Brock McGillis isn’t afraid to have the conversations hockey needs


McGillis's Culture Shift Tour saw him speak to 100 minor hockey teams across Canada over 100 days. (Photo courtesy Miss Moço)

When it all finally caught up with him, that day in early February, the first thing Brock McGillis felt was relief. It had been three months since he’d begun his whirlwind journey across Canada, sharing his story with teenaged hockey players throughout the country. Arriving back home, having completed the lofty mission he’d planned out — a trek, dubbed the Culture Shift Tour, that saw him speak with 100 minor hockey teams over 100 days, in seven different cities and five different provinces — he felt the weight of it all fall from his shoulders.

“By the end, I was quite tired. I was grateful. It was an emotional time,” he says. “I was just so thankful for the whole experience.”

McGillis’s story is well-known in hockey circles by this point. In 2016, the Markstay, Ont., product became the first professional men’s hockey player to publicly come out as gay. In the near-decade since, he’s become a leading advocate for the LGBTQ+ community in the hockey world, and across the sports landscape at large. But the Culture Shift Tour served as a landmark step for McGillis. After years of speaking to leagues, teams and athletes at every level, working to bring change to the game by humanizing the experiences of LGBTQ+ people within it, the Tour served as the culmination of a dream. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” McGillis says.

It was in 2018 that a specific vision for the project began running through his mind, and 2021 when it started to find life, with sponsors coming on board. It finally got off the ground in November 2023 — a 100-day adventure through Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. 

“I couldn’t believe it was happening. It was sort of surreal,” he says, thinking back to the first day, when he set off for the first session in Vancouver. “Something I’d been dreaming up for, you know, five years had come to fruition. That was pretty cool in and of itself, because it was like, ‘You’re on the right path. Those dreams you have, the things you want to do in this world, will happen.’”

Heading into that first city, McGillis’s expectations were high. Still, it was difficult not to feel some sense of trepidation for what lay ahead.

“I’ve done enough engagements, both in and out of sports, that I had a feeling the reception would be good. You never know, truly, how people are going to react, though,” he says. “And, you know, it’s a polarizing time in society. There’s a lot of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric out there, especially right now. I guess I was a little concerned. I’m in a bit of a bubble — I’m in Toronto and it’s nice and safe and easy. You don’t know how people are going to react, especially in more conservative areas of the country. 

“But I’ll tell you this: they all wanted it. I couldn’t believe how receptive people were. I mean, we had areas of the country that are stereotypically seen as less inclusive requesting us, calling us. So, I think there is a want and a need.”

It took time for McGillis to acclimate to the rhythm of the journey. As he reached the end of the first leg of the tour — a week-and-a-half in Vancouver — the hectic schedule was already beginning to wear on him.

“We did a lot,” he says. “I was on the road with Dom Granato — Dom is Tony’s son and Cammi’s nephew. He played hockey at Tufts [University], played junior in the NAHL, and is also part of the [LGBTQ+] community. … He was like my road manager of the tour and doing social content too. We filmed every stop and got interviews with people, we did surveys everywhere. That was the part that was a little stressful at the start. There were just so many steps that we had to ensure we got done.

“It wasn’t just speaking. … I think sometimes people think, ‘Oh, you go in for an hour and you talk.’ Well, yes, but you know, I have kids in the room coming to me after, who may be struggling, not just with their sexuality but a number of different things. I have kids on social media later, who may come to me and may need to talk. Most days I was up at 5:00, 5:30 in the morning doing press, then doing press throughout the day, and then going to speak. Every single speaking engagement was an hour, two hours away, so there was a ton of travel time. We would be up at 5 a.m., out the door, and I’d get home for dinner, at a hotel somewhere, at midnight. And that was on repeat.”

Still, by the time McGillis and Granato moved on to the second leg in Calgary, the impact they began to see was already making the daily chaos worthwhile. McGillis remembers a conversation from that stint in Vancouver that cemented that for him.

“A hockey mom in B.C. messaged me and said, ‘My son’s best friend just saw you speak, and he came to my house after. He told me he thinks you changed the way he sees the world, that you changed his life.’ And then she booked her son’s team in,” McGillis says. “That’s like 17-, 16-year-old hockey boys, you know? I don’t care if anyone is gay or straight, this isn’t about that. And it’s not trying to change the way people think. It’s showing them impact — of their language, behaviours, attitudes and actions. … I don’t care what your views are, and I’m not here to tell you you’re bad for them — I’m here to show you how they impact people. And then you have a choice to make: Do you want to negatively impact people or not?

“I think when people recognize impact, if they’re good people, they’re not going to want to hurt others. And early on, I saw, ‘Okay, they recognize their impact. They don’t want to treat people like that’ — that was pretty cool.”

