The National Hockey League has been preparing for years for the first gay player to come out in public and that groundwork may be about to pay off after the NBA’s Jason Collins opened the door to a new era.
Collins, a veteran basketball player, stepped into the spotlight on Monday when became the first male athlete in a major US professional league to publicly reveal that he is gay. That is expected to be the first of many similar announcements in the coming months in major sports leagues.
The deputy commissioner of the NHL, composed of US and Canadian teams, said he was not personally aware of any gay players in the league, but made it clear the NHL is treating any coming out as a high priority.
“Certainly this is something that is very important to the National Hockey League, it has been and I think our partnership with You Can Play is demonstrative of that,” Bill Daly told a Toronto radio station on Monday.
The NHL says it is committed to becoming not only North America’s, but the world’s most inclusive professional sports league.
While it has dragged its feet on several issues, such as anti-doping and drug testing, the NHL has sought to take the lead in fighting discrimination on the ice and in the stands, particularly when it comes to a player’s sexuality.
As far back as 2005, the NHL and the NHL Players Association (NHLPA) included Article 7.2 in their collective bargaining agreement that says member clubs cannot discriminate against a player because of his sexual orientation.
More recently, the NHL and the NHLPA entered into a formal partnership with the You Can Play Project, an advocacy organization that fights homophobia in sports.
“We have always prided ourselves in being inclusive,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said when announcing the deal on April 11. “We don’t want any segment of society to feel alienated from the game, be the subject of slurs, to feel uncomfortable, whether as a fan or in the locker room.”
The gay issue is one that hits close to home for the NHL.
The You Can Play Project was founded just over a year ago by Philadelphia Flyers scout Patrick Burke, son of former Toronto Maple Leafs and 2010 US Olympic hockey team general manager Brian Burke, after his brother Brendan, an openly gay student athlete, was killed in a car accident.
You Can Play is not only committed to changing the locker room culture within the NHL, but also educating fans and media to better prepare a welcoming environment for any player, from junior to professional, who decides they want to reveal their sexuality.
Last year, the NHL and You Can Play, with the help from 60 players, developed a series of public service videos asking for tolerance and understanding from the fans.
You Can Play representatives will also appear at the league’s rookie orientation program to educate incoming players about the NHL’s inclusiveness policy.
“When an NHL player comes out, we will rely on You Can Play’s expertise in this area in addition to the myriad support systems that already were part of our structure and the NHLPA’s to help that player in any way we can,” NHL spokesman John Dellapina told repoters in an e-mail.
The NHL is also being helped by initiatives at the grassroots level.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have reached out to the gay community offering support and assistance to the Toronto Gay Hockey Association, which claims to be the world’s largest gay hockey league with more than 10 teams and 150 members.
Craig Brownstein, the Washington-based vice-president of media relations for Edelman, the huge public relations firm, turned his passion for the Washington Capitals into a popular blog, Puck Buddys, (“for boys who like boys who like hockey”).
The blog, developed with the help of Brownstein’s longtime partner, gives a voice to gay NHL fans.
“We kind of write about the game from the gay perspective,” Brownstein told reporters, and gave credit to the NHL and the NHLPA for their partnership with You Can Play. “Proud that it was my sport was the first one to take the step in doing this.”