The NHL closet


When will the first gay athlete come out in the NHL?

Taylor Shire

Are there any gay players in the NHL?

We don’t know. Nobody has ever come out and publicly said they are gay.

Will there be a hockey player who comes out and openly says he is gay? How will his teammates, coaches, management, owners, and fans respond if this happens?

We don’t know that either; only time will tell.

A public service announcement recently aired on NBC during a Boston Bruins/New York Rangers game aimed at ending homophobia in sports. Some of the NHLs top players including Henrik Lundqvist, Corey Perry, Claude Giroux, Daniel Alfredsson, Rick Nash, Joffrey Lupul, Scott Hartnell, Matt Moulson, Duncan Keith, and Dion Phaneuf all appear in the video.

The video basically tells viewers, if you can play the game, you can play the game and it doesn’t matter what your sexual orientation is.

Toronto Maple Leafs’ General Manager Brian Burke and his son Patrick, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, are leading the program that wants to let gay athletes know it is OK to be gay.

The campaign is intended to “make locker rooms safe for all athletes, rather than places of fears, slurs, and bullying.” Thirty-five NHLers are committed to the project.

The Burke family jumped on this campaign after Brian’s son, Brendan, acknowledged that he was gay in 2007 during the time when he was a manager of a college hockey team. He came out in public in 2009 and was also working on spreading a message of tolerance and inclusion in the hockey world.

After his coming out, Brian and Brendan marched together in gay pride parades in Toronto. Brian accepted Brendan’s sexual preference. But in 2010, the Burke family was hit with sad news when they learned Brendan had been tragically killed in a car accident.

After the accident, Brian still marched in the parade. And he is still marching on behalf of Brendan.

Casual homophobic slurs are common in a hockey dressing room and most of the time they mean no harm. I am not gay, but for those gay athletes who are hearing these slurs, I can imagine they feel intimidated and inferior. The gay athletes think that if they come out, the slurs will be directed toward them. They don’t want that feeling of weakness, or being different. They want to just be a part of the team. But this is preventing them from being the best player they can be.

Hockey overcame the racial barrier when Willie O’Ree, the first black player in NHL history, laced up his skates for the Boston Bruins in 1958. The NHL has yet to break the homosexual barrier. The only time gay athletes in any sport come out and admit they are gay is after they retire.

But the “If You Can Play” project is hoping to change that.

On the If You Can Play website, Patrick explains that his brother Brendan taught him what it was like to be in a locker-room as a gay male. He says the project aims to provide a means for athletes, coaches and fans to stand up and create an atmosphere of inclusion. He wants athletes to become aware that it doesn’t matter if they are gay, they can still be athletes.

He hopes that, eventually, athletes will be free from the burdens of fear and shame, and thus able to play to their full potential. He says it’s time for the world to change the way it thinks about athletes. Talent, work ethic, and character are what matter – not sexual orientation.

Patrick signs off with a powerful message.

“If you can play, you can play.”


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