Anders Nilsson fights for LGBTQ rights as he fights through tough season

Vancouver Canucks' goalie Anders Nilsson (Darryl Dyck/CP)

VANCOUVER – The rainbow on the back of Anders Nilsson’s goaltending mask hasn’t done much to shield him from the West Coast rain – either from the heavens or the media – but it has probably helped his perspective.

The 27-year-old Swede has become a strong proponent of LGBTQ rights and, especially, inclusiveness in hockey. Two weeks ago, a gay rights organization in Sweden named the Vancouver Canucks goaltender its “Hetero of the Year” for his quiet advocacy.

Nilsson figures there were kids on his teams when he was growing up who quit sports because they didn’t fit a narrow stereotype for athletes and felt unwelcome.

“It’s a very macho environment,” Nilsson explained Monday. “I think it’s important to step up and say it’s OK, no matter what your sexuality, whatever your religion is, whatever it could be, it doesn’t matter. If you want to play hockey, it’s OK. I think it’s really important to send that message, especially to young teenagers and kids.

“If you’re a kid and play sports, and maybe you’re gay, you think you’re supposed to be a certain way, but as long as you want to play hockey or soccer or baseball or whatever it could be, it’s OK. Me, growing up, there were probably a lot of people who felt they were so-called ‘different,’ even though they weren’t. They probably quit sports to do something else. It’s important that we keep those persons [in sports]. They should be able to play sports. One of them could be the next Connor McDavid.”

The National Hockey League agrees through its program Hockey is for Everyone.

The Canucks are supporting the initiative with Hockey is for Everyone Night Tuesday when the Colorado Avalanche visit Rogers Arena. Canucks players will wear pink jerseys for warmups and rainbow-coloured tape on their sticks.

Nilsson has flown the flag of tolerance and inclusiveness on his mask since he was with the Edmonton Oilers in 2015-16 and that team had a Pride night.

“We were the first team to wear Pride tape and have some awareness for that,” Nilsson said. “We did that in our skills competition. Everyone had rainbow tape for that event. I thought after the season that maybe it needs more attention. That’s why I chose to put the rainbow on my helmets. We have some gay friends and I wanted to show them some support as well.”

Karma is a funny thing.

Nilsson, who has played infrequently as he struggles through an erratic first season in Vancouver, got a bonus start on Saturday because Jacob Markstrom was ill. Nilsson responded with a terrific 44-save performance in a 6-1 victory over the Boston Bruins. It was Nilsson’s first win in nine starts since November.

It earned him the chance to play against the Avalanche on Hockey is for Everyone night, although Canucks coach Travis Green declined Monday to reveal his starter.

The Canucks have reached out to the LGBTQ community and the game will be a fundraiser for You Can Play, the project co-founded by Patrick Burke, brother of Brendan Burke, the openly gay student-manager of his college hockey team when he was killed in a 2010 car accident.

Nilsson is getting his game back together after playing so poorly in the middle of the season that his name regularly surfaces in trade reports. The Canucks, however, are not expected to move him before next Monday’s deadline because any team looking for a starter isn’t calling about Nilsson and anyone who needs a backup can probably find someone cheaper and with more experience.

Canucks general manager Jim Benning signed Nilsson from the Buffalo Sabres last summer for two years at $2.5 million annually.

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“I’ve been feeling almost the whole season that I haven’t been getting 100 per cent out of myself,” Nilsson said. “Even though I got off to a good start earlier in the year, I didn’t play as much as I was hoping to. I feel like I would have liked to play more, but at the same time Marky has been playing good and I haven’t played at the level I know I’m capable of.

“It’s always frustrating when you feel there is more hockey in you than you’re getting out and feel you can play a lot better than you actually are, but I feel my game has been moving in the right direction and getting close to the level I know I can play at.”

At one point, just after Christmas, Nilsson couldn’t even stop the puck in practice, prompting a loud admonishment from his coach. Nilsson barked back at Green but has practised and played better the last month.

Nilsson has just one win in five appearances since Jan. 7, but has stopped 93.4 per cent of opposition shots.

“I really like how he’s practising and being focused in practice and dialled in – treating every practice like it’s game-like,” Green said. “Every good goalie that I’ve seen or talked about or heard about or played with, man, you can’t score on them in practice. They don’t want a puck to go in. I’ve seen that part change in his game over the last couple of months. He looks sharper to me.”

NOTES: Canucks forward Sam Gagner, who has missed six games with an ankle injury, practised fully on Monday and Green said he should play Tuesday against the Avalanche or Friday in Las Vegas. . . The Canucks and defenceman Erik Gudbranson continue to work towards a contract extension ahead of Monday’s trade deadline.

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