Hockey has forever been depicted as a sport played by "real men": alpha males who aren't afraid to hit, suffer and bleed their way to the top in the name of glory and Lord Stanley's Cup. It's also a game of psychological warfare - players purposely inflict physical and verbal abuse on each other all in an attempt to "get into the head" of an opponent and make them do something they regret.
For years, gay slurs have been among the biggest go-to phrases for players looking to get under their opponents skin. Due to society's perceived view of gay males as "soft", calling someone "gay" (or worse) on the ice is meant to directly insult their manhood and their ability to play this "manly" sport.
However, the slurs don't stop on the ice. Jokingly making fun of each other is a common technique used to promote locker room camaraderie, and gay slurs are often thrown around in what is meant to be a non-hurtful way. This "casual homophobia", as Patrick Burke (scout for the Flyers and son of Toronto GM Brian Burke) calls it, is creating a environment where gay players don't feel comfortable reveling their sexuality.
You Can Play is a new program that enlists current NHL players to "change the sometimes homophobic culture of locker rooms with a message that athletes should be judged on athletic skill and ability, not sexual orientation or other discriminatory factors". Supported not only by Patrick's dad, Brian Burke, but at least 30 other NHLers, the organization is trying to make it clear that players of differing sexual orientations will have support if and when they decide to "come out".
A History of Activism in the NHL
In November 2009, Justin Bourne ran an article for USA Today that talked about the use of gay slurs in the locker rooms and why that practice needed to stop. In response, Brendan Burke, youngest son of Toronto GM Brian Burke, wrote a personal email to Bourne detailing his struggles with being gay, his eventual decision to "come out", and his father's instant acceptance of it when he told him around Christmas 2007. Bourne was originally going to publish the news, but he and Brendan finally decided it that the more people that knew his story, the better. So on December 2, 2009, ESPN broke the story on Brendan's struggles. Afterwards, Brian Burke was very outspoken about his support of his son, and he even invited Brendan to Toronto so the two of them could attend the city's Gay Pride Parade.
However, the saga took a turn for the worse as just over a year later, Brendan was tragically killed in a car accident. Afterwards, Patrick Burke, Brendan's older brother, wrote an article for Outsports, a leading website for gays in sports, about his brother and the overwhelming support that he had received from the hockey community.
The NHL welcomed Brendan with open arms, and I am very proud of our league and our executives for that. We need to continue to make it clear that we judge players, scouts, coaches, and executives only by whether they can contribute to a championship hockey team. A question posed thousands of times by general managers around the league is, "Can he play?" 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.
In the year since the accident, the Burke family has continued to support gay rights. This February, Brian Burke went on CBC's George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and openly said that he would support any player that wanted to come out. He also said that his team had come to him and made it very clear that they too would accept a gay player into their ranks if he was able to help the team on the ice.
However, the Burkes aren't alone in their open support of the LGBT community. Sean Avery was the first pro athlete to publicly support the New Yorkers for Marriage Equality initiative in May 2011 and even starred in a commercial for them. Paul Bissonnette chimed in as well via twitter, saying "I agree with Sean Avery and his comments on the same-sex marriage issue. If two people are happy together, let them be happy".
And now, through the efforts of Patrick Burke, even more NHLers are joining in. The first "Can You Play" commercial (the one at the top of this article) was aired during the Rangers vs. Bruins game on NBC. It featured some big-name players: Rick Nash, Duncan Keith, Brian Boyle, Matt Moulson, Joffrey Lupul, Claude Giroux, Daniel Alfredsson, Scott Hartnell, Corey Perry, Andy Greene, Dion Phaneuf, and Henrik Lundqvist. That's quite a bit of star power, and at least 18 more players are involved already.
"I'm comfortable with saying that if you put together the 30 guys that we got, we could win a Stanley Cup pretty easy," said Patrick Burke. "We also have two of the toughest heavyweights in the National Hockey League, too. We know how to build a team in the Burke image. We're not going to be civil about this."
What This Might Mean for the League
Patrick Burke believes that we're about a year away from an NHL player coming out. Between initiatives like this and the more widespread acceptance of the LGBT community by the younger generations, sooner than later someone is going to step forward. It may be a retiring vet, a up-and coming prospect, or even a current roster player, but the members of the NHL family are making it pretty clear that that individual will have support no matter who they are.
However, it would be naive to think that everyone will be supportive of the decision. Gay rights aren't openly supported by everyone in society, so someone is bound to have an issue with it in the NHL. Furthermore, since no player in the "Big 4" professional sports leagues in the US has come forward yet, there would be large amounts of scrutiny and pressure placed on the individual that spoke up. They would inevitably be dragged head first into the political realm, just as Tim Thomas was when his off-ice beliefs became public earlier this year.
It is going to take an incredibly strong individual to step forward. There will still be large amounts of adversity to overcome - the deep rooted traditions of hockey are not going to instantly change over night. Stereotypes are difficult to break, and given the high emotions during a game, at some point even a well-meaning individual will probably slip up and say things he'll regret. The player that comes forward will become a hero, a villain, a figure-head, a martyr, and about a thousand other things to millions of people in a blink of an eye. He will become the face of gay athletes everywhere. It's something his teammates will have to deal with too, probably putting those that are religiously opposed to homosexuals in an incredibly difficult situation.
And on top of all of this, that player will have to find a way to put all of this aside and continue to play his game.
It's a tricky subject to be sure. However, homosexuality in hockey is no longer a topic that the NHL can ignore. Sooner or later, someone WILL step forward and the League's response (as well as the response of the league's fans) is going to leave a lasting impact both within the realm of hockey and beyond.
If you wish to support the "You Can Play" cause, there is an email sign up on their website.