By Sonny Sachdeva | Illustrations by Caitlin Taguibao
By Sonny Sachdeva | Illustrations by Caitlin Taguibao
Eradicating homophobic language from hockey isn't just about making the game more welcoming — it's about keeping kids alive.

In the beginning, Brock McGillis just wanted to end up on the Wall of Fame. The monument stood in his great uncle Norm’s house, adorned with photos of friends and family who’d found their way in the hockey world. Even now, 30 years on, thinking back to the moments that first spurred his journey in the sport, two stand out among the rest: watching the Montreal Canadiens lift the Stanley Cup in ’93, and first staring up at The Wall.

As a young goaltender, McGillis dreamed of charting a path from Northern Ontario to the big leagues and cementing his place among those photos. The plan he devised to get there was simple enough: outwork anyone and everyone who stood in his way, divert all focus to that singular goal, build his game up until he was undeniable. “I just had a dream, and my dream was I was going