Recently, The Athletic published an article entitled “Coming out: What will it take for the first gay player to come forward?” The article features interviews with NHL players who insist that if a teammate were to come out, he would be welcomed and accepted. However, if there are any closeted players in the NHL, they would tell an entirely different story—one more in line with the realities of professional sports and hockey culture. A 2019 study from Monash University in Melbourne underlines the stark distinctions between the perceptions straight athletes have of homophobia in hockey and their actions. Despite the fact that 88% of players surveyed said that they disapproved of jokes about gay people, 60% of the same players reported that they had used homophobic slurs in the past two weeks. Homophobia in hockey is not hidden; it is readily obvious to both players and fans.
There has never been an out player in the NHL, but a few players in international leagues and at lower levels have been open about their sexuality, to wildly different responses. The most prominent openly gay man to play hockey is Brendan Burke, son of hockey executive Brian Burke. Brendan was a former goalie and student manager in the NCAA who came out in 2009 after a story about his sexuality was leaked; he was met with widespread support from teammates, coaches, and the hockey world at large. Unfortunately, Brendan died in a car accident a year later at age 21.
Peter Karlsson spent several seasons in Sweden’s highest and second-highest leagues from 1984-1995. Karlsson was a well-respected player within Swedish circles; his teammates and many of his fans knew that he was gay. In 1995, Karlsson was found stabbed to death. His killer, a neo-nazi, claimed that Karlsson had sexually propositioned him. The murderer’s jail sentence, of just eight years, infuriated activists, family and teammates.
In the past two months, two other players have come out: Jon-Lee Olsen of the Metal Ligaen (Denmark’s elite league) and Janne Puhakka, who played several seasons in Finnish leagues and on the Finnish national team before retiring in 2018. Both men reported having shrugged off years of casual homophobia.
Brock McGillis played in the Ontario Hockey League, one of Canada’s three major junior leagues, and the Netherlands. Since he came out in 2016, McGillis has been traveling across Canada giving talks to youth teams in an effort to stop the cycle of learned homophobia in hockey. He has spoken at length about the effects of homophobia on his mental health.
A common refrain when discussing homophobia in hockey is “The NHL has been around for over 100 years, of course there’s been a gay player.” Statistically, this is probably true, but there are factors other than statistics that must be taken into consideration. Once a player reaches the NHL, he will have played hockey for most of his life, often at university or in junior leagues; this means that he will have heard years’ worth of homophobic slurs on the ice and in locker rooms and hid his sexuality throughout his professional development. The pressures of being closeted in an environment that encourages machismo and homophobia are enough to push anyone out of a sport.
Ottawa Senators goalie Anders Nilsson, one of a handful of NHL players who have spoken out against homophobia, talked about this issue in an interview translated from his native Swedish: “When people say there are three to four gay players on each [NHL] team, I say no, absolutely not. They quit when they were younger. There’s no one who would dare to or want to keep playing […] We will lose gay players, who might otherwise have been the next Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid or Wayne Gretzky. We lose talents.” Olsen and Puhakka are remarkably brave for persevering, but they are the exception, not the rule.
Football, basketball, and baseball players have all come out either during their careers or after retirement—so why not hockey? Why is it so different?
Hockey, in particular, is famous for its “team mentality.” Players who stand out in any way, whether through their dress, in interviews, or on social media, are considered selfish for taking attention away from their team. Watch any post-game interview with a player who scored a hat trick or a goalie who got a shutout; you’re guaranteed to hear phrases like “It was a team effort” and “My teammates helped me out a lot.” Individual success is played down. If a player is considered a risky draft pick merely because his father had a reputation for playing for himself, how much worse would it be for a player to bear the label of the “first out NHL player”?
Women’s hockey is an entirely different story. While it is by no means perfect, some of the most prominent and decorated female hockey players, including 2018 US Olympic captain Meghan Duggan, NWHLPA director Anya Battaglino Packer, Olympic gold medalist Charline Labonté, 2014 Canadian Olympic captain Caroline Ouellette, former US captain Julie Chu, and Hockey Hall of Fame members and trailblazers Jayna Hefford and Angela James are openly lesbian. Duggan and Packer are both married to other women’s hockey players, and Ouellette and Chu announced the arrival of their first child only a few months after they won the CWHL Clarkson Cup championship together.
