San Jose Sharks forward Tommy Wingels was close friends with Brendan Burke when both were with the University of Miami (Ohio) hockey team. After Burke died in a car crash in 2010 just months after coming out openly as gay, Wingels saw that honoring his friend's legacy would be best served by being an advocate for gay rights in hockey. He is on the advisory board for the You Can Play Project, founded by Brendan's brother Patrick.
Wingels was interviewed by Roger Phillips, a friend and former colleague of mine, for the San Jose Sharks official program. The NHL lockout delayed publication until this winter, but Wingels' words are no less powerful or timely.
"I've become a lot more outspoken on the issue, knowing Brendan and what happened," Wingels told Phillips. "It's something I believed in all along but it spurred my initiative. He and I had a great friendship and when you see somebody with the passion and drive to help conquer an issue like this ... I try to do what I can to raise awareness. The You Can Play initiative is a great thing. I've been blown away by the support it's received from the League and players."
While not guessing on when a gay player will emerge, Wingels said the day is soon coming:
"I think it's coming soon. I don't think you can put a timetable on it. I think it's definitely in the foreseeable future.
"I see acceptance around the League from the owners, to the general managers and most important, the players. We're really trying to create a safe environment for when that happens. I hope it happens sooner than later.
"The two so-called alpha-male sports are hockey and football," Wingels said. "To see people come out and make these comments and standing up for what's right is very encouraging. There's been so much progress. It excites me greatly to see where this will be a year or two."
I think it's cool that the Sharks' official game program commissioned this article. It ran as a three-page piece with the headline: "Tommy Wingels: Making A Difference." There are quotes of support for Wingels from Sharks' management, indicating the team is on board.
Last summer, Wingels marched in the Chicago Pride Parade, an experience that he enjoyed.
"It was a heck of an experience, very eye-opening. I marched with the Chicago Gay Hockey Association. They live and die hockey. They love hockey for what it is. Those guys appreciated me marching with them and I appreciated them letting me take part in it."