Vancouver Canucks goalie Anders Nilsson says that if he had been gay growing up in Sweden, the homophobia in hockey would have caused him to quit.
“What I now can feel myself, is that if I was gay, I would have quit playing hockey in my teens,” Nillson said in a wide-ranging interview with the Swedish website Aftonbladet. His remarks were translated on Reddit.
“That’s why I think when people say there are three to four gay players on each [NHL] team, I say no, absolutely not. They quit when they were younger. There’s no one who would dare to or want to keep playing. Team sports are about the feeling of togetherness, it’s just as fun to go there to hang out and have someone to talk to as the actual sports, but if you have a hard time in the dressing room when you’re a teen it’s not as fun to play hockey on the field either.”
Nilsson talked about how frequently the words “fag,” “faggot” and other gay slurs were used in youth leagues he played in. “ ‘Fag’ is used as an insult and the jargon is harsh toward anyone who stands out,” he said, adding that such language would not be tolerated in an NHL locker room.
The NHL stands out in being the only major men’s U.S. pro sports league where there has never been a gay player, either active or retired. It’s striking, considering how LGBT tolerant hockey-mad countries like Canada and Sweden are, but Nilsson puts much of the blame on youth coaches and the atmosphere they foster.
“What happens is that we will lose gay players, who might otherwise have been the next Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid or Wayne Gretzky,” he said. “We lose talents. And some families with strong feelings about things might feel that, regardless if their son is straight or gay, he shouldn’t play hockey because they don’t want him in that harsh culture where coaches and players call each other all sorts of things. We lose our pride in hockey.”
Nilsson, 28, has gay friends in Sweden and the U.S., and is such a strong ally that he was named “Hetero of the Year” by a Swedish LGBT website. He regularly wears a rainbow decal on his goalie mask and says he has gotten no negative feedback.
“After all the attention this grabbed in the NHL I thought, ‘let’s see if anyone on the team starts treating me differently because I’ve got this thing.’ But no one has said anything and if they did, so fucking what, they wouldn’t be people I’d like to hang out with off the ice. The only thing is that there aren’t many others who dare take this step and do something.”
His comments (you should read the whole transcript) are about the most extensive I’ve ever seen by a straight pro athlete about gays in his sport. Here are his parting words to a hockey player who is gay and wrestling with whether to continue playing.
“As long as you’re having fun: keep going,” Nilsson said. “Be confident in who you are and stand up for yourself. Those who say something mean, or who use that jargon, they don’t have to be your friends. Then I hope we can change coaching and culture in the dressing room. I understand it’s very tough for a young person to come out today in a hockey team, but if you dare to come out, you’ll receive much more positive feedback than you’d believe.
“And if someone says something then, you don’t have to hang out with them. And they probably feel worse as human beings on the inside when they have to demean other people [to feel good themselves]. They’ll regret it when they get older.”