Is the NHL ready for an openly gay player?

Former Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke (right) walks in the 32nd annual Pride Toronto parade alongside CBC personality Rick Mercer in 2012. Michael Hudson / The Canadian Press

TORONTO – Jason Collins has broken a barrier in professional basketball, Michael Sam hopes to do the same following the NFL draft in May, but when the NHL will welcome an openly gay athlete has analysts divided.

Of the four major professional sports leagues in North America — the NHL, NFL, NBA and MLB, known as the “Big 4″—there have been players who have come out as gay after their playing days in all except hockey.

Curious that the only league without representation is the one so closely tied to an active effort to welcome such players: The Burke family’s “You Can Play” organization was founded by NHL executive Brian Burke and his son, Patrick, to honour the legacy of Burke’s gay son, Brendan, who died in a car accident in 2010.

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Brendan Burke, the late son of Toronto Maple Leafs’ general manager Brian Burke, is shown in this undated photo released by Miami (Ohio) University.
Brendan Burke, the late son of Toronto Maple Leafs’ general manager Brian Burke, is shown in this undated photo released by Miami (Ohio) University. Miami (Ohio) University / The Associated Press
“I know all [NHL] 30 teams have had a player contribute to a ‘You Can Play’ video, saying that it doesn’t matter where you come from, or who you are—If you can play, you can play,” said Associate Senior Writer of The Hockey News Ryan Kennedy. “That’s picked up so much steam that it’s really helped the dialogue and the discourse move forward on this issue.”

Hockey historian and Ottawa-area talk show host Liam Maguire said while he didn’t know of any players asked to lend their voices to the “You Can Play” organization who turned it down, he also didn’t see any current or former gay NHL players stepping forward.

“NHLers don’t want to step out at this point and say: ‘Yeah I’m a gay man, I played in the NHL, I won the Stanley Cup…I’m elated by what’s going on, I’ve talked to some of my former teammates and told them what’s going on and I’m going to come out.’ Obviously to this point, they don’t want to do that, so what does that tell you? It tells you that that stigma surrounding hockey still does exist.”
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Patrick Burke told The Hockey News that he predicted there would be an openly gay player in the NHL in the next two years. The two-year mark is two months from now, and the NBA and NFL might be leaving hockey behind.

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“For a hockey player, I mean, they can sort of go into their own head and say, ‘Well maybe hockey’s different,’ but I don’t know by what metric you could possibly think that hockey would be behind football and basketball,” said Kennedy.

But Maguire believes the sport is a “different animal.”

“It’s a much more violent game despite fact there’s violence in all pro sports,” said Maguire. “The perception is that the hockey guys are the toughest of the tough. Because they’ll drop the gloves, they’ll out run you through the boards, they’ll break a stick over your head—as much as pull a Sidney Crosby and go through the team—there’s a measure of toughness that’s perceived to be required to play hockey. And if that’s the case, then homosexuality can’t be a part of it…and that stigma I think still exists and that’s why I think it would be difficult to come out.

“It just falls under the stigma: ‘Oh someone’s gay, they can’t be tough,’ which is bull-s—t.”

Another possibility as to why the public isn’t aware of gay NHLers is that homosexual players are open with their teammates, but don’t feel the need to hold a press conference.

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“When you talk to players or you talk to former players who now write, they seem to think [having an openly gay player on the team] wouldn’t be a problem,” said Kennedy.

“A lot of them had teammates that were open to them, but just not open to the public. So it’s tough to say. It’s an individual choice.”

Maguire even allows for the slim possibility that there are no gay players skating on professional ice.

“I’d hazard a guess that a lot of gay athletes that were in high-level hockey were probably some of the ones that quit at 13, 14, 15 rather than try and figure out how they were going to continue,” said Maguire. “At the pivotal age when they needed to make a decision, they said: ‘F**k this, I’m out of here’ and they quit hockey. And I’ll hazard a guess that happened more probably than we knew.”
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But Kennedy and Maguire both believe things are changing for the younger generation, and adults are becoming more accepting.

Los Angeles Kings captain Dustin Brown was recently interviewed in a TSN series where he was asked what his reaction would be if one of his teammates came out.

“I think as a group of guys, we would be fine with it. There might be some players who are uncomfortable, but they’d be okay with it. The one thing, for me as a captain (I’d say): ‘This is our teammate … He’s going to help us win games. It’s not any different from two weeks ago when we were battling together.’ If that type of situation arose, this guy’s our teammate and we’re going to have his back no matter what.”

Dustin Brown
Los Angeles Kings captain Dustin Brown hoists the Stanley Cup after the Kings beat the New Jersey Devils 6-1 during Game 6 of the 2012 NHL hockey Stanley Cup finals. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Mark J. Terrill

Kennedy believes the league is ready for an openly gay player now, and Maguire’s best guess is “sooner rather than later.”

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“With the movement of these pros coming out, and the amateur athlete in football coming out, now you’ve got a guy in hockey who’s discovering his sexuality and he’s going to feel a whole lot more comfortable about staying in that AAA,” said Maguire. “And then he’s going to go through bantam draft…and he’s going to get selected, and he’s going to come out, and that’s probably what’s going to happen.

“And it’ll be great, but I just think: It’s not happening next week or next month.”

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