Professional hockey player Zach Sullivan says he encountered homophobic abuse the month he decided to publicly come out as bisexual during last season’s Elite Ice Hockey League’s Pride Weekend. The Manchester Storm defenseman recent told Sky Sports he was on the receiving end of a homophobic slur directed by another player during a game last December. It was the first time he’d been verbally abused in that way during his six years in the EIHL.

“It was on the penalty kill. The phrase he used was ‘nice hit, faggot’,” Sullivan said. “Fortunately, I knew both of the refs on the game quite well. They came over and asked which player it was, and what he’d said. I told them and added, ‘look, if he says that again, I’m going to go for him’.”

While the player who abused him could not have known that Sullivan was bisexual, Sullivan hoped the referees’ report from that night would lead to action. But that hasn’t been the case. He still hasn’t received an update from the EIHL on disciplinary action taken against the player. “I think it was an opportunity for them to make an example and say this kind of language is not acceptable in our league,” he said.” I don’t know the reasons but it was disheartening and frustrating to see.”

In spite of the ugly encounter in December, Sullivan found courage in the opportunity presented by the league-wide Pride weekend in January 2020 to reconcile his hockey life with his private life.

“We were training on the Friday before the [Pride] weekend, and two of my team-mates were doing the photoshoot with the Pride shirts,” remembers Sullivan. “I skated over to our kit manager and said, ‘where’s mine? I’m getting in the picture!’ I forced my way in because I knew what I was going to do by that point.”

Zach Sullivan is embraced by teammate Tyson Fawcett during last season’s Pride game.

“Since I came out, guys I’ve never played with have come up to me and said, ‘really proud of you for what you’ve done’ and things like that. The reactions have only been positive, and it’s really exciting and fun to be part of a bigger message,” Sullivan said, now seven months on from his public coming out.

Sullivan personally found empowerment in the league-wide Pride celebrations, and studies show he isn’t alone. Two new studies suggest a clear influence of Pride events on creating a more inclusive culture within sports.

“I think a pride game would be a benefit for every club,” Sullivan said. “The LGBT+ community has a sense of togetherness — I’ve learned this over the last few months — and it’s a community that just gets on with it. Also, they love to be involved in things, and if they’re given that olive branch, they will take it with both hands and go ‘yeah, this is awesome’.

You can read Zach Sullivan’s full interview with Sky Sports here. For more of Outsports’ reporting on the positive influence of Pride games, click here.