Kurtis Gabriel has an internal policy. He won’t ever advise anyone to come out of the closet. That decision, he says, is always going to be their own.
But what Gabriel has done, a number of times now through Instagram, is provide a sounding board for people who are struggling with the ramifications of telling family and friends about their sexuality.
Many of these people are strangers whom Gabriel has never met. Some of them haven’t even disclosed their secret to another person.
“We kind of work through that together,” Gabriel says. “But just talking it out is a cathartic experience. I’m here for them. They have someone who is always in this with them.”
Gabriel is not a counsellor. Far from it. He’s a professional hockey player on the bubble of the NHL. Yet, his devotion to helping those in the LGBTQ community is what makes him the “gold standard” of allies.
“In terms of being ambassadors and allies to the LGBTQ community, Kurtis and [Washington Capitals goalie] Braden [Holtby] are definitely two of the top guys in hockey,” says Jonas Worth, director of partnerships and development at You Can Play, a social-activism campaign whose mission statement involves working to ensure the safety and inclusion of all in sports, including LGBTQ athletes, coaches and fans.
“The value and even the content of the word ‘ally’ is trending so much right now,” Worth continues. “People questioning what it means to be an ally is a result of people like Kurtis, who has absolutely stuck his neck out there and admitted, in a very humble way, that we have to have these conversations.”
Gabriel, 27, overcame long odds as a non-prospect to play his first NHL game in 2015 with the Wild. But his career took on a different meaning early last year when the Newmarket, Ont., native was with the New Jersey Devils.
The team hosted Pride Night at Prudential Center on Feb. 25 and to commemorate that, players fastened rainbow-coloured Pride Tape to their sticks for the pre-game warm-up. When the Devils returned to the locker-room to prepare for the game, all but one player removed the tape in favour of regular wrap.
“I looked at mine and I say to myself, ‘It takes more work for me to take the Pride Tape off the top of my stick than to leave it on,’” recalls Gabriel. “‘And maybe some people will notice and it will be kind of a nice thing for them to feel included in the sport.’”
He went on to score the game-winning goal on Canadiens netminder Carey Price in what was the highlight of his career thus far, and the “best feeling of my life, bar none.”
As images of the goal spread across the TV and Internet afterwards, Gabriel’s phone began to blow up as people messaged zoomed-in screenshots of the stick to let him know how much the gesture meant to them.
“From there it just felt like, ‘OK, this is something where I didn’t have to do too much to impact some people’s lives and make them feel more included. Why not keep doing it?’”
Gabriel has kept the Pride Tape on his stick ever since, including during this past season, which he spent with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms — the AHL affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers. And while it was almost as if he became an advocate by accident, Gabriel has developed a real passion and understanding for the cause over the past 15 months.
Five years ago, allyship to the LGBTQ community might have involved filming a 30- to 60-second video that would be amplified by You Can Play. And that was seen as a big deal.
“Now, we’re in an environment where being an ally has changed,” says Worth. “[Before] you would maybe tweet something or share something on your social media during Pride Month and maybe a few other times a year. Now, Kurtis, for example, is showing up to local LGBTQ centres.
“His consistent commitment is so important.”
Gabriel has worked closely with the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center in Allentown, Pa., showing up for events and even appearing in a video for its upcoming virtual Pride festival. Adrian Shanker, executive director of the centre, says other athletes who may have concerns about being vocal allies for the LGBTQ community can look to Gabriel as an example.
“LGBT community members in Allentown are big fans of Kurtis Gabriel because he is so clear that hockey is for everyone and that he will bash homophobia whenever he sees it,” Shanker says. “Professional sports have not always felt safe for LGBT players or fans, so when Kurtis Gabriel gets onto the hockey rink with Pride Tape on his stick, it sends a message. It’s about inclusion on the ice and off.”
Prior to the lockdowns caused by COVID-19, Gabriel made hospital and school visits, in addition to appearing at community events and parades. Now he uses his social media to share a constant stream of messaging that’s intended to inform. He guests on podcasts, radio programs, panel discussions and Instagram Lives to talk about what he’s learned and what people can do to better support those who feel marginalized.
“We never have to ask him to do anything or visit an LGBTQ centre or anything like that. He approaches us or does it on his own,” says Michael Ianniello, who manages community engagement for the Phantoms. “He spends his free time trying to educate himself and learn more about the community and how he can continue to use his platform to make a difference and make people feel more comfortable.”
Given the ongoing racial-justice movement in the wake of the death of George Floyd, Gabriel has also worked to educate himself on becoming an ally to the Black community. The bio on his Twitter account notes that he’s an ally to “every community that is judged for anything but their character.”
“Because I am the privileged, white hockey player, I haven’t had to deal with [oppression],” says Gabriel. “I can understand the pain that goes [with] that — I can visualize it. I have a good imagination. We’re human beings. We [sent] people to the moon. We can think about how someone might feel when they’re treated some type of way.
“I’ve always kind of known it was a problem, but now I’m ready to put myself fully behind it as a lot of us white athletes should have done a long time ago,” he continues. “Even at the very earliest with Colin Kaepernick. Now’s the time to make a move on hate, and I’m not going to be on the wrong side of history. I clearly can see something special is happening right now and I’m not going to be the guy who didn’t stick up for it when I should [have].”
All of this work is done simultaneously as Gabriel trains for what’s next in his hockey career. With 38 NHL games played and another 317 in the AHL, he’s considered a veteran in the latter league. Each AHL club is only allowed to dress five players with 321 or more professional games under their belt, so, as a physical, fourth-line type, Gabriel is in a tough spot. Sticking in the NHL remains his goal, and he’s hoping to get a call-up from the Flyers whenever hockey resumes. But he also hasn’t ruled out the option of one day playing in Europe.
While that part of his life is at a crossroads, though, he’s already driven past the fork in the other area. The path he’s chosen is not exactly smooth or easy — take having discussions with people who are considering coming out, for example — but Gabriel relishes that.
“Talking and having hard conversations — on the other side of those things is happiness and bliss,” he says. “They know that through my social media and all the stuff I have done, that I am an unflinching ally, or partner, or whatever you want to call it, who is going to have their back.
“I’m not going to disappear and say this isn’t convenient for me anymore.”