SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Brothers Eric and Marc Staal of the Florida Panthers declined to wear special Pride-themed warmup jerseys ahead of the team’s 6-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday.
The jerseys were part of Florida’s Pride night game in support of the area’s LGBTQ community, and the brothers cited their religion as the reason for the decision.
“We carry no judgement on how people choose to live their lives, and believe that all people should be welcome in all aspects of the game of hockey,” the Staal brothers said in a statement. “Having said that, we feel that by us wearing a Pride jersey it goes against our Christian beliefs.”
After the loss, Eric Staal said he wanted to stick with the brothers' statement and "try my best to move forward.” Marc Staal was not made available to the media.
While the Staal brothers declined to participate, Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky was one of the Panthers who went ahead with the Pride-themed jerseys.
The Chicago Blackhawks have decided against wearing special warmup jerseys to commemorate their Pride night on Sunday, citing an anti-gay Kremlin law that could imperil Russian athletes when they return home. The decision was made by the organization after conversations with its players.
“My thought is the story is not about them,’’ said Florida coach Paul Maurice, who has coached Eric Staal since he was the second overall draft pick in 2003 by the Carolina Hurricanes.
“The story is about the rest of the group being excited, the organization and the fans being excited to celebrate a great night. These are grown men who have lived in their faith their whole lives. This is not new to them. They have the right to take that stand. The rest of the players wore that sweater proudly and I hope we conveyed that message of ‘Welcome to our building, welcome to our franchise and welcome to the great game of hockey.’"
Florida forward Matthew Tkachuk wore the warmup jersey, and said he “embraced a night like this.”
“A night like tonight, for me, is just about including everyone,” he said. "It is, in my opinion, the greatest game in the world and everyone is welcome in our locker room and into our organization.”
Auston Matthews had two goals for Toronto, and Matt Murray made 33 saves. Mitchell Marner and William Nylander each had a goal and an assist, and John Tavares finished with three assists.
The Maple Leafs won for the third time in four games, bouncing back nicely after a 7-2 loss to the New York Islanders on Tuesday night.
Tkachuk and Nick Cousins scored for the Panthers. Bobrovsky made 21 saves in the team’s second straight loss.
Toronto jumped in front when Matthews scored his 33rd goal 5:05 into the first period. Tkachuk tied it at 1 at 14:25 when a replay review determined Murray pulled Tkachuk’s odd-angled shot on a power play from over the goal line.
The Maple Leafs went ahead to stay with three goals in the second. Nylander made it 2-1 at 1:20, and Matthews scored again at 2:57.
After Cousins got one back for the Panthers at 11:43, Bunting scored with two Florida players in the penalty box at 18:21. Bunting’s 21st goal gave Toronto a 4-2 lead.
The Maple Leafs put the game away with 5:37 remaining when Kerfoot scored off a pass from Tavares. Marner scored into an empty net just over a minute later.
“We knew they had a lot of offensive power and did not need a lot of space to get chances,’’ Florida captain Aleksander Barkov said of Toronto. “We did not play that well in the defensive zone, gave them too many chances and their power play is one of the best in the league."
Florida was without C Sam Bennett for the second consecutive game with an undisclosed injury. Bennett left Florida’s game at Detroit on Monday in the third period and did not return. Bennett practiced on Thursday morning. ... F Anthony Duclair returned for the Panthers after missing Tuesday’s game with an illness.
Maple Leafs: At Carolina on Saturday.
Panthers: Host the New York Rangers on Saturday. ___
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George Richards, The Associated Press