I’m going to let everyone know right now, there are going to be some choice words and some brutal truths in this article. If you can’t take that, then go be ignorant somewhere else.
The NHL originally started “Hockey is for Everyone” in 1998 to promote diversity in the NHL. It was originally, mostly focused on racial inclusion in the sport, but has further expanded into inclusion for everyone, including the LGBT community. Each team in the NHL has a “sponsor” for the LGBT community.
This sponsor was chosen due to their involvement in the communities events and their leadership in the locker room. The initiative expanded to include the LGBT community after former Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke’s son, Brendan, came out as gay. Brendan came out in December of 2007 and his family was extremely welcoming and tolerant, which unfortunately, isn’t the case for a lot of families.
Anyway, Brendan Burke, with the help of his father, Brian, became a huge part of the new hockey is for everyone movement. Even today, Brendan Burke is the closest person to the NHL to ever publicly say he’s gay. Brendan’s activism touched the hearts of many and when he died, the hockey world cried.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, then managed by Brendan’s dad, held a moment of silence immediately following his death, as well as the St. Louis Blues. The Maple Leafs named him honorary first star of the game on February 6, 2010. USA Hockey also established the Brendan Burke internship and it is given to a recent college graduate, looking to get into hockey operations.
Brad Marchand, sponsor for the Boston Bruins called out a homophobe on twitter in 2016. Marchand, who has a reputation of being one of the dirtiest and most unlikable people in the entire league also has a reputation for standing up for the LGBT community. Embedded below is a screenshot someone took of a now-removed comment from the homophobe with one of Marchand’s comments attached.
Former Canucks goaltender Anders Nilsson said to the media that if he had been gay growing up in Sweden, he would’ve been forced out of hockey. He had also been quoted saying, “What I now can feel myself, is that if I was gay, I would have quit playing hockey in my teens. That’s why I think 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. Team sports are about the feeling of togetherness, it’s just as fun to go there to hang out and have someone to talk to as the actual sports, but if you have a hard time in the dressing room when you’re a teen, it’s not as fun to play hockey on the field either.”
A former Finnish professional hockey player, Janne Puhakka, came out as gay not too long ago and he said he’s not too excited about it. “Ideally, you wouldn’t have to talk about it.” He said that he hoped his coming out would allow others to do the same.
Puhakka mentions that he’s had to laugh off anti-gay “jokes” from his teammates in the locker room. He said that he told his team captain and close teammates about his sexuality and avoided questions about his love life secret. Puhakka was pushed further into the closet in 2014 when former goaltender and current member of parliament, Sinuhe Wallinheimo, said, “It’d be a good idea for a gay player to hide his homo in the booth so as not to offend team chemistry.”
That is one of the many things you’d hate to hear in his situation because it completely invalidates your personal life because of “team chemistry” when straight people talk about their personal life all the time without having to worry about if they’re going to be ostracized for it. Though, it’s strange because the year earlier he was urging players to come out. Since his coming out, Puhakka has received tons of support from both the LGBT Community and the allied public.
Over in Finland, another player came out recently, Jon-Lee Olsen, the 27-year-old goalie said that he’s ready for the backlash that comes with coming out in a sport where very few openly gay and bisexual men have ever been welcomed. Olsen is the FIRST openly gay man to play in the Metal Ligaen, the Danish version of the NHL. Olsen was quoted saying “There’s a risk that some people might shout and heckle me while I’m playing matches.
It’s something I have to be ready for and be mature about. But I feel that I’m ready to show that you can be gay and play ice hockey.” It’s breaking down a barrier that shouldn’t have been put up in the first place.
Olsen came out in August of 2019 by sending a text to the team saying he had something to get off his chest and hoping the information wouldn’t change anything. Instead of getting ostracized and bullied out of the sport by his team, they embraced him. He told the reporter, “They wrote that they had great respect for the fact that I dared to say it and that I was still just me,” adding that it’s actually made the group even closer.
“I think there is more openness among us now. Now we can talk freely about the same things from everyday life — without a filter.” Shockingly enough, his teammates added that since his coming out, he’s playing better. “As if a massive stone has fallen from his heart.”
Phys.org did a study trying to find why the NHL had never had an openly gay player. They grabbed some former NHL players and some openly gay professional hockey players and discussed this. The former NHL players said that being gay in the NHL is like admitting you have a drug problem in the way that if the team knows you’re addicted, you’d be seen as a distraction and your career would likely be over.
The jury is still out on whether or not the NHL, at large, is homophobic but one thing is for sure, both groups of people said that the potential to lose their careers outweighed the benefit of revealing something they could live with people not knowing.
