Like any hockey-playing Canadian, Harrison Browne remembers the feeling of putting on that National Team jersey. It was January 2011, at the World Under-18 Championships in Sweden.
“We were on the bus driving to the championship game,” he said Thursday night. “I looked out the window and was so excited to be wearing the maple leaf.”
What else do you remember? Browne sighs and gives a rueful laugh.
After Stockholm, Browne played NCAA hockey at both Mercyhurst and Maine. Now a second-year pro, his 2016-17 season begins Friday. It will be an important and historical night. Born May 13, 1993 as Hailey Browne, Harrison will become the first transgender athlete in professional North American team sports as the National Women’s Hockey League’s Buffalo Beauts host the Boston Pride.
“I’m excited,” he said. “Weirdly enough, I don’t need feel any nerves for the first game of the season.”
Browne’s close friends and teammates learned of his gender identity during his second year of university. “The hockey community is so open. There was no backlash at all.”
It took time to get comfortable with taking the biggest step, but on Sept. 28, he emailed NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan. It was time to go public.
I hope the summer has treated you well and things are all falling into place as we gear up for opening weekend.
I am interested in coming out in the league as transgender. I will not be legally changing my name or beginning a physical transition until after I conclude my career in the NWHL. I will be playing in the exact condition that I did last season, just under a new name while using male pronouns. I would feel most comfortable being addressed via the media, roster, during games, and any PR as Harrison Browne versus Hailey Browne along with using all male pronouns versus female pronouns.
I am hoping you can guide me in the proper direction in order to successfully accommodate my needs prior to the opening game on Friday, October 7th. This is a significant priority to me.
This means a tremendous amount to me both emotionally and mentally and I am truly hoping that we can work together to continue making history in the NWHL.
Thank you for your time and understanding,
Browne said he was motivated by seeing Chris Mosier pose in the ESPN body issue last June. Earlier this year, Mosier became the first transgender athlete to make a US National Team, competing at the 2016 Duathlon World Championships.
“To see him out and proud…If that inspired me, what could I do for people in the same shoes as me?” Browne asked.
In August, Mosier joined the You Can Play Project as vice-president of program development and community relations. The organization does a fantastic job of pursuing its mission statement, “dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation and/or gender identity.”
Each NWHL team has a You Can Play Ambassador. Therefore, Mosier was aware of the situation before knowing the specific player. (Buffalo’s is defenceman Emily Pfalzer.) After speaking with the league, he offered to reach out to Browne directly.
“I told him to do what was right for him, not to do it to be a role model or to fit into someone else’s expectations,” Mosier said Thursday night from Chicago. “It is a brave and courageous thing to put yourself out there…groundbreaking for someone in Harrison’s position to do this.”
“Visibility is a powerful tool for us to create change for transgender inclusion in sport.”
“He told me to be my authentic self, helped me open up and feel comfortable with it all,” Browne said of Mosier. “He gave me tips on how brush off any bad comments…trolling on the internet. For any 20 negative comments, there will be 20 positive. I’m not looking to impress people who are negative, but support people who are going through what I am going through.”
Mosier isn’t surprised Browne’s teammates were accepting from the start.
“Sports is a catalyst for social change. When we have teams and teammates who appreciate the skills we have on the court or on the ice or way we play, the other parts of ourselves go to the side during that…I was pleasantly surprised in my own experience how accepting my teammates were. My teammates were my best allies in creating a safe space for me.”
Browne’s parents, Joan and Russell, will be in attendance Friday night. Harrison joked that his father barely misses any of his games, and told a terrific story of how Russell once drove 13 hours from Toronto to St. Louis, and was rewarded by seeing Harrison’s first college goal.
“I threw the puck to him in the crowd,” he said.
Where is it now?
“In my room.”
They are not yet ready to talk publicly, and Harrison understands.
“It’s always a tough subject for family. They want the easiest life possible for their children, and this is not the easiest route to go…They need to adjust at their pace. They are still adjusting, but are supportive.”
Browne graduated from Maine with a B.A. in International Business Management and hopes one day to work in an NHL front office. As mentioned in the email to Rylan, he does not plan on making a physical transition until his career is over. How long will that be?
“Until the love dies out.”
There’s another reason for this, too.
“There are people who cannot get transitioned medically,” Browne explains. “I’m here to service those people who haven’t been able to do it for family issues, money issues or are just not ready. (I want to show them) it gets better, you don’t need to transition to be happy. Be yourself and be authentic. And surround yourself with great people.”
Mosier is one of them. He’s very proud of Browne.
“I think about young athletes a lot. When I was coming out I didn’t see a lot of transgender men playing sport. It was a struggle: ‘Is this even possible?’ I am not an Olympian, but I cannot wait to see one. That will be my greatest success: seeing someone pursue their athletic goals because they saw me and knew it was possible.”
He continues: “But I’m extremely happy. If I can impact a hockey player, then hockey players can impact other athletes. We know it’s possible to pave the way.”
“There’s nothing else to hide. Just focus on playing the game.”