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When a gay college hockey player punched a teammate who called him a slur, it led to him coming out

Stephen Finkel used a teammate’s gay slur as a catalyst to come out, including support from four NHL players.

Stephen Finkel plays hockey for St. Thomas Aquinas College
Stephen Finkel plays hockey for St. Thomas Aquinas College and also coaches and is a referee,

It was at the end of a long, hard practice and we were doing a shootout. Everyone was tired and tempers were short.

I took the puck, skated down the ice and fired a shot past our goalie. I celebrated a bit too hard and could tell he was pissed. On my second shot he didn’t even attempt to stop the puck and I celebrated yet again.

The third and final time he again didn’t make an attempt at a save. As I skated around the net, I decided to head off the ice to the locker room. As the door was opening, the goalie yelled something that stopped me in my skates.

“You are a fucking faggot and what faggots do is give up.”

Needless to say, I wasn’t leaving the ice now. Without thinking I turned right around, skated up to him, got in his face and threw a punch or two. It took several teammates to restrain me. I was immediately kicked out of practice, which I deserved for going after a teammate in that manner.

It was my second year playing college hockey at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Upstate New York, a time I was wrestling with being a gay closeted hockey player. My goalie’s comment drove me to a breaking point and set me on a journey that was liberating and redemptive.

Up until then, nobody really knew I was gay except for one or two friends, along with my parents and my sister. It was becoming hard to keep up a front since I was not only a player but also coached and was a referee.

There was really no one to turn to. So I proceeded to tell one of my teammates I was really close with about me being gay and came out to him in the car. He opened his arms to me and our bond grew even stronger from there.

A couple of days later I decided to take action and tell the athletic director what transpired during practice with the gay slur. She told me that she was supportive as were the college staff and faculty.

Stephen Finkel checks an opponent into the boards.

I filed a Title IX report with the school about the incident, citing harassment, and was given three options. The first choice was that the goalie be disciplined for violating the student handbook, which could have meant his suspension. The second choice was to file a police report for harassment. The third choice was to sit down with him along with the athletic director and our head campus safety coordinator.

Ruining someone’s college career and maybe their future career wasn’t fair to this teammate, because nasty things are often said in the heat of the moment. I chose the face-to-face meeting.

That day we met in the office I sat across from him and told him I was gay, that I had a boyfriend and that words like he used weren’t acceptable on or off the ice. He apologized and seemed really sorry for what he said.

After the meeting, as we walked to our dorm, he asked if we could talk privately. “You are a big part of this team and I am truly sorry,” he said. “We need you on this team. Especially a guy who wants nothing but the best for the team.”

After that we went back to business and chased a dream of winning the conference championship (we lost in the semifinals).

Despite the resolution, my feelings were still raw. I decided to reach out to four NHL players via private messages on social media, whose careers I followed, to help guide me through what I was feeling. 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 Lehigh Phantoms (who was a great LGBTQ ally while with the Devils).

These four players all responded and reached out to a kid who was in need of help. I was so impressed that they took my concerns seriously and tried to help.

Palmieri connected me to Joe Altenau, an openly gay executive with the Devils and their arena, the Prudential Center. Joe and Kyle have inspired me to open up my eyes and live my life. Shortly after talking with Joe, he invited me and my then-boyfriend to be his guests at a Devils game. Afterward, we got to take a picture on the ice and I was also able to meet Kyle.

Stephen Finkel with his then boyfriend and Kyle Palmieri of the New Jersey Devils.
Stephen Finkel, left, with his then boyfriend and Kyle Palmieri of the New Jersey Devils.

I was a big fan of Grabner when he played with the New York Rangers. The best thing that Grabs said to me was “you have to learn how to block out the negativity and be yourself.” During the time I was processing the incident he was there for me and always checked in on me via Twitter.

McNabb messaged me quite frequently and offered reassurance. “Being gay is a part of you, it may not define you but it is not something you should ever feel shame for,” he said.

I reached out to Gabriel via Instagram because he has been very vocal about his support for the LGBTQ community. We have exchanged many emails together and I feel comfortable talking to him about everything. One thing that stuck out was when he said that I should be myself on and off the ice and to not wear a mask in the rink.

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. They keep inspiring me on and off the ice.

Being gay in hockey as a player is one thing, but there are different challenges as a coach and referee. Currently, I coach USA hockey from ages 8 to 18 at my local rink. I also referee youth hockey, junior hockey and college hockey as well.

Being a coach means that you have to inspire the players to play the game right and that means respecting your opponent.

I had one player come out to me when I was coaching him, with him not knowing at the time I was also gay. I helped him tell his story to his friends and family and also came out to him, which showed him he wasn’t alone in the sport. This young man is a tremendous person and player. Being able to see him happy helped inspire me to write my story.

I also have come to find I am not alone as a referee who is gay. One time I was working a tournament in Maryland and one of the guys who I normally work with for this event came out to me. Our bond over both being gay has made us better referees because we always look forward to working together and have learned a lot from each other.

Another person who really motivated me to tell my story publicly and has inspired me beyond belief is Gordie Mitchard, who shared his story on Outsports in June. We have been exchanging texts and messages constantly since I read his story and his openness made it easy for me to stop hiding in the shadows.

College hockey is a brotherhood, and that helps explain what happened with the teammate who used gay slurs against me. We have put our differences aside and moved on. Since then he has has become an ally. Hopefully this year we’ll go out and win the conference championship.

Gay college athletes need a great support group around them. That is what I have and what all LGBTQ athletes need to strive for.

Stephen Finkel’s dream is to be an NHL referee.
Photo by Sergey Klevtsov

I don’t plan on stopping with hockey after I graduate. One dream is to be the first openly gay NHL referee or linesman. As long as I work hard on and off the ice I think I can achieve that goal. I want to make an impact at that level to not only prove to myself I am capable, but to inspire young players, coaches and referees to be comfortable in any environment.

I am getting a degree in communications and my minor is in sports management. Another dream is to work in the NHL as a reporter. If so, I plan on meeting all the people in the sport who have reached out to me and tell them how thankful I am for our friendship and for their kind words to a kid who was struggling with such a burden on his shoulders.

Stephen Finkel, 23, is a college senior at St. Thomas Aquinas College. He plays on the ice hockey team and is studying Communications along with a minor in Sports Management. You can connect with him via email sfinkel18@stac.edu or on instagram (@Thefink16).

Story editor: Jim Buzinski

If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim (kandreeky@gmail.com)

Check out our archive of coming out stories.

If you’re an LGBTQ person in sports looking to connect with others in the community, head over to GO! Space to meet and interact with other LGBTQ athletes, or to Equality Coaching Alliance to find other coaches, administrators and other non-athletes in sports.

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