Barriers were broken this year in the macho-fueled world of men’s ice hockey. A slew of players came out, and with each announcement, showed gay people belong on the ice. Hockey is in the midst of a cultural reckoning, with out and proud LGBTQ players leading the way.
Gay former hockey player Brock McGillis spoke to Outsports multiple times this year about the prevalence of homophobia in locker rooms. During the quiet of the springtime sports shutdowns, two well-known NHL players, Stanley Cup champion Dustin Penner and winger Brendan Leipsic, were caught posting horribly homophobic and misogynistic messages on social media.
To McGillis, who came out in 2016 and was subsequently ousted without explanation from the association where he was coaching, their disturbing tirades are emblematic of a larger problem: hate-speech is part of the game’s culture — at least on the men’s side of things.
“We need to shift hockey culture,” McGillis told me. “To me, the way to do it is, we need to humanize these issues. When I go speak, I humanize being a gay man and playing hockey at high levels. I don’t think any of these players understand the impact it has.”
That was certainly the case with Stephen Finkle’s teammates. Then he came out. Playing for St. Thomas Aquinas College in Upstate New York, Finkle often heard other players use anti-gay slurs. During one practice, the venom was directed towards him. The goalie called Finkle a “fucking faggot.”
Immediately, Finkle skated up to his teammate, and punched him once or twice. Once he regained his composure, he decided on a more constructive way to get across his message: a face-to-face meeting.
Finkle told the goalie he was gay, and that language was unacceptable to use on the ice — or anywhere, frankly. The goalie apologized, and they wound up reaching the semifinals together.
But Finkle still didn’t feel right. On a whim, he messaged four NHL players on social media, asking for advice and direction. They were Kyle Palmieri of the New Jersey Devils, Brayden McNabb of the Vegas Golden Knights, Michael Grabner of the Arizona Coyotes and Kurtis Gabriel of the San Jose Sharks. They are all outspoken LGBTQ allies, and replied to Finkle with words of encouragement.
“All these guys mean a lot to me because they have given me the courage to really have a chance to be myself going into my senior year of college,” Finkle wrote.
Currently, Finkle coaches USA hockey from ages 8 to 18 at his local rink. That is how change happens. It’s doubtful any of the kids on Finkle’s team will catch the odious habit of throwing around the f-word.
There are more openly gay figures all around the world of men’s hockey. This year alone, longtime NCAA Division 1 ref Brian Hicks announced he was gay; player and referee Gordie Mitchard came out; pro announcer Jonathan Kliment penned his coming-out story. Visibility changes perceptions.
Imagine being a young hockey player and reading the story of Adam Fyrer. He came out to his teammates twice: once at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, and again at the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. Each time, they had his back.
Fyrer can play hockey and be his authentic self. It’s the best of both worlds. On the pro level, Zach Sullivan, who plays in the EIHL, also came out as bisexual, and is part of a new generation of athletes fighting against bi-erasure.
Our most-read coming out story this year was the tale of Brock Weston, a college hockey player from Marion University in Indianapolis. After a lifetime of hearing gay insults in the rink — opponents were always called “cocksuckers” or “fucking fags” — Weston decided to come out to his teammates in a heartfelt speech. To his pleasant surprise, they immediately brought him in for a big bro hug.
“I was definitely expecting certain reactions from some people, and more times than not, they reacted better than I could have ever wished for,” Weston wrote. “People I thought would disown me or become even more cruel were among the first to voice their acceptance.”
Per usual, the women are ahead of the men here. Over the last decade, an increasing number of gay female Olympic hockey players have come out. There are out players and figures throughout the NWHL, where Harrison Browne, the first openly transgender player in American pro hockey, won two championships (this year, Browne made the successful career transition to full-time actor).
NWHLPA player director Anya Packer is also now a fixture in the hockey world. Since becoming NWHL player head, Packer, who’s married to fellow NWHL player Madison Packer, has helped raise player salaries by nearly 30 percent. This year, she was honored as one of Forbes’ “30 Under 30,” and landed on Sportsnet’s top 25 women in hockey list.
The culture in men’s hockey, which has long veered towards atavistic, still has some catching up to do. But progress is being made. The NHL has a longstanding partnership with You Can Play, and as mentioned, there are many prominent LGBTQ allies within the league. Remember: former New York Rangers defenseman Sean Avery was one of the first pro athletes to advocate for marriage equality.
But the NHL’s corporate messaging can’t alter culture alone. There needs to be a shift in attitudes, and nothing alters stereotypes more than visibility. This year, hockey player Benjamin Fredell told his poignant coming-out story on Outsports, and in it, he described the locker room as a “prison.”
He was playing in an elite youth league, but years of homophobia and self-hatred drove him away from the sport. He was cutting class and thinking about suicide. In order to be his true self, he had to get away. Hopefully some of his ex-teammates read his piece, and young LGBTQ players find wisdom in his words. Here is Fredell’s message:
“You are not alone. And if someone asks if you are gay, just look at them coolly and say, ‘Yeah, so what?’”
Sports have always been a springboard for change. That continues to be the case today, and the hockey rink is one of the staging guards. And guess what? Inclusion is winning out.