Ryan Kennedy from The Hockey News said that one of the reasons there isn’t any openly gay hockey players is because of “Jock Culture” and furthers this claim by saying “Jock Culture may be getting more progressive, but it’s a long hill to climb for a group that traditionally have been the main tormentors of anyone even slightly different from the status quo. For me, I would think that hockey culture would dictate that a teammate is like family and that he should always be protected – but I’ve also privately talked to players who said they would be iffy about showering in front of a gay teammate.” This shows that even though a player may say they “Support the LGBT community”, they only “Support” them if it doesn’t directly affect their life.
It’s going to take a while for this mindset to disappear in this society. Kennedy also said “I’m from Generation X and while our attitudes were much more progressive than the Boomers before us, the younger generations of today don’t see the same barriers that existed 20 years ago. They are who they are and don’t wait in line for permission to be open about it.” The rookies are the future of hockey and until they come into the league creating an unchangeable bond independent of race, sexual orientation, religion, etc.
The youngins’ are the future, but as long as the old way of thinking is still around, whether it be in the locker room or on the ice, we will never see an openly gay NHL player. I, personally, have experienced some homophobia in the hockey community from teammates and opponents alike. I was told by some of the other players in the locker room that they were uncomfortable being in the locker room with me because I told them that I’m gay.
Another common response is “I’m okay with it, just as long as you don’t start hitting on me” which is rooted in internalized homophobia and shows the person, who just opened up to you about a big part of themselves, that you are actually just an ignorant person who wants nothing to do with a gay teammate. If you find yourself saying this or something closely related to it, fix yourself. All you’re doing is causing more trouble for your teammate.
As someone who has personally experienced homophobia in the locker room, it’s awful. You think you can trust these guys so you open up to them and it turns out that they don’t think they can trust you because you’re not just like them. It takes a lot of courage for anyone in the LGBT community to come out to their family, friends, teammates, etc. and when you encounter something like this, it just tears you apart because you’re no longer “One of the guys.” You just become “that one gay kid.” Hell, most recently, I was openly mocked and berated in the locker room for having pride tape on my stick.
Now, that’s not to say that the NHL isn’t trying, but one can’t really trust a business to truly care about others. Pride month is nothing more than big business exploiting the LGBT community for their own personal gain. The NHL is just another business. However, some of the people in the NHL like Washington’s Braden Holtby, Carolina’s Trevor Van Riemsdyk and Ottawa’s Anders Nilsson are the only real LGBT advocates in the NHL.
Holtby and his wife attend the pride parades every year as well as donate time to LGBT causes in the offseason. Van Riemsdyk has stated that the small things can open the door to change, such as the rainbow stick tape. Anders Nilsson, as stated earlier in this article wears the pride flag on his helmet at all times and stands up for the LGBT community back home.
Here is what Harrison Browne, a trans man, had to say about the hockey community following the firing of Don Cherry:
I couldn’t agree more with what Browne says. The hockey community, and society at large, will not progress with people like Cherry spewing their hate to the youth, making it seem like bigotry is a good thing.
I also went on Twitter and discord, asking for other people’s experiences and here’s how that turned out…
A Bruins fan on Twitter, who goes by Mat (@Greengiant____), said that being a part of the LGBT community hasn’t really affected his life in any significant way. He stated, “I’ve met a LOT of amazing people on hockey twitter who accept me for who I am. Being a Bruins fan, I settled in to an already close knit community.
In fact, being a part of that group is what pushed me to come out”. He also said, “With regards to actually playing hockey, nothing is really different. My teammates treat me the same as they treat eachother. I’m lucky in the fact that my experience of being part of the LGBTQ+ community in a hockey environment has been overall quite positive.” It’s wonderful to see that there are some huge leaps being made in the world of inclusiveness in the sport, both on the ice, off the ice, and on social media.
Below is another picture of some fairly common comments made by hockey twitter because they seem to think it’s okay to say things like this.
In terms of discord servers, I’ve gone into a few and for the most part, the r/team communities were pretty good about keeping the homophobia/transphobia/racism, etc. out of the servers, but a couple stood out the most.
r/Canucks discord is probably the best discord safe space for the LGBT community on discord to discuss hockey without any homophobia from the outside and any homophobic/racist comments that are made in the server are swiftly dealt with by the incredible mods. (https://discord.gg/RGwnRMx)
The r/Canes server is also pretty good about keeping homophobia out of the server, but if you’re looking for general hockey content, you won’t find much outside of the Canes there which, can’t blame them, it’s the topic of their entire server. (https://discord.gg/gmp7SUk)