In a deep contrast with statements made by Olsen and Puhakka about casual homophobia in the locker room, Labonté said, “Everyone on my team has known I’m gay since I can remember and I never felt degraded for it. On the contrary, my sport and my team are the two environments where I feel most comfortable. The subject of homosexuality was never taboo with us. We talk and laugh about it like everything else.” Gay male hockey players only have the tragic lives and deaths of Karlsson and Burke to look to, while gay female hockey players have inspirational tales like the 1996 commitment ceremony of Angela James and her partner, which took place long before the normalization of gay marriage.
Professional women’s hockey leagues have also been home to two transgender players. Harrison Browne came out as a transgender man in 2016 after one season in the National Women’s Hockey League. He was allowed to continue playing in the league as long as he did not start hormone replacement therapy and played two more seasons before retiring. Inspired by Browne, Jessica Platt of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League announced that she is a transgender woman in 2018 and remained in the league until it folded a year later. Homophobia certainly exists in women’s hockey, but the sheer number of successful openly LGBTQ+ players in women’s hockey leagues speaks to a very different environment than that of the men’s game.
Since the death of Brendan Burke, the NHL and the hockey community have created more anti-homophobia efforts than any other league, even earning the title of “Most Inclusive” among professional sports. Brendan’s father and brother founded You Can Play, an organization that aims to eradicate casual homophobia in sports through education. Dozens of teams across multiple sports and at every level of play have partnered with You Can Play to make videos, raise money, and take a pledge to fight homophobia in sports.
The NHL has also established February as Hockey Is For Everyone month, a campaign to celebrate all diversity. Efforts made for HIFE month include profiles of LGBTQ+ sports figures like McGillis and Browne, the appointment of player ambassadors from each team, the use of Pride Tape (rainbow stick tape) and designated Pride Nights, during which players wear warm-up jerseys with rainbow logos. Proceeds from Pride Tape and the auctioned-off jerseys go to LGBTQ+ organizations. Additionally, all 31 teams went to their cities’ Pride parades last year.
On the surface, these actions are fantastic. Unfortunately, the NHL’s “activism” rarely goes beyond the nebulous goal of “raising awareness.” The Toronto Maple Leafs give just as much (if not more) attention to St. Patrick’s Day as they do to Pride Night, wearing throwback jerseys (the team was called the St Patricks from 1919-1927) for two nights. The ambassadors rarely do anything public, appearing on a list of names and then vanishing.
Certain individual players have provided more support: Nilsson wears a Pride flag on his helmet; Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby has been marching in Pride for three years and skipped the Capitals’ 2018 championship visit to the White House to “stay true to [his] values.” The support of players like Nilsson and Holtby is genuinely appreciated by LGBTQ+ fans, but it is not enough to counter the atmosphere of a league in which several players are vocal supporters of violently bigoted world leaders like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
A number of incidents over the past few years showcase the ever-present homophobia in the NHL. Andrew Shaw of the Chicago Blackhawks was suspended one playoff game and fined $5,000 for using a homophobic slur in 2016; Anaheim Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf was fined $10,000 for the same reason in 2017. These punishments, although they came with strong condemnations from the league and apologies from the players involved, amount to very little. Shaw’s suspension, since it was in the postseason, resulted in no loss of salary, and Getzlaf’s fine was around 0.1 percent of his salary that season.
The most thoughtful apology from an NHL team on homophobia came from what ended up being a non-incident. In March 2019, a broadcast supposedly picked up Toronto Maple Leafs player Morgan Rielly saying a homophobic slur. After a league investigation, it was determined that the word was misheard, but the statement by Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas was more genuine than apologies given for actual incidents.
The history of addressing homophobia in hockey is a short one. Trailblazers have only begun to emerge in the past decade; the issue was not given any attention until Brendan Burke came out. Progress has been made—there have been no fines or suspensions for on-ice homophobic slurs since Getzlaf, more players are beginning to speak up, and two professional players came out in 2019 alone—but things are still moving slowly.
So what will it really take for an NHL player to come out? I believe the “winning formula” is a combination of time and real efforts from the NHL. No more inviting homophobic musicians to play the All-Star Game, no more requiring teams to appoint ambassadors who then proceed to do nothing, no more apologies that sound like they were written by a robot. The league must demonstrate that it is a safe environment before players will feel comfortable coming out. It must ensure that casual homophobia is eliminated on the ice and in the locker room not through insignificant fines, but by forcing players to confront the realities of the sport’s culture. Minor, junior, collegiate, and high school leagues must continue to employ people like McGillis who can work with young players so that by the time the next generation of players reaches the NHL, they are not merely “accepting” of gay teammates, but respectful.
This may be a big ask, but LGBTQ+ fans deserve better than stick tape and rainbow jerseys, and LGBTQ+ players, both current and future, deserve better than one month of league-mandated tolerance.
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