Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is squaring off with an unlikely opponent: the NHL.
In the latest battle of the culture wars, the NHL—where gloves-off fighting still brings just a five-minute penalty, where the player base is 93 percent white, and until the hiring of Mike Grier by the San Jose Sharks last year there had yet to be a Black general manager in the history of the sport—has somehow become the new epitome of woke culture gone awry.
Over the weekend, the DeSantis administration got the NHL to fold on a local hiring event aimed at diversifying the league’s workforce ahead of its annual All-Star Game. (The All-Star Game and Skills Competition is set for the first weekend of February in Sunrise, Florida—a suburb a little under an hour north of Miami—home to the Florida Panthers.)
How DeSantis ended up dropping the gloves with America’s fourth most popular sport ahead of an event ostensibly designed to draw tourists to the state and Floridians into the NHL’s front office jobs is the result of a wash, rinse, and repeat approach to corporate efforts to brand themselves as inclusive.
As one GOP strategist put it, DeSantis has found another way to “raise his profile as a fighter as well as raise money.” But as another Republican campaign veteran told The Daily Beast, this isn’t a risk-free strategy for the Florida governor and rumored 2024 contender; it could mark the beginning of a “strategy that works until it doesn’t.”
“I've been in these rooms where political consultants get together, they try and say, ‘Well, what can we do to appeal to white voters without being just super-blatantly racist?’” said Stuart Stevens, the former George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney presidential strategist.
Stevens said he has a “contrary view” on DeSantis’ playbook, with the NHL dustup being the clearest example yet of how “Republicans are losing culture wars at an exponential speed.”
“What the NHL is doing bothers absolutely nobody in America. A lot of politics is defining yourself by what you’re not for,” Stevens said.
“There was a time with Ronald Reagan, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.’ So here’s Ron DeSantis standing in front of a hockey rink in Florida saying, what, exactly? I mean it’s just ridiculous. It makes him look very small.”
Ahead of the big weekend in February hosted by the Panthers—a franchise that has consistently boasted some of the league’s worst attendance figures—the league advertised a jobs fair. The event called for applicants from underrepresented backgrounds, including anyone identifying as “female, Black, Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latino, Indigenous, LGBTQIA+, and/or a person with a disability.”
DeSantis press secretary Bryan Griffin released a statement Friday blasting the NHL.
“Discrimination of any sort is not welcome in the state of Florida, and we do not abide by the woke notion that discrimination should be overlooked if applied in a politically popular manner or against a politically unpopular demographic,” the DeSantis spokesman said.
The NHL later took down the job fair posting on LinkedIn.
“The Pathway to Hockey Summit is an informational and networking event designed to encourage all individuals to consider a career in our game—and, in particular, alert those who might not be familiar with hockey to the opportunities it offers,” an NHL spokesperson said in a statement.
“The original wording of the LinkedIn post associated with the event was not accurate,” the league representative added, echoing similar wording following the initial release from the governor’s office.
The NHL did not confirm whether any LGBTQ+ imagery would be seen over the All-Star weekend in Florida.
“The governor sees this issue as an easy one to use as an example of hypocrisy by folks on the left as well as another example of woke culture,” a GOP strategist told The Daily Beast, requesting anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press by their current employer. “It’s a great play to make.”
The strategist added that the average GOP primary voter “more than likely wasn’t even aware this was an issue—and to be fair the left probably had no idea this was happening—until DeSantis came out with his statement.”
Yet unlike DeSantis’ spats with the likes of Disney, Democratic governors, or even a wildcard such as New York City Mayor Eric Adams, the Florida governor has potentially awoken a foe capable of holding petty grudges for longer and with greater fervor than few others can: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
“It’s like anything in this new age of social media and instant reactions, but the big corporations and the NHL are going to try and step on as few toes as they can,” a former sports executive told The Daily Beast.
According to a league insider, there’s no serious consideration at the moment for the NHL to pull the All-Star Game from Florida, like Major League Baseball did in 2021 with the Atlanta Braves after Georgia adopted restrictive new voting laws.
“For any standalone event, any negative PR is gonna kill you,” the former executive said, requesting anonymity to discuss a hot-button issue in the hockey world.
With a pair of NHL teams in Florida—the Panthers and the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning—the upside for DeSantis is also unclear beyond a short-term boost with the base.
“This is the kinda thing that if you were on a school board, you’d think is stupid,” Stevens said. “Like, c’mon, just let ’em play. Who cares? There’s a tone-deafness. You get the sense watching DeSantis that he’s somebody trying to dance by looking at his feet and wondering what the steps are."
Representatives for DeSantis, the NHL, and the Florida Panthers did not return requests for comment. But the largely manufactured tiff could be the start of a larger standoff.
For Stevens, the bizarre choice of target and continuing obsession with culture wars underscores “how bad Ron DeSantis’ staff is,” recalling the moment in DeSantis’ 2022 debate with Charlie Crist where the governor was caught like a deer in the headlights when asked if he would commit to serving a full term as governor and not run in 2024.
“DeSantis would be a Trotskyite if he thought it might get him elected president,” Stevens said. “There was a time Republicans believed in smaller government and not interfering, and he’s running after successful businesses that bring money to Florida?”