Another interaction from Vancouver still sticks in his mind, too.

“A coach came up to me before the session and he goes, ‘I just want to warn you, my team doesn’t talk. If they’re really quiet, they’re not rude, don’t be insulted,’” McGillis says. “The session was over, and I do a breakout at the end where I talk about conformity in hockey culture, and just in society, really. … This group, the coach didn’t think they would say anything. And not only did they each share, they stuck around for an additional hour, and I sat in the rink with them, so they could tell me more things they enjoy. And they would show them to me — they’re showing me videos, they’re showing me the music they make, the books they love, they’re showing me all these things they love. They really wanted to show me. And the more they embraced themselves as individuals, and things they like, the more they bring that to that locker room. … By just embracing their own individuality and uniqueness, they’re fostering safe spaces for everyone.

“I have a saying, ‘Normal doesn’t exist. We’re all a bunch of weirdos, and that’s a beautiful thing.’ And the sooner we embrace our weirdness, the less likely we are to judge others for theirs, or any of their differences.”

Over the next two-and-a-half months, McGillis continued on through Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec, before finishing up in Ontario. Anyone who’s spent time in each of those provinces likely knows that different sensibilities seem to permeate each of them, different social cultures, different views on the social issues McGillis speaks about. 

And yet, sitting in those rooms and speaking with those young athletes, the responses to McGillis’s story in each city felt the same.

“It was incredibly similar everywhere — receptive and open,” he says. “Which I didn’t necessarily expect. I was in Calgary, we had one session where there were eight to 10 teams there, in one session. A number of these teams play against each other. And they all still shared stuff. They all engaged. 

“One of the players told me that he makes candles. That was a triple-A hockey player, going into his draft year. And five of his teammates sell the candles. I just thought that was so unique and cool, and not something we talk about in hockey, you know what I mean?”

The Tour’s final session came in February, with the Toronto Marlboros, the storied minor-hockey club that’s produced NHL mainstays like Connor McDavid and John Tavares, and is now run by Tavares and former teammate Sam Gagner. “There were two teams, a younger team and an older team. And the younger team engaged even in front of the older players,” McGillis remembers. “I thought they might be a little intimidated, but they [weren’t]. To finish on such a high note — these kids were so engaged and receptive — was really neat.”

Stepping back into his own home in Toronto with the Tour finally in the rear-view, after months of conversations that weighed on him, months of telling his story over and over, that wave of relief came. And a quiet sense of achievement, too.

“I was proud,” McGillis says. “It was like, ‘You did that. You actually were able to bring that to life, and you did the whole thing.’ It was not easy. It was an exhausting and emotional journey, hearing people’s trauma and struggle, and trying to help them get support, and everything else. It was a lot. … But I think more than anything, it fuelled me to push for the next one, and build off the momentum. 

“I’m never satisfied. Which, you know, in some regards is a phenomenal thing to have, being driven and motivated. But I don’t always take the time to appreciate what I accomplish,” McGillis continues. “Right away I was saying, ‘Alright, we’ve got to get the next one in October, and then across Canada, and then focus on a U.S. one for the winter.’ In hindsight, looking back now, I could have taken a little bit of time to enjoy that moment.”

The goal for Year 2 of the Tour is to reach even further. The first iteration took McGillis into cities with NHL clubs. His hope is the next will move him away from the major centres, as well as out to the East Coast. That he’s gearing up to set out again at all is no small thing. Because while the first run brought plenty of joy, plenty of pride, there were times out on the road when McGillis found himself tested, too. He remembers one such moment in Ottawa, while speaking to student-athletes at Carleton University during his stop there for the Tour.

“They opened it up to the public, and a few people came to protest,” he says. “I’m of the belief that 10 per cent of people are going to love you unconditionally, and 10 per cent of people are going to hate you unconditionally, as an LGBTQ+ person. It’s that 80 per cent in the middle, who are getting information from Twitter and different sources — misinformation a lot of times, and fear-mongering. I want to engage with them. So, I actually engaged with the protesters. I did that intentionally. And they came at me with fear-mongering, emotional responses, just being completely reactive.”

The mettle McGillis shows in these moments, the fact that he still engages, still pushes forward, still tries to find some sense of progress, even when the going gets uncomfortable, is a key part of what allowed him to take on a project as hefty as a cross-country, 100-day, 100-team trek.

“Eighty per cent of that room, whether it was the men’s hockey team or different groups, may be getting information that just isn’t real. And now they’re in a room and they’re seeing that 10 per cent, the protesters who are going to hate me unconditionally, have these irrational arguments. And I can combat it in a calm, rational way, respectfully, with stats and facts,” he says. “I’m privileged enough that I’m in a good space to be able to have a calm and rational moment, while they look irrational.

