The disappointing failure of James Reimer

We’re at a point in North American society where more people are outwardly-comfortable identifying as Atheist than probably at any other point in history. I personally don’t, but I can easily understand why this is. All manner of religious institutions have seen themselves either mired in scandal (whether it’s sexual abuse or the genocide of Indigenous peoples), or the wrong side of history (advocating terrorism… or the genocide of Indigenous peoples).  As someone who identifies as Christian, I have long since come to the conclusion that human beings have proven themselves over and over incapable of forming a community around a religious belief. I personally think that a person’s relationship with a higher power must be a personal one, and the second you take it beyond that it gets perverted. We have thousands of years of human strife backing up my position.

So, why am I typing about this now?

This past weekend San Jose Sharks goaltender James Reimer refused to wear a “Pride Night” warm-up jersey that expressed support for the LGBTQ+ community. He’s not the first National Hockey League player to do so this season; in January Philadelphia Flyers defenceman Ivan Provorov refused to wear a similar practice jersey. Both players have cited their religious faith as the reason for their refusal. Both players identify as Christian – Provorov is Russian Orthodox and Reimer grew up in an evangelical Mennonite community. Provorov’s decision made the news in January, and as someone who doesn’t pay much attention to the Flyers’ defensive core, I didn’t give it much thought beyond rolling my eyes at the old-world bigotry that is preventing so many institutions, such as hockey, to evolve and become more welcoming to different types of people.

With Reimer, I can’t so easily move past the issue. I’ve been a fan of his for twelve years, ever since the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2010-2011 season when he rose up through the team’s battered goaltending staff to take over the number one position between the pipes. I admired how much he would battle to keep pucks out of the net, outworking forwards with the opposite aim. I liked the humility and decency he would project in interviews. I saw how happy he was to interact with fans. I experienced this myself when I attended a game-day skate in Edmonton in 2015 and he took the time to sign my jersey and pose for a photo with me. Much attention had been paid to Reimer’s Christian faith at the time, but I didn’t see that as having to be a bad thing. I liked it when he would look up and offer thanks to the heavens after notching a win. I viewed it as evidence of some moral grounding – he seemed less likely to partake in the debauchery his peers throughout the league would. His character seemed steady, and that was a someone my fledgling hockey team needed desperately. I have remained a fan since he was traded from the Leafs, and have followed his career with interest.

This is why I have found his position over these Pride Night sweaters so disappointing on a number of levels. Firstly, I think any religion should be able to stand up to a little intellectual questioning, and from where I’m sitting it’s clear that both Reimer and Provorov have not done that. Secondly, it’s clear to me that the intolerance displayed by Reimer and Provorov flies in the face of the teachings of their supposed saviour. Finally, there is a dire need for the culture of hockey and professional sport to evolve to be more welcoming to members of different races and cultures, and that won’t happen if players like Reimer obstruct such progress.

I totally understand why so many people around the world feel the need to believe in a higher spirit; there are so many things about our world that we can’t understand. If a belief in an overarching entity helps things make more sense and therefore allows you to live your life in a more sure-footed way, who am I to complain? However, if you’re James Reimer, and you believe in the Judeo-Christian God, then that God gave you a brain. A Christian like Reimer should be confident that the religion in which he invests so much of his faith should be able to withstand a smattering of critical thought – especially since that’s what his Saviour said. The Gospel of Matthew has Jesus preaching, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” I have always interpreted this as Jesus inviting his followers to demand answers to their questions instead of following him blindly, which makes it so disappointing that Reimer stated, “In this specific instance, I am choosing not to endorse something that is counter to my personal convictions which are based on the Bible, the highest authority of my life.” He says that right after he acknowledges that Jesus asks his followers to love everyone. Reimer cites the Bible, a book in which Jesus never condemned homosexuality.

If there is anything that drives me crazy about modern-day evangelical Christians, it’s that more attention is paid to the teachings of today’s clergy and higher-ups in the church than the actual teachings of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. From where I’m sitting, it’s clear to me that Reimer is following the modern Church’s homophobia than anything Jesus did or didn’t preach. Reimer’s lack of questioning of his religion – his refusal to “ask, seek or knock” – is closer to the behaviour of a cult member than anything Jesus asked of his followers. Reimer either chose not to actually question his faith, as Jesus invited him to do, or he has horrible decision-making skills. It’s disappointing that Reimer, knowing that Jesus preached not only love of everyone, but to “judge not, lest ye be judged,” arrived at a decision to exhibit intolerance towards a section of society that suffers enough discrimination every day without his help.

