Sean Avery of the New York Rangers is one of the more contentious players in the National Hockey League ("despised" would be a better word for many), but he made the most forceful gay-positive comments I have ever heard from a pro athlete in an interview with the Toronto Sun.
"If there's a kid in Canada or wherever, who is playing and really loves the game and wants to keep playing but he's worried about coming out, I'd tell him to pick up the phone and call (NHLPA executive director) Donald Fehr and tell him to book me a (plane) ticket.
"I'll stand beside him in the dressing room while he tells his teammates he is gay. Maybe if Sean Avery is there, they would have less of a problem with it."
I have jokingly written that Avery is gayer than me for his love of fashion. But it is clear that his exposure to gay men while interning at Vogue and living in Chelsea and West Hollywood (while playing for the L.A. Kings) had an effect on him. He added that there are "probably a few gay players in the NHL, but I don't know if somebody has the courage (to come out)."
It's athletes like Avery, who take clear and uncompromising stances, who will help a teammate who ever decides to come out. In a separate column in the Toronto Sun by Chris Stevenson, another player made gay-positive statements:
"I just believe that it is a person's right to be what they are," Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said. "If they are gay, it would probably be really hard to have to hide it all the time. There will always be people opposed to it, I suppose. But I have a feeling that overall, it would be accepted.
"Obviously, there is a lot of stigma involved in it. Once you cross that hurdle, if someone does come out, you learn how to deal with it. You find a way. If someone is uncomfortable with it, you work around it.
Stevenson's column dealt with the one-year anniversary of the death of Brendan Burke. His brother Brian, a scout with the Philadelphia Flyers, reflected on how far the issue of gays in hockey has progressed since people became aware of Brendan's sexual orientation.
"In the last year, both publicly and privately, I think we have seen a great deal of progress," he said. "Not necessarily at the NHL level, but at youth hockey and college hockey, we've heard from various groups and various people.
"I think there are a lot of people in the hockey world who say, 'His father is [Toronto general manager] Brian, who is known for being tough and outspoken and everything like that. He has a brother who works for the Flyers, which is not a soft hockey team by any stretch of the imagination.' Our family's hockey reputation is built around toughness and masculinity. For other GMs and scouts and players ... it sounds dumb for people who have gay family members and friends to say, 'If one of the Burkes can be gay, anybody can be gay.' For people who haven't really been exposed to it, hopefully it did kind of open up some eyes."
I have long felt that the first publicly out athlete in the four major North American pro team sports will be from the NHL. Comments like those above further convince me.
Hat tip to Joe in Philly, whose blog you should check out.