“You know, I know I’m not going to change their views, and I don’t have to. That’s okay. Frankly, I don’t care how anyone sees LGBTQ+ people, it’s none of my business. I can show them impact, but ultimately that’s their choice, and that 10 per cent isn’t going to change their mind no matter what I say. There’s hate in their hearts, and that’s their choice. 

“But in that moment, that 80 per cent will hopefully recognize their impact, and also [the value of] rational stats-based, science-based arguments, versus irrational, emotional fearmongering.”

In trying to discern where hockey culture might go next, it can be difficult to operate from anything other than hypotheticals, from abstract hope or pessimism. Progress is balanced against steps in the wrong direction. Heightened awareness of the issues at hand are weighed against the lack of institutional changes that actually address them. But for McGillis, the seven-city journey granted him a rare, focused glimpse of the future, a chance to get out and hear, first-hand, where the sport’s next generation is at, how they’re thinking about the changes needed in their sport.

He came back leaning more towards hope.

“I think the vast majority of players, the parents, and a lot of the coaches, they want to make it a more inclusive space. They want to make it more welcoming,” he says. “And I think these kids are exposed to so much more. Newer studies in the U.S. show that Gen Z is identifying as LGBTQ+ at close to 20 per cent. And 25 per cent of Gen Z are not identifying as straight, so there’s five per cent that isn’t LGBTQ+ but isn’t straight — they just don’t see themselves as either. And I think coaches are like, ‘Well, we need to evolve this, because 20 per cent of that room might be LGBTQ+. We need to create spaces that are better.’ 

“I think sometimes in hockey, the adults want to control how that happens, and that becomes an issue. And I also think that, in a lot of spaces, people just don’t know how — they don’t know what to do or how to do it. But I think there is an appetite, I really do. I think some of the power players need to allow people in who can evolve it, and know how, and have been doing the work to evolve it. 

“But ultimately, across the country, the outpouring of outreach to us by associations was pretty wild. The receptiveness of the players, across the country, was pretty damn cool. There was very little pushback. Listen, there was the odd place where a parent didn’t let their kid come, and that’s okay. That’s going to happen. That’s inevitable. And I opened it up, if the teams wanted — I welcomed parents, I welcomed any questions they had. I don’t care if it’s them thinking I’m an abomination and shouldn’t be there — let’s have that conversation. Let’s figure out why you feel that way.”

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In the end, the experience left McGillis with an even stronger belief in the work he’s doing. There’s no question there is much still to be done before hockey culture can truly become the safe, inclusive space he hopes it can one day be. But for McGillis, the only option is to keep moving forward, to keep chipping away.

“We need to humanize. And that’s what I do,” he says. “I put a face to it. ‘This is how this impacted me, and people like me.’ And then from there, it’s educating them. Humanize, engage with them, educate them. And in situations where people still step out, I work with leagues where we do the humanization, the education, and then we also have a component of reform. Where if people do step out, they’re not just suspended — I work with them additionally to help them evolve or recognize, even more so, what this means, who they are impacting, whether it’s in their lives or on their team or on the ice. I think that’s critical. And I think all those steps are necessary to fully evolve this culture. It has to be bottom-up and top-down — it has to go from the NHL down and grassroots up, and intersect at the NCAA and junior level.”

That progress won’t come easily, but McGillis knows humanizing these issues, putting a face to them, truly works, because he’s seen it first-hand.

“We had a stop in the Ottawa area, at an academy where there were a lot of Eastern European kids — the academy was predominantly international players,” he says. “And there were players who didn’t want to attend because they were either Russian or of Russian descent. The academy said, ‘No, this is a part of what we’re doing, and you’re coming.’ I remember seeing the look on those kids’ faces in there initially. 

“I was calling somebody up, because I try and make it really interactive, and the person I called up was actually one of the Eastern European kids. I went to shake his hand, and he pulled away from me. I could have lashed out, or told him to sit down, but I stood there. And I kept my hand out. Because I wanted him to see the humanity in me, that I’m just a human being trying to shake his hand. Even if he doesn’t respect me, in that moment, I still respect him enough. And finally, he begrudgingly shook my hand.

“Three quarters of the way through that session, I told a joke, and one of the Eastern European players laughed. He was like, ‘That’s awesome.’ At the end of the session, I was asking them questions, and a number of those players engaged and answered the questions. … When they told me at that session that there were a lot of kids who didn’t want to be there because of their upbringing, that became a challenge — how do I have them engage, and recognize my humanity? Recognize that we’re all equal, that we’re all human beings?

“By the end, when they were leaving, three of them were the first ones to come up and shake my hand.”

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