I came out publicly as a queer college hockey player in April after several NHL players refused to wear a pride-themed jersey during their team’s warmups. Up until that point, I was content with “staying in the closet.”
However, coming out to my friends, family and teammates has been one of the greatest things to happen to me. While I have a newfound love and acceptance in hockey, the NHL’s recent ban on specialty jerseys – and now even worse, Pride Tape – makes it feel that hockey is not for everyone.
I grew up in a hockey world where the f-slur was used by players and coaches alike. I felt coming out would be a death sentence to my playing career.
Instead, it has rejuvenated it. I am so incredibly thankful that I was able to come out knowing I had the support from everyone in my life, especially my incredible teammates at Chatham University. Since coming out last spring, I have grown exponentially closer with my teammates, and I have found a newfound love for the game of hockey.
I have had so many positive conversations with them and other teammates from my hockey journey, and it felt like the game was moving in the right direction.
The NHL, on the other hand, has taken a step back in their support for the LGBTQ+ community with their outright ban of Pride Tape on player’s sticks. We can talk forever about the hypocrisy of the league banning specialty jerseys for warmups, and then subsequently barring players from choosing to use Pride Tape in practices, warmups and games.
The Pride Tape on player’s sticks reminds LGBTQ+ folks that we do belong in the game of hockey, when it feels so often that we don’t. When the f-slur is used constantly in locker rooms and on the ice, it is easy to feel alienated from the game we love so much.
Seeing the best players in the world supporting my community and me, with just simply taping their stick differently for a 15-minute warmup once a year, genuinely means the world. It shows we are seen, and we are accepted.
The NHL would like you to believe that they value inclusion, that “hockey is for everyone.” The League is making it clear that what they really value is covering up support for the LGBTQ+ community.
The league responded to the hate thrown toward our community by taking any aspect of our existence away from the NHL ice.
I was thankful enough to have an incredible support system around me when I came out, but I know others who are not that lucky. I never would have been able to come out had it not been for my family, friends and teammates’ unwavering support.
Seeing NHL players show support toward members of the LGBTQ+ community can be what keeps someone involved in hockey. I didn’t realize I was queer until I started college, but if I knew while I was a part of youth hockey, there’s a very slim chance I would still be playing hockey today.
Hockey has made so many positive strides toward inclusion in recent years.
All of that progress means nothing if the NHL retreats.
I have gotten the most support from people directly involved in hockey, and the most hate from those who are not. Hockey does not have an LGBTQ+ problem. We do not want to make the game about our sexuality. We want to be able to be who we are and not feel retaliation for that.
Still, the culture in and around hockey, and the perception of men’s hockey, sometimes say otherwise. That is what we need to undo.
We have seen the discussion online of “taking politics out of hockey.” My sexuality, which I have no control over, is not politics. Pride nights and Pride Tape are a sense of belonging for so many people who feel like outsiders in hockey. And all we want is to feel included in the game we love so much.
I have come to realize since coming out, that my teammates love me for me.
However, it is so hard to mentally get past all of the homophobia that is ingrained into the game, especially from a young age.
I don’t need Pride Tape to feel like I belong in the game personally, but I know so many people who need that reassurance: those who are closeted, those who don’t have that support and those of us who just want to belong.
Hockey is already a game that is difficult to get into. Between the exorbitant expenses and grueling schedule, we should be doing everything we can as a community to continue to grow the game.
In 2023, the NHL has said “Hockey Is No Longer For Everyone.” I’m hoping the league changes course and makes it clear that everyone belongs in this sport I love.
You can follow Carson Gates on Instagram.