday night, he plans to do so without the strip of Pride tape that thrust the Arizona Coyotes defenseman into the middle of one of the NHL’s most controversial topics over the weekend.

“I think the one game probably ruffled enough feathers and got enough attention,” Dermott told The Athletic on Monday night.

This is not a case of the 26-year-old being silenced or deterred, though.

Not exactly.

Some 48 hours after he skated in defiance of a new NHL rule that prohibits players from displaying “cause messaging” on their equipment by wrapping Pride tape around the shaft of his Warrior stick on Saturday afternoon, Dermott had yet to even be contacted directly by any league officials.

However, given the chance to gauge the immense amount of coverage and attention his act of LGBTQ+ allyship received and with some time to reflect on how it may have put members of the Coyotes organization in an awkward position, he figures his point had effectively been made.

And that there still exist other avenues for him to continue to make it.

“The war’s not over. Definitely not, by any means,” Dermott said. “You don’t want to fully back off and zip your mouth up when something like this happens, but you’ve got to find the right game plan to attack it with.

“Where you’re supporting your organization and not making them look bad, and you don’t want to step on the league’s toes and really start a fight with them, but still tell them that I think this stuff’s important.”

Dermott didn’t consult with management, the coaching staff or any of his peers before wrapping the rainbow-colored tape around the shaft of his stick shortly before a 2-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks at Mullett Arena.

It’s a practice he’s regularly followed dating to his days in the AHL, and the only reason it took until the fifth game of Arizona’s season for him to use the tape again was that he was awaiting a new shipment after misplacing his previous batch during an offseason move from Vancouver.

Dermott was aware of the new NHL regulations, but he felt it was important to continue showing support for a cause and a community that are near and dear to his heart.

“None of the players really saw me put it on my stick,” Dermott said. “It was kind of just an: ‘All right, I’m doing this, and we’re going to deal with the consequences and move forward, and hopefully I’ll have a positive impact on some people that needed that positive impact.’”

While it’s not surprising that Dermott would put himself out there in the name of supporting the LGBTQ+ community given his long history of doing so — “I had someone close to me who is in that community and wasn’t completely comfortable coming out, and still hasn’t, actually,” he said — it makes it all the more notable that he did so at a time when he’s fighting to re-establish himself in the league.

Dermott was limited to just 11 games with the Canucks last season because of lingering concussion issues and is playing on a two-way contract now that would see him paid at a reduced rate if the Coyotes elect to send him to AHL Tucson.

In his skates, it would have been far easier to do nothing given the current climate at the NHL’s head office.

So why did he instead become the first player to defy a rule that’s generated considerable consternation in dressing rooms across the continent?

“It’s easy to forget that it’s a battle if it’s not in front of you,” Dermott said. “If you don’t see it every day, if it’s swept under the rug, if it’s just hidden from the naked eye, it’s easy to forget that there’s a group of people that don’t feel like they belong because the majority of people do feel like they belong.

“Once we stop thinking about that, I think that’s when it gets dangerous.”

Dermott openly acknowledges that he experienced some anxiety in the wake of Saturday’s game. He never imagined the reaction would be as significant and widespread as it was. That started to dissipate when it became clear the Coyotes were willing to stand alongside him.

“The reaction that I’ve gotten is complete support from my team,” Dermott said.

He did note that he apologized to the equipment staff for using the Pride tape without telling them.

“They’re the ones that are supposed to make sure that all of our gear is up to spec and legal and all that stuff,” he said. “I did feel a little bit like I betrayed those guys. … But I think at the same time they’re so good at understanding and they know that I wasn’t being malicious toward them.”

The challenge now is finding ways to keep supporting Pride initiatives against the backdrop of the new NHL rules.

The Coyotes are scheduled to host their Pride night on Friday — the first team to do so since the league clarified its regulations in an Oct. 9 memo distributed to teams — and Dermott is still working through his own plans to mark that occasion.

“My Instagram will probably be more active from here on out,” he said. “I’m going to be actively finding ways now that I don’t completely shut up and … don’t piss off the league and (comply) with their rules.

“But, yeah, I’m still here. The fight’s not over. We’re going to continue to talk about this. And if the league doesn’t want it to be on league time then we’ll find other ways.”

Like many of his peers, Dermott was emotional when he found out the NHL was prohibiting cause messaging this season. That decision came out of June’s board of governors meeting after a handful of players created headlines last season by refusing to join their teammates and wear Pride sweaters during warmups.

“You can see it as the league’s taking away our voice,” said Dermott. “We can’t speak. We don’t have any of this expression anymore. I feel like that’s a valid way to think, and it’s easy to kind of see it that way. A lot of people do, and I’m sure will continue to.

“It’s such a fine line where the league wants to look good and the league wants to support all of these things, but you also don’t want all of the negativity that can come from someone not supporting it and you don’t want to force people who don’t support something to support something, and I completely understand that point of view.

“I can take a step back and see that, hands down, no problem. But at the same time, you’d love for players to still be able to express themselves if they would like. You’d love to still have that.”

Dermott speaks passionately about the people he’s met in the LGBTQ+ community since first publicly supporting the cause. Through heart-to-heart conversations, he’s learned that it’s sometimes the most outgoing personalities in a room who privately benefit from seeing an NHL player “with a strip of tape on their stick.”

“I don’t hear of many people really spending time with the LGBTQ community and feeling pushed away from them,” said Dermott. “You only get more comfortable with stuff like that and you learn that they’re people, too — completely normal people that have the majority of the exact same life as you, so why would we treat them differently just because of who they’re interested in or not interested in?

“It just seems insane to me.”

And to many others, it seems. Dermott was overwhelmed with the outpouring of support that followed his decision Saturday. He estimates that the tone of those messages was “99.99 percent positive.”

“As athletes, we have such a great platform to spread love, and I think if we’re not spreading that love then what the hell are we doing?”

(Photo: Zac BonDurant / Getty Images)

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