When Brock McGillis was an active college and semipro hockey player, he never felt comfortable enough to come out due to the onslaught of homophobic language he heard in the locker room and on the ice.
Now over the next 100 days, he’ll be telling his story to minor hockey teams to try and ensure that no current player has to endure a similar experience.
McGillis is embarking on a series of speaking gigs called the “Culture Shift Tour,” during which he’ll meet with 100 minor hockey teams in 100 days in all of the NHL’s Canadian home cities.
During his presentation, McGillis plans to use his life story as a case study of the adverse effects language can make on any person who exists outside of the mainstream image of a hockey player.
“Whether LGBTQ+ or just a kid that doesn’t fit in, if you can’t adhere to the norms, you’re othered in this sport in particular,” he told Outsports.
Before telling his story, McGillis also challenges his audience to think of someone in their lives who might be part of the LGBTQ community or otherwise exist outside of hockey norms. He then uses his experience to humanize what those players go through when they step onto a rink or into the locker room.
They still shoulder a burden in the hockey culture of 2023. While McGillis felt that overt homophobic language has lessened since the days when he was a player, he cited a 2022 Hockey Canada study that concluded that the most penalized form of language in the game was homophobic in nature.
“I think the language and behaviors — especially at younger ages — lead people to feel like they won’t be welcomed. That said, I would say that 98% of the players would be incredibly supportive or welcoming to a queer teammate and would be open and willing to evolve language and behaviors as they go,” he estimated.
With that in mind, as his talk progresses, McGillis transitions to sharing stories of hockey figures who have tried to fight back against entrenched homophobia and hateful language. McGillis calls these people “shift makers” and guides his audience through examples of how they can similarly create shifts in their sport’s culture.
As an example of the influence one person can have, McGillis mentioned a young player he worked with in 2015 who responded to homophobic locker room talk by confronting the offending player and telling him, “We don’t use that language here.”
At the time McGillis was not out to anyone in hockey.
“That moment made me realize that I could create shifts and that this culture can shift. And that moment had a ripple effect…it’s led me to this tour and the work I’ve been doing the last six or seven years,” he said.
Over that time, McGillis’ work has had a positive impact on all types of people. Some LGBTQ players have come out to him and he’s helped hockey parents accept their LGBTQ kids. Other times, he’s had straight players confide in him that they like to paint or write poetry — an image at odds with the machismo streak that runs through the sport.
“These are not traditional norms within the culture, yet they all love things that they wouldn’t typically share with teammates. And they all adhere to these norms within the culture. So why don’t we just break the norms so everyone feels like they can be themselves and comfortable in the space? And when that happens, they’re going to be less likely to judge somebody else for their differences,” he observed.
McGillis’ tour has taken on added meaning in the wake of the NHL’s dueling Pride jerseys and Pride Tape fiascoes. While he acknowledged the symbolic meaning of Pride jerseys, he was much more concerned with attacking the roots of anti-LGBTQ behavior in the sport itself.
As for Pride Tape, McGillis was happy to see saner heads prevail and reverse the NHL’s ban. “If we’re giving freedom of choice in terms of jerseys, I think people should have the freedom of choice to use tape if they want to support marginalized groups,” he said.
The “Culture Shift Tour” will be starting in Vancouver on Nov. 15 and will wrap up in Toronto on Feb. 3. For future tours, McGillis hopes to visit more cities in Canada and eventually take his presentation to the United States. Having worked with the Sabres, Blackhawks, and Maple Leafs in the past, he’d also love to speak with every NHL team.
“There’s a lot of negative stuff in the world right now and I’m hoping this can be a positive,” he said, “Spending a hundred days away from home traveling around and speaking is a pretty daunting task. It’s going to help people, hopefully, so I hope people see that and it inspires others and sparks some joy,”