There are questions that haunt mainstream NHL media. They are always trying to figure out the answer to them and yet they never hit the mark.
What will it take for the first gay NHL player to come out? Why has no past or present NHL player ever come out? Why don’t gay players feel supported in the NHL?
For about one month every year, there’s a message that is constantly reverberating throughout the hockey world: if you can play, you can play.
You Can Play was an initiative created to try and combat homophobia in professional sports. It serves as a great starting point for leagues to get involved in discussions of homophobia. But that’s all the NHL does to show support.
Every year, each team has to host a “pride night” in collaboration with You Can Play. These nights are nothing short of performative. Most teams put in minimal effort to promote them beforehand and don’t do anything aside from having players put rainbow tape on their sticks for warmups.
Despite the meager support, many fans still see these nights as too much.
Each team within the league additionally has to appoint a You Can Play ambassador, somebody to represent diversity and equality within their teams. However, this position is nothing more than performative.
Because of this, nothing has truly been done to end the rampant homophobia in hockey. Andrew Shaw, who at the time was a forward on the Chicago Blackhawks, was seen calling a referee a homophobic slur during a playoffs game in 2016. Following this, he was suspended for the next game in the playoff series.
Shaw was traded to the Montreal Canadiens the following season, however he was still named the team’s You Can Play ambassador. Despite his former infractions and being seen again saying homophobic slurs during a game with Montreal, he was still chosen to represent diversity within the hockey community.
What purpose does appointing a known homophobe to be the ambassador provide other than publicity?
However, Shaw is in quite good company among other known homophobes in the league. During playoffs in 2017, Anaheim Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf was seen calling a ref an extremely homophobic and sexist slur multiple times throughout a game. All he received was a slap on the wrist and a fine of $10,000, an inconsequential amount considering the $9.25 million he makes a year.
During a game in early 2019, Toronto Maple Leafs’ defenseman Morgan Rielly yelled a homophobic slur loud enough to be picked up by in-arena mics and heard clearly over broadcasts of the game. The NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs both vehemently deny that this happened and yet they could not provide any evidence to the contrary.
And those are just the instances that happened during games that were caught, there’s no telling what has happened and not been seen.
No matter what lackluster apology the NHL comes up with in response, these events always serve to highlight the true homophobia within NHL fan bases.
More broadly, any response to these events among fans is filled with violent homophobia. Though homophobia is something frequently expressed by players on the ice, it is so much more prevalent within fanbases.
Being a LGBT fan of any NHL team is a challenge. No matter how much the league tries to pander to gay audiences, the hate and vitriol from both other fans and players does not promote a welcoming environment.
Hockey is a sport bred on the mentality that boys will be boys. The sport lends itself to the creation of a culture dominated by displays of masculinity. It is no surprise, then, that the sport would not be accepting of people who challenge those ideals.
Homophobia is deeply ingrained within hockey culture. The use of homophobic slurs is something that’s seen as common for young hockey players. They are simply the products of their environment.
That is why we have yet to see a current or former NHL player come out. The ones that don’t end up quitting before having the chance to go professional only further internalize that homophobia. No matter how many think pieces are written by straight authors, the culture still remains the same.
This is because none of these authors truly grasp what it will take for an NHL player to come out. No matter how many platitudes they receive from straight allies within the league saying the reception would be positive, the culture of the sport still will remain the same.
If the NHL truly wants to promote itself as an inclusive league, receptive of LGBT players, true change and action needs to take place. What they need to realize is slapping on a rainbow for ten minutes once a year is going to do nothing to fix deep-seated issues within the league.
The culture needs to be changed from the ground up. Make sure young players know that homophobia is not a part of hockey culture. Take homophobia within professional leagues seriously.
If hockey truly is for everyone, put in the work to show that it actually is.