It’s Hockey is for Everyone month and a lot of people are focusing on the LGBTQ+ portion of everyone. With all the teams hosting You Can Play nights and the prevalence of You Can Play in the hockey world, it makes sense people are focusing on this topic. But one of the most talked about topics is will an NHLer every come out? Who will be the first professional hockey player to come out and when will it happen? In my opinion, some changes need to happen in the NHL and it’s fanbase first in order for a player to feel comfortable enough to come out.
The first thing to think about in regards to someone coming out is the environment that is around them. Coming out is not an easy process and the person has to feel comfortable and safe in order to do so. That’s something the NHL is working towards, but isn’t quite there yet. Hockey, like many sports, showcases hypermasculinity. There are many things that make up the masculine stereotype but one of the most common is that men who are big and strong must pick up a lot of women. Especially those who are successful and well known, like athletes.
Think about it: how many times have you heard or read a casual joke or statement about how often athletes pick up? Or that so many hockey players must sleep around because they are so successful and most are good-looking? That mindset makes any member of the LGBTQ+ community feel uncomfortable and scared that they will be judged for who they are attracted to. This way of thinking and viewing NHLers does not create an environment where someone would want to come out. Changing this mindset, erasing that link between big, strong men and how they must be interested in women, will help create an atmosphere where someone might be comfortable expressing their sexuality.
Another factor in creating an environment where someone could come out is practicing inclusivity. Similar to the idea of hypermasculinity, there are many facets to this. There’s also a difference between preaching inclusivity and practicing it. Practicing inclusivity means that you don’t just talk about it, you get rid of any language that make others uncomfortable or is generally seen as a slur, you try and rid yourself of any preconceived stereotypes or fears of people not like you, and you keep an open mind to learn about others and who they are. The NHL is getting there with this.
Working with the You Can Play Project helps educate athletes and fans about the LGBTQ+ community and that, truthfully, they aren’t different from straight people. However, understanding that and actually believing it are two different things. Teams are definitely getting better about it, but things aren’t perfect. The best example of education and how it can help create a safe space is Andrew Shaw.
During the playoffs last season, Shaw got suspended for yelling a homophobic slur at a referee. He apologized the next day and looked very sincere while doing so. This month, Shaw plays the role of You Can Play ambassador for the Montreal Canadiens. He volunteered for the position and has spoken up about eliminating that slur from his and his teammates’ vocabulary. Actions like Shaw’s help create a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community.
Another facet of practicing inclusivity is to ensure people that members of the LGBTQ community will be accepted and not judged. Players like Brad Marchand have demonstrated this, saying to the media that an LGBTQ+ player would absolutely be welcomed in the locker room and then calling out homophobic language by fans on Twitter. These actions speak loudly to the LGBTQ+ community and tell them that they have an ally in this person, someone who will accept them and stand up for them.
Brad Marchand is not the only player who has done this. Anders Nilsson of the Buffalo Sabres has a pride flag on his mask and has spoken up for the LGBTQ+ community, similar to Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals. These actions – marching in a Pride parade, standing up for the LGBTQ+ community multiple times, and showing continued support and acceptance of them – help to foster and grow and environment where a player will feel comfortable coming out.
These are a few of many ways the NHL has helped take steps closer to being more LGBTQ+ friendly. While some are still waiting for the first active player to come out, that might be a long ways off. Asking someone to come out when they are not comfortable or do not feel safe is not okay and frankly rude. If the NHL continues to show support and phase out homophobic language and actions, then maybe a player will feel comfortable enough to come out. But that won’t happen until the teams and maybe even the fans prove they are ready to handle that and act appropriately.