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      Lasting Impact: How Jon Merrill’s LGBTQ+ allyship prevails

      Merrill, who has friends in the LGBTQ+ community, understands how much weight it carries when a pro athlete shows support.

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      This article was written by Giselle Velazquez, who is part of the Professional Hockey Writers Association x To Hockey With Love Mentorship Program. This program pairs aspiring writers with established members of the association across North America to create opportunities for marginalized people that do not traditionally get published on larger platforms covering hockey. 

      To Hockey With Love is a weekly newsletter covering a range of topics in hockey – from the scandals of the week to providing a critical analysis of the sport. 

      It was a Sunday afternoon in late June in Minneapolis when a familiar face joined the Twin Cities LGBTQ+ Pride March. 

      While many NHL players were on vacation during the offseason, Wild defenseman Jon Merrill found himself on a float on a packed downtown street. He donned a hot pink bucket hat and baby blue long sleeve shirt supporting the Twin Cities Queer Hockey Association. 

      He marched in the parade alongside his wife, Jess, and their four daughters. The family of six sported rainbow colors on all their attire while Merrill waived rainbow flags of varying sizes throughout the event. Members of the Minnesota Wild Foundation joined him, along with Nordy, the Wild mascot. But this wasn’t Merrill’s first time at a parade or showing support for the LGBTQ+ community. It’s been a continuous effort for the 10-year NHL veteran.

      “I think for me, it’s a no brainer,” Merrill said. “There’s so many members of the LGBTQ+ community that I know are fans of not only hockey but of all sports. It means so much to them to see the support from a player on the other side of it and you know it’s so easy for us as players to just show that support in simple ways.”

      Merrill is among the group of NHL players who have openly supported the LGBTQ+ community. He’s been active in Pride events, uses Pride Tape, and fosters relationships with the greater Twin Cities LGBTQ+ members. Merrill said he takes allyship seriously for more than one reason.

      “I’ve always been open-minded and always been open to all differences of opinions and different ideas and just accepting of all people,” Merrill said. “I’ve obviously met friends throughout the years that are a part of the community… you can just see how much it means to them for me to just show the tiniest little bit of support.”

      (Courtesy Minnesota Wild)

      Merrill and his wife Jess have hosted families at Wild Pride nights the past two seasons, with some of his Wild teammates chipping in to cover ticket needs. He makes sure to meet with the families afterwards, offering hugs and taking photos too. 

      Said Merrill: “Just to see some of them, tears in their eyes, to just know that somebody that’s an NHL hockey player, somebody that’s on the other side that they may be have seen as an enemy or somebody that’s against them for so long, to be in their corner, it’s pretty powerful to see that they’re just so moved by that experience.”

      The work for Merrill doesn’t stop there. It is something he and his wife share with their four daughters: Olive, 8, Lennon, 6, Jolie, 5 and Sonny, 2. His focus is on teaching them how to see the world through a different point of view. Even if the topic isn’t the easiest to talk to children under the age of 10 about, Merrill knows the importance of having the conversation in the first place.

      “I think it’s our responsibility as parents and in society to inform our children about important things that are going on in the world and put them into society in a good spot,” Merrill said. “It’s something that we as a family really try to do for them and just push for them to understand what’s going on.”

      But even as Merrill has worked to be an ally, the NHL has struggled with its approach. In October, the NHL confirmed a league-wide ban of Pride Tape. Players were no longer allowed to use the rainbow colored tape to decorate their sticks during warm-ups and games.

      “Something as simple as putting tape on the stick can mean so much to somebody,” Merrill said. “And just for the NHL to make a statement like that, it just didn’t seem like it made a lot of sense to me.”

      This came on the heels of the NHL Board of Governors’ offseason ruling where teams would no longer wear specialty sweaters during warmups, a staple in recent seasons. The use was now considered a “distraction” by the league. But players spoke out, including Arizona Coyotes defenseman Travis Dermott. Dermott defied the tape ban while wearing Pride Tape on his stick during an early-season game against the Anaheim Ducks. 

      It brought more attention to the issue at hand.

      ”[I’m] super happy that they decided to rescind that decision and go with allowing the players to have the opportunity to choose that,” Merrill said. “And also really proud of Travis in Arizona and some of the other players across the league that had shown their support which I think pushed the needle and forced the NHL’s hand to rescind that decision.”

      (Courtesy Minnesota Wild)

      Though the league is still upholding their ban on specialty sweaters throughout games, players have still been supportive of causes, wearing the jerseys as part of their game entrance attire. It’s a small nod that means something to the fans who represent the communities the initiatives support. “ I hope that [fans] know that they are wanted and they are accepted for who they are, and we love their support,” Merrill said. “Hockey is for everyone. Keep coming to the games, keep being a fan, and keep playing in your local communities, and keep being who you are because you’re awesome and we support you.”

      Regardless of how the NHL’s policies change throughout the course of the season, Merrill will continue to show his support for the community. He plans on hosting families again for the Wild’s Pride Night game in March and he still has a lot of hope for the future of the sport, “I know that there’s a lot of people in hockey with big hearts and who want to show everyone out there that hockey is for everyone,” Merrill said. “And that anyone who wants to be a fan, who wants to be a player is welcomed.”

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