Janne Puhakka, a former forward for the Finnish pro hockey teams Espoo Blue and Espoo United, came out as gay in an interview this week.
”He’s the first ice hockey player in the Finnish Championship League to dare to publicly claim to be homosexual,” the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat reported. According to the paper, he’s not particularly excited about it.
“Ideally, you wouldn’t have to talk about it,” the 24-year-old athlete said. “But as long as the topic has been silent, we have to talk about it.” He added he hoped his coming out would help other players to do the same in the future.
Puhakka began playing hockey since he was 6 and became committed to the sport at age 13. He joined the national youth team at age 16 — around that same time, he said, he became aware of his sexuality.
After a successful first year playing in the Finnish pro league at age 20, he said he began to feel bothered by the fact that he didn’t feel able to honestly mention his being gay, especially as his teammates spoke openly about their wives and girlfriends.
He would occasionally laugh off anti-gay “jokes” told in the locker room or on the players’ bench, he said in an interview. He said he wondered if another closeted player would feel able to shrug off these same things, and he worried he wasn’t strong enough of a player to keep his position if he came out.
While he shared that he was gay with his team’s captain of that time, Kim Hirschovits, and a few close teammates, he mostly kept his then-boyfriend a secret, avoided questions about his love life and worried that his other teammates might one day run into him and his boyfriend in the city. Over time, the secrecy started to negatively affect his partner.
”There’d be no need to [live like] this if everyone could naturally be themselves on the bench,” Puhakka said. “I imagine there are players who would like to talk about it but are afraid because they fear for their jobs.”
And yet Puhakka felt pressure to remain closeted in part because of what was said in February 2014 by Sinuhe Wallinheimo — a Finnish member of parliament and former pro ice hockey goalkeeper, who served as chairman of Finland’s hockey players’ association: “It’d be a good idea for a gay player to hide his homo in the booth so as not to offend team chemistry and turn [sentiments] against the team.”
Wallinheimo’s comment was especially strange considering that he had urged players to come out of the closet in 2013. He was criticized for his 2014 comment and later apologized for it.
Also in 2014, former Finnish pro hockey team captain Juhani Tamminen said he’d never knowingly had a gay teammate, dismissively adding that “little mice” wouldn’t do well in the sport, though he also claimed gay players were certainly welcome to participate.
Puhakka pushed back on Wallinheimo’s sentiment that coming out would hurt a team.
“When someone shares their own life deeper than just surface level, it strengthens the team,” Puhakka said.
He contemplated coming out during his three years playing in the pro leagues: He dreamt of making a name for himself as a power player and then going public — but that dream never materialized. Despite his public coming out, he knows of no other gay players in Finland’s other pro teams.
Since his coming out interview, Puhakka says he has received an outpouring of public support.
Ossi Halme, a Finnish sports journalist who writes about LGBTQ topics for the news website ranneliike.net, told Outsports:
“In the long run, Puhakka’s coming out will show that he fixed something that has started to look almost ridiculous in Finland. There have been some very inclusive comments during the past few years yet there are no openly gay players. And some gay players have been giving comments to media on the condition of total anonymity. It’s kind of a ‘does not compute’ thing which I hope Janne has started to fix.”
Puhakka is studying international business at Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences in Helsinki and working in the fashion industry.
In related news, the Ilves and HC TPS Finnish pro hockey teams have pledged to play a Pride “rainbow match” next month. Both teams will wear rainbow-colored gear and participate as a way to “promote LGBTQ rights and equality in Finnish sports.”