NHL wants everyone on the ice, regardless of orientation
No one knew exactly when it would happen, when an active professional male athlete in a major North American sport would come out -- only that it would happen soon. So when NBA veteran Jason Collins took that bold step Monday, sharing his story with the world through Sports Illustrated, it was partly because the small strides taken by others in the sports world put the courageous step within reach for the 34-year-old, 7-foot center.
Among those strides was the relatively small announcement that came out of the NHL's offices earlier this month: The league, along with the players' association, entered a formal partnership with You Can Play, an advocacy organization whose mission is to fight homophobia in sports.
"Our motto is 'Hockey Is For Everyone,' and our partnership with You Can Play certifies that position in a clear and unequivocal way," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "We are delighted to reaffirm ... that the official policy of the NHL is one of inclusion on the ice, in our locker rooms and in the stands."
Anyone who knows anything about the NHL and the players' union can attest that getting both sides to agree on much of anything -- and to sign off on a written, legal document, no less -- is no easy task. But when it came to this issue, one that has a particularly strong NHL tie, it was a no-brainer.
The name of the organization, You Can Play, grew from an NHL team's scout meeting. Patrick Burke, a pro scout for the Philadelphia Flyers and son of former Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian, recalls listening to his colleagues wrangle over a short player.
"He's too small"..."But he's a good skater"..."We already have three small guys, we need more size."
After half an hour of arguing the pros and cons of the player's body type, someone chimed in. "Look. All that matters is: Can he play?"
And sometimes it's just that simple. If you can play, you can play.
Patrick never set out to form an advocacy group. As a part-time scout and part-time law student, where would he find the time? In order to spread the message of inclusion, tolerance and acceptance in sports regardless of sexuality, he had to do it the Burke way. "I didn't want to do this halfway," Patrick said. "If we were going to do this we were going to do it a million miles an hour, and do it right."
The issue is deeply personal. With every step of progress, Burke carries out the legacy left by his younger brother, Brendan, who died in a car accident in February 2010, just three months after he had come out publicly through a story on ESPN.com. Brendan wasn't a pro player. He wasn't even a part of a pro team, really. But he was no less a member of the NHL family. He was a student manager of the Miami (Ohio) RedHawks hockey team, and hoped to one day work in the NHL like his father, who was long an omnipresent figure in the hockey world. Brian worked for the league, then headed four front offices and served as general manager for the United States' silver medal-winning Olympic hockey team in Vancouver. His connections to professional hockey are far-reaching and deep, and so when he mourned, he did not mourn alone.
Brendan may be gone, but because of the work of his family, his message will not been lost. When Patrick started You Can Play a year ago, he asked his father to reach out to players about filming public service announcements. Brian reached out to Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, and the imposing 6-9 defenseman simply asked: "Where should I be and when?" Player after player agreed much the same way, and at this point, there are players who call Patrick to say, "Hey, why haven't you ask me to do one yet?"
To some, it might come as a surprise that the NHL would be leading the charge on this issue. The sport is often seen as barbaric and hyper-masculine. It isn't always the most socially progressive group (see: Don Cherry thinks I belong on a pedestal, not in a locker room). Trash-talking is a point of pride, even a résumé-padder, for some players. Not so long ago, gay slurs littered the ice and rang openly and freely in locker rooms, but that, some players believe, is beginning to change.
"From what I've seen people are very cognizant of what they're saying," said Sharks forward Tommy Wingels, who was a classmate of Brendan's and now sits on the You Can Play advisory board. "Of course people slip in what they say, and it takes a reminder, but once you remind someone once, they really make an effort not to say things [like that] again and create a safe atmosphere for everyone."
Penguins winger Tanner Glass, a Dartmouth-educated tough guy, will call players out if he hears them use a slur. Sometimes the reaction is one of nonchalance, but sometimes it'll give a player pause. Sometimes it'll get a player thinking. And that's really the mission of You Can Play.
"We have to keep gay male team athletes in our sports," Brian said. "They give up young because of the homophobic nature of the dressing room."
Said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly: "[Our hopes is that] kids who play hockey who may be gay will feel welcomed to play hockey. I think that's important for our sport and our society."
Each of these steps -- whether it's a PSA, a formal league partnership or a player's bold move to come out of the closet -- is bringing the sports world closer to the day when only one question matters: Can he play?