Inside the Sabres: Nilsson proudly waves pride flag - The Buffalo News
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Inside the Sabres: Nilsson proudly waves pride flag

Anders Nilsson has seen his gay friends struggle to find acceptance. He’s waving the flag to help them and others.

The Sabres goaltender has a rainbow pride flag painted on the back of his mask. He’s displaying it on the ice to raise awareness of the LGBT community and be a symbol that hockey welcomes diversity.

“I have a couple friends who are gay, and life hasn’t been easy for them growing up,” Nilsson said. “It’s time that hockey starts to pay some attention to that.”

The 26-year-old decided to put the flag on his mask, near a portrait of his son, after taking part in an inclusion event while playing for Edmonton. He and the Oilers became the first NHL team to use Pride Tape during their annual skills competition in January. The makers of the rainbow-colored tape aim to stop homophobia in hockey.

“We brought awareness last year in Edmonton,” Nilsson said. “We had a skills competition, Edmonton has one every year, and during that game we had rainbow tape. They said they were the first team in North America to do that.

“This summer, I thought why not be the first goalie to put that on the helmet and raise some awareness for that?”

His initiative has earned praise from the You Can Play Project. The NHL and its players’ association have partnered with the cause since 2013. You Can Play was co-founded by Patrick Burke, the NHL’s director of player safety and the son of Calgary Flames President Brian Burke. Patrick’s brother, Brendan, died in a 2010 car accident shortly after announcing he was gay.

Wade Davis, who came out after a career in professional football, is the director of You Can Play.

“Anders Nilsson is courageous beyond the understanding of many,” Davis said via email. “He is taking a risk on multiple fronts and is standing up for something that he believes in, knowing the backlash that could come his way. He's my hero.”

Davis said Nilsson’s decision is meaningful on many fronts.

“For the NHL, it means that they have created an environment where at least one of its players felt safe enough that he could express his views on an issue and that the league would support him,” Davis said. “It also means that the education the league has provided to its players is raising awareness around an issue that impacts everyone, not just the LGBT community.

“For NHL fans, it means they will not be able to watch a Sabres game without being reminded that someone in a hyper-masculine sport cares about a marginalized group that many don't associate with hockey.

“For You Can Play, it means that our efforts to educate players and raise their awareness about the impact their voices can have to create bonds between two communities that are often disconnected is working.

“For someone who's LGBT it means they have a friend and brother in Anders Nilsson. It means that if there's a player or front-office person who is LGBT open or not, they can find safety and comfort knowing that Anders Nilsson is someone they can count on.”

Jason Pominville, while serving as captain of the Sabres in 2012, filmed a promotional video for the You Can Play Project. Nilsson would also like to help the organization. He is by waving the flag.

“Hockey has gone in huge ways the last couple of years,” Nilsson said, “but there’s a lot that needs to be done, especially for the younger ages.”

Missing the fun

The conversation with Nilsson rekindled an oft-thought idea: The Sabres should bring back their annual skills competition and carnival.

The Sabres’ open practice, usually held during the Christmas break, was a must-do holiday experience. The Aud was packed with kids marveling at the players’ skills. Adults enjoyed it, too.

The condensed schedule and a mandatory three-day Christmas break limits how many real practices the Sabres can hold, let alone a relaxed on-ice session. But with more than three-quarters of the game tickets held by season-ticket holders and box-office prices too high for many families to afford, a free afternoon of watching Jack Eichel perform breakaway tricks would go a long way toward reinvigorating the fan base.

McCormick helps The Hip

Gord Downie had a story to tell. Sabres forward Cody McCormick helped share it.

McCormick joined other Indigenous Canadian and Native American leaders on Friday night at North Park Theatre for a one-time showing of “The Secret Path.” The animated film features music from Downie, lead singer of the Tragically Hip, and tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old boy who died from hunger and exposure in 1966 while fleeing the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Ontario.

McCormick, who is of Oneida and Chippewa/Ojibway descent, took part in a post-film roundtable. The Sabres’ foundation donated items, with proceeds going to the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund. For more information, visit SecretPath.ca.

Eichel, the international star

It takes five hours to drive to Ottawa and seven hours to fly because of security and connections, so traveling by car is more convenient. Crossing back into the United States requires going through customs at the Thousand Islands Bridge. That was my point of entry Wednesday after covering Tuesday’s 5-4 victory in Ottawa.

“I know you,” the border patrol agent said. “How about Eichel last night!”

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