VANCOUVER — NHL players refusing to participate in Pride nights around the league shows hockey still isn't safe for a number of LGBTQ people, says one of the first male professional players to publicly come out as gay.
Brock McGillis is working to change the sport he loves through a new non-profit, Alphabet Sports Collective, which looks to make hockey safer for people of all sexualities and gender identities.
"I think (the Pride night controversy) is just a testament that we have to build up community and work with our members to feel good," said McGillis, who played in the Ontario Hockey League, the United Hockey League and in the Netherlands.
"The more people are exposed to those that are different than themselves, the more likely they are to not judge, not be anti-LGBTQ+. We lack exposure in this world, we lack identities in this world. So by getting young adults and adults out there, the exposure itself will hopefully help people critically think about what they're doing and the impact it has on people they know.”
NHL teams have long held annual Pride nights to celebrate LGBTQ people and promote inclusivity, but controversy has bubbled this season as an increasing number of players have refused to take part.
In mid-January, Philadelphia Flyers defenceman Ivan Provorov sat out warm-ups — and declined to wear a Pride jersey — citing his Russian Orthodox religion.
Others around the league have followed suit.
San Jose Sharks goalie James Reimer, and Eric and Marc Staal, who both play for the Florida Panthers, said earlier this month they wouldn’t wear their team's rainbow-themed uniforms in warm-ups due to their religious beliefs. Buffalo Sabres defenceman Ilya Lyubushkin said Monday he was opting out due to concerns of retribution in his home country of Russia.
The New York Rangers, Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks all decided not to don Pride warm-up jerseys for their celebratory games.
Closeted hockey players are hurt by these decisions, McGillis said.
"That player believes that those teammates hate him," he said. "I'm telling you that because I was that player. That player is further in the closet today."
Other NHL teams have continued with big Pride celebrations, with high-profile players speaking out in support.
"To me, it’s an obvious no brainer. If I were in that position, I would wear one," said Oilers forward Zach Hyman. "It doesn’t go against any of my beliefs. On the contrary, I think it’s extremely important to be open and welcoming to that greater community, just because they’re a minority and they’ve faced a lot of persecution over the years.
"To show that we care and that we’re ready and willing to include them in our game and in our sport is incredibly important to me."
Edmonton has not worn themed jerseys for its Pride games, but players used rainbow stick tape during warm-ups ahead of its annual celebration Saturday.
“I know here in Edmonton, we strongly believe hockey is for everyone and strongly support Pride night," said captain Connor McDavid.
The Calgary Flames are set to wear Pride jerseys designed by a local LGBTQ artist when they host the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday. Coach Darryl Sutter said the uniforms haven't been an issue for the team.
“I think all it signifies is everything is accepted," said the veteran bench boss.
The Canucks are set to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community on Friday when they host the Flames.
Vancouver has worn Pride warm-up jerseys in previous years, but the team has yet to reveal whether the tradition will continue, saying in a statement Tuesday that details on different elements of the night will be released "closer to the date."
"We have had a long and proud history of hosting Pride events and we look forward to another incredible evening on March 31 to raise awareness and support the 2SLGBTQIA+ community," the statement said.
McGillis didn't think support from high-profile people in the hockey community would matter to him as he and his co-founders worked to get Alphabet Sports Collective off the ground earlier this month.
But looking around the launch party in Toronto, he was struck by how many athletes, media personalities and others from around the game were in the room.
“Hockey made me want to die. I self harmed. I drank heavily. I struggled. My career derailed from it. It didn't feel like a good space to me," McGillis said. "And then all of a sudden, I'm seeing all these people who represent essentially that world, here saying, ‘No, we want this to be good for people like you and all people.’”
Working within the existing hockey community to create change is key, said co-founder Gabriela Ugarte.
Alphabet Sports Collective is working to connect ambassadors to promote messages of inclusion, and critically analyze their own language and behaviours, she said.
The support the group has received so far has been huge, Ugarte added.
“I think it shows that there are people who are across the industry, that there's more of us who want to become an inclusive and equitable space, and that there are people who are willing to do the work," she said. "And we are very appreciative of that."
The new non-profit is currently working on connecting people who want to get involved in hockey at a variety of levels with mentors who can help them succeed. That means pairing aspiring coaches with veterans already working behind the bench, and people who want to sit on boards with those who have experience, McGillis said.
“Let's give them tools where they feel good to be a part of the hockey ecosystem in any capacity they want. Whether it's through coaching, sitting on boards, managing teams, playing — whatever it is, let's start giving them tools to take part," he said.
"We need more seats."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 28, 2023.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press