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Kurtis Gabriel challenges NHL to improve inclusion efforts

The longtime ally says the league needs to reach out to LGBTQ people and “get uncomfortable.”

New Jersey Devils v Vancouver Canucks
Kurtis Gabriel signed with the San Jose Sharks in NHL free agency.
Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

Kurtis Gabriel has a message for the NHL: It’s time to get uncomfortable.

In a recent interview with Sports Media LGBT+, the longtime ally shares some ideas for how the league can improve its inclusion efforts. Gabriel says talking with more LGBTQ+ people should be the first step.

“Start reaching out more,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with asking for help. ... They have to get uncomfortable.”

Gabriel credits his awakening on LGBTQ issues to befriending people in the community. As he began his stint with the New Jersey Devils in 2018, he learned a friend of his then-girlfriend had been cut off from her family for being in a same-sex relationship. From that point forward, Gabriel made LGBTQ inclusion his cause célèbre.

On Pride Night 2019, Gabriel scored his first-ever NHL goal with a stick wrapped in rainbow-colored tape.

Outsports profiled a bevy of out male hockey players last year, and together, they’re looking to change the sport’s atavistic culture. Openly gay former hockey player Brock McGillis, whom Gabriel says initially started educating him on LGBTQ issues, told me the mentality within hockey needs to shift before anything. That’s where somebody like Gabriel holds his power.

“Brock reached out initially, but I didn’t really connect with him until quite a time later,” Gabriel said. “I needed that time to kind of catch up and be able to hold my own in the conversation about it. I think that’s a part of it. You have to do the work on it.”

Gabriel currently plays for the San Jose Sharks’ developmental team, the Barracudas. The Sharks launched their own activism campaign this year, “Teal for Change Council.”

While the NHL and NHLPA announced an official partnership with You Can Play way back in 2013, it’s apparent homophobic attitudes are still far too prevalent in the sport. During the quiet of the springtime sports shutdowns, for example, 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.

Growing up in the insular hockey world, Gabriel wasn’t always attune with LGBTQ people. He dedicated himself to getting better. As Gabriel has shown, being an ally involves more than partnering with organizations or issuing the right press releases. It means actually caring, which requires listening to LGBTQ people. We have plenty of stories to tell.