For Bayne Pettinger, ending homophobia in hockey starts with conversations

Ottawa Senators sticks are shown taped with Pride Tape on Hockey is for Everyone Night on Feb. 12, 2019. (Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

Months of COVID-19 lockdowns didn't change who Bayne Pettinger was, but they did help push him toward living his truth.

He left for his parents' place in Victoria, B.C., back on March 17 for what he believed, at the time, was going to be a short stay. It lasted over 100 days. In that pause, with the busyness of life stripped away and the cell phone put down, there was time. Time for honest conversations -- and for everything that bothered him that he'd been finding reasons to avoid, too.

"I had some great conversations with my family," Pettinger said during a Friday appearance on Sportnset's Writers Bloc. "I've been out to them for a few years and I said, 'Guys, I think I really have a platform here to make a change.' I can get some star players involved and get them behind it to draw the attention in and I think I can really do some positivity here."

The change Pettinger sought was creating a more inclusive space in the hockey community, and he sought to spark it by publicly sharing that he is gay.

At age 33, Pettinger was a prominent name in hockey circles before sharing his sexuality with the world. His list of close friends includes Tyson Barrie and Morgan Rielly. Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid are just a text away. He's worked with agents J.P. Barry and Pat Brisson at CAA Hockey since February 2019 and is currently on his way to being certified to represented players by the NHL Players' Association.

Before that new career arc, he was the manager of hockey operations and men's national teams at Hockey Canada for almost 10 years, earning a trophy case worth of gold medals at the 2013 Under-18s, 2014 Winter Olympics, 2015 and 2016 World Championships, the 2015 World Junior Championship and the 2016 World Cup.

But for all the people who knew of him, the people who knew that most elemental part of him was not long.

"I lived for 10 years kind of half in, half out and I didn't want to do that anymore," Pettinger said. "I was tired of walking into rooms and wondering who knows and who doesn't."

Deciding the specifics of how, when and if he would make a public declaration came after returning to Toronto from his parents' home. One by one he told the NHL stars whose names fill his contact list. Barrie, Rielly, Crosby and McDavid offered some version of the same refrain: We’re happy for you, and the hockey world is ready for this.

Their support was "unbelievable," as Pettinger describes it, and they weren't the only ones in the hockey community ready to offer it. Pettinger spoke with Brock McGillis, the first openly gay professional hockey player and a vocal LBTQ+ ally, and Sportsnet's own Scott MacArthur, whose decision to share his sexuality with the world served as an inspiration for thousands, about the moments that lead up to and follow sharing your truth publicly.

Two weeks ago, he spoke to Brian Burke, too.

"I cold-texted him one morning about two weeks ago and we sat in his backyard, had a few beers and he was just very kind," Pettinger said. "He said 'Hey Bayne, the hockey world is ready for this. I'm honoured that Brendan's legacy is still around. But the hockey world is ready for this and frankly, if someone isn't, that's their problem.'"

The conversation was especially resonant. Not just for Burke's stature in the game, but for who his son was. Brendan Burke made international headlines when he came out as gay and went on to advocate for the end of homophobia in sports before his tragic death in an automobile accident. To this day, Pettinger considers him an inspiration.

Every word spoken, from the talks with his family, to those with NHL celebrities and starry hockey personalities, painted an ever-clearer picture. The time for Pettinger to share his story was now. Originally published by The Athletic on Nov. 6, under the headline A young NHL player agent comes out, supported by hockey’s biggest stars, it drew immediate attention from all corners of the hockey community.

Now, Pettinger hopes the dialogue continues even after the headlines fade from view.

"The ones I've really been impressed with are the kids who've reached out and said 'Hey, I'm a student at Ryerson,' or, 'I play hockey in Hamilton and because of what you've said and the star power that you brought in trying to normalize it, I'm going to come out to my team tomorrow,'" Pettinger said. "You just have to get it on the table -- it doesn't matter if it's talking about sexuality or mental anxiety. It's just conversations and humanizing it.

"Someone in hockey, they may say, 'Well it doesn't tie to me, I don't know anyone that's gay.' Well now maybe Pride Nights at the hockey rink mean a little more. Or something like that. It's just really humanizing it and talking about it so it isn't the elephant in the room."

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