The NHL can drive hockey fans crazy sometimes. This is a league, after all, that locks its players out and cancels meaningful games once every decade or so. And that's to say nothing of the other things that fans love to complain about, like silly rules or controversial decisions on supplemental discipline. But as we were reminded again last week, when it comes to LGBT issues, NHL fans should be proud of their league.
In case you missed it, last week the NHL and its players association announced a partnership with an advocacy group called the You Can Play, which fights homophobia in sports. (Its slogan: "If you can play, you can play.") The partnership includes things like seminars at the league's rookie symposium, the production of public service announcements, and the integration of the project into the league's Behavioral Health Program, allowing players to confidentially seek counseling or ask questions on matters of sexual orientation. As part of the partnership, You Can Play will make resources available to each team, as desired.
In a statement last week, Patrick Burke -- a scout for the Flyers, the son of longtime executive Brian Burke, and a co-founder of You Can Play -- said that the NHL "sets the standard for professional sports when it comes to LGBT outreach." That's not an exaggeration on the occasion of the announcement of the partnership. In fact, this agreement really just formalizes what had already been a real, albeit loose, association.
You Can Play isn't a sport-specific project, but it's had ties to hockey since its founding last year. Patrick Burke's connection to the sport is obvious, and many NHL players -- from Zdeno Chara and Steven Stamkos to Shea Weber and Carey Price -- have recorded "You Can Play" videos for the organization's website. A public-service ad produced by You Can Play featuring eight NHL players, including Henrik Lundqvist and Corey Perry, made its debut on a nationally televised NBC broadcast last March.
But the seeds of change in hockey culture predate the You Can Play Project. Back in 2011, I spoke with Jeff Kagan, the director of the New York City Gay Hockey Association, shortly after Sean Avery, then with the Rangers, recorded a video in support of marriage equality in New York state. By that point, Brian Burke -- a big name in the world of hockey -- had already become a strong advocate of gay rights following the car-accident death of his son and Patrick's brother, Brendan Burke, who was openly gay. And in 2010, Brent Sopel of the Blackhawks rode with the Stanley Cup in Chicago's Pride Parade. "I think you can see there's a pattern," Kagan said at the time, in response to a question of whether the culture was changing in hockey more than in other sports. "There is more visibility with the involvement in the gay community."
And again, that was the feeling in 2011. Two years later, that trend has only continued, most notably with the establishment of the You Can Play project, and now with the league's formal partnership with the organization.
It's funny; the NHL works so hard to generate publicity over the course of a typical season. This is a league that sometimes plays games in huge, outdoor stadiums in order to grab the attention of people outside its core group of die-hard supporters. But last week, the NHL made headlines both inside and outside the sports world -- not by staging some elaborate event, but by simply doing the right thing and addressing something that deserved to be addressed.
This partnership isn't happening because it's good press; it's happening because, again, it's the right thing to do. That said, the NHL will take the attention it's gotten in the past week; it's not every day that Ellen DeGeneres tweets about the NHL to her eighteen million followers and declares herself "officially a hockey fan." (My favorite You Can Play-related tweet last week, though, came from Patrick Burke himself, at the end of what had been a whirlwind day: "The unique nature of today is registering. I was on Fox News with the NHL Commissioner talking about LGBT Equality. That looks like a MadLib.")
It's been suggested that now is the time for an active gay athlete in one of the four major North American men's sports leagues to come out. An athlete considering such a thing, of course, would have any number of things on his mind. But the NHL and the NHLPA have taken real steps to create an environment in the league's dressing rooms in which a player would be comfortable doing so. In a sport where teams have clearly defined leaders, one hopes that if a player chooses to come out, his team's captain, and alternate captains, and coach, and GM, will be standing beside him, and that the voices of support drown out any voices of bigotry. (One also hopes that hockey fans -- who can say some pretty messed up, homophobic stuff in the stands during games-- would support such a player, as well.)
We're less than six months away from a low point in the relationship between the NHL and NHLPA. And though the league has recovered nicely from a lockout, it's not hard to remember that the league and its players association recently combined to ruin the fall and much of the winter for fans of the sport. Sometimes, as a hockey fan, you want to knock together the heads of the NHL leadership and that of the NHLPA. But sometimes, those organizations put aside any lingering animosity and get things right. Teaming up with You Can Play is one of those times.
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