I used to go to a Greek Orthodox Church on a weekly basis. After my father died in 2005, I took up his habit of attending Sunday morning services as a way of honouring his memory. A few months into this Sunday ritual, the priest – the same priest who baptized me when I was a baby – used a section of the sermon to disparage the idea of same-sex marriage. Upon hearing something like that coming from the altar, words being spoken in church coming from anywhere other than a place of love, I looked at myself and said, “I don’t have to come here anymore.” From then on, I have only gone to church for a friend or relative’s memorial service or wedding, or Christmas service with my mother. And I don’t think my decision to stop attending church goes against anything Jesus taught. In fact, Jesus complained all the time about hypocrites who paid a great deal of attention to outward ordinances and actions that would make them appear righteous but were not as concerned with actually being righteous in their hearts. The attitude that those who visit this building weekly are automatically superior to those who live differently is epidemic in the world’s religious institutions, and to fail to recognize that as the hypocrisy the supposed saviour railed against is pathetic.

The National Hockey League is sadly late to the game in trying to evolve a toxic culture within the sport. We’ve seen Akim Aliu bravely come forward in 2019 with allegations against Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters addressing him with racist epithets. We’ve seen Kyle Beach call out the entire infrastructure of the Chicago Blackhawks for covering up the sexual abuse he suffered when the team was embarking on their successful run at a Stanley Cup in 2010. Just last May, a woman alleged she was sexually assaulted by eight members of the gold medal-winning Canadian men’s junior hockey team in 2018. Of course, hockey isn’t a monolith. The sport is played by individual athletes from different backgrounds with their own perspectives. However, scandals like this suggest a malignancy embedded in the machinery that needs identifying and eradicating.

Ontario Hockey League goaltender Brock McGillis didn’t come out as gay until after he retired in 2016, largely because for his entire playing career homophobic slurs slipped out of the mouths of everyone attached to every level of the game, including coaches, officials, management and other players. To McGillis, “my thought process was fully, ‘I’m hearing people call each other f–s when they’re joking with each other, when they’re trying to say [someone is] less than. I’m hearing people chirp each other on the ice saying language like that. It’s in the locker room, it’s on the ice, it’s always negative… I’m hearing the adults say it, I’m hearing the players say it, I’m hearing everyone say it — coaches, management… How am I going to be me and play the game? They’re not going to let me play.”

Because McGillis doesn’t want future players to endure what he did, he has become a hockey mentor and activist. In 2020 the Leafs became the first National Hockey League team to hire him to run a virtual workshop about homophobia for team personnel. In January 2022 McGillis launched the Alphabet Sports Collective, aimed at supporting LGBTQ+ people in hockey. It’s work like this that can help change the attitudes of the newest generation, so that a young kid identifying somewhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum doesn’t have to subject themselves to abuse while partaking in the sport they love. It’s obviously good work to the long-term benefit of hockey itself, but if the rest of the San Jose Sharks wearing the sweaters represents two steps forward, Reimer refusing to wear one is one step back. What is a hockey-loving kid supposed to think when they encounter Reimer referring to their sexuality as counter to his religious convictions?

It seems to me, someone who identifies as Christian, that Jesus gave us teachings as to how to live a good life – a life that could leave the world a better place than we found it. I think modern Christians have lost sight of that aim. In Reimer’s case, he plays in a sport with an undeniable culture problem, and a large number of the players in his league are willing to work to update it. How can his refusal to participate be seen as lead to any improvement, or make the world better for anyone else?

Do I think that this makes James Reimer a bad person? I think it makes James Reimer a person, and people fail. We all do, and when we do, we’re supposed to learn from it. My hope is that Reimer doesn’t bristle with defensiveness from all the backlash he’s undoubtedly receiving. He seems like someone capable of soul-searching, and my hope is that one day he looks back on this and realizes that not only was he wrong, but that everyone instructing him to be intolerant of an entire social group was wrong. And I hope he’s not the only one who engages in this soul-searching.