Homophobia And Discrimination In Hockey - Why The NHL And NHLPA Need To Step Up

 

"...We're all connected:  to each other, biologically; to the earth, chemically; and to the rest of the universe, atomically.  That's kind of cool.  That makes me smile."

 

The authors here get e-mail feedback on just about every article we write.  We've not talked about it previously because the typical e-mailer is an angry, frothing-at-the-mouth Canucks fan, or an angry, frothing-at-the-mouth Avalanche fan that possesses a terrible hatred of math, especially as related to hockey.  But the e-mails received in response to the article I wrote about Father's Day in the NHL were different.  Many people were thankful for the article and a few shared their personal stories of loss with me.  I was overwhelmed by the feedback - there were over thirty emails of encouragement or thanks - and many of them were extremely emotional.

Two e-mails in particular have made an impact.  The first was from a gentleman who told me he was writing to thank me because the article gave him hope.  He told me of his own son coming out of the closet and witnessing the struggles that he had to go through, even within their own family, on a daily basis.  His son passed away at a young age shortly thereafter.  He said that when he read, "The strength that Brendan showed in coming out is something that should make any father, actually, every father proud..."  he was given hope that life will be easier on gay kids as the next generation ages.  I choked up at my computer while reading the email.

The second was one of three I received in which I was called a homosexual because I supported Brendan Burke, and only a man regularly involved in homosexual acts could ever possibly support a homosexual in sports.  I've both translated and paraphrased the original work as none of the three pieces of hate mail were written in what could be described as even passable English.  It was an anonymous email, of course, but the origin IP tracks to Edmonton, which is disheartening in and of itself.  This article isn't about the hate mail, but I will admit that the trolls behind those three e-mails spurred my response.

Shortly after my article was published, Brent Sopel of the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks announced that he and his wife would be participating in the Gay Pride Parade in Chicago and that the Stanley Cup would be on board.  Sopel knew Brendan from the time that their paths crossed in Vancouver - Sopel was a player there when Brendan's father, Brian Burke, was General Manager of the Canucks.  Sopel talked about his participation and how it related to Brendan Burke:

"I wasn’t here to advocate (anything), but if coming here helps break down walls in the meantime, so be it. I was here for Brendan.  I hope he is smiling."

Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images via www.picapp.com

Many in the sports media felt that Sopel's participation was a response to the "Pronger is gay" pictures that came from the post-game celebration in the Blackhawks' locker room, but Sopel said it was specifically for Brendan.  The "Pronger is gay" picture, however, speaks to a larger problem in hockey - the anti-gay culture that the players have created for themselves means that, even if there are gay NHL players, there is little chance of them coming out.  Brian Burke talked about gay men in hockey in response to his son coming out:

"There are gay men in professional hockey. We would be fools to think otherwise. And it’s sad that they feel the need to conceal this. I understand why they do so, however."

They do so because of the culture that surrounds professional sports, one where the biggest possible affront to a man is to call him "gay" or some other homosexual epithet.  Brendan's brother Patrick wrote an excellent column for Outsports on breaking the cycle of discrimination in the NHL.  In it, he recounts his experiences with scouts after Brendan came out and notes that all of them were positive, even if some were awkward.  Burke wants the NHL to take steps to bring their athletes around to that same mindset, and I agree with every word:

"It is truly a vicious cycle: Athletes who are never exposed to gay culture hold onto antiquated (and often harmful) stereotypes about homosexuality, which makes gay athletes afraid to come out, which means the athletes never confront the ignorance of their beliefs.  The cycle has been repeating itself for generations in pro sports.

It will take men of courage, gay and straight, to break this cycle.  The hockey establishment must do a better job of establishing a safe haven for gay athletes."

While it's a good sign that people at all levels in the NHL have begun to speak out, this isn't limited to professional hockey.  The anti-gay culture is pervasive throughout all levels of hockey and it's not likely to change any time soon without a giant push in the right direction from the NHL.  There are still over 15,000 near-adults playing higher-level amateur hockey in North America.  Of those, some 3,500 are playing Major Junior or NCAA Hockey.  As sure as Brian Burke is that there are gay men in professional hockey, I'm sure that there are many times that number in the amateur ranks.  Yet these kids are left on their own, far from home, far from any support system, invariably alone, a gay kid playing a sport in which gay men are reviled, living in fear of being discovered.  There is nowhere to go, no one to talk to, and nowhere to turn but inside themselves, and that loneliness and fear almost certainly impacts their on-ice performance and, to a greater extent, their careers.

I don't care if a player is gay, nor do NHL scouts.  Nor should anyone else in the hockey world.  Like the people that Patrick Burke talked to, what we all care about is a player's ability to take to the ice with ferocity and finesse, strength and grace, determination and skill.  As Burke so eloquently said, the goal of everyone involved with hockey at any level should be the same:

"We need to make it clear to every hockey player – gay, straight, black, white, religious, atheist, tall, short, whatever – if you can play, we welcome you. "

The NHL has a chance to make an enormous impact on the lives of so many young men and women in their sport, an impact that would resonate in both the entire sporting world and society at-large.  The NHL, the franchises, the owners and the players are a well-funded group with access to every major media outlet in North America.  Brendan Burke blazed a trail, Brian Burke and Brent Sopel followed his ideals and ideas and showed the world how the NHL could act -- it's time for the rest of the league and the media to follow suit.

Millions of kids spend each day feeling afraid, isolated, and alone for a myriad of reasons; being attracted to people of the same sex should not be one of them.  Whether it's a superstar on the verge of being worth millions, or a  Junior-B kid riding the buses on the Canadian prairie, no man or woman should have to live a life of scared solitude because of the person they'd like to date. 

Because we are not alone.  Not only we are connected to each other at the most basic levels of life; we are connected to each other through our love of the sport, through our passion for our teams, through our mutual fanaticism.  Isolation is man-made, born of discrimination through differences, and differences have driven the NHL's anti-gay culture and attitude.  It's time for the NHL to take action against its anti-gay culture, to strengthen our connections to each other, and to resolve to eliminate the isolation of anyone involved with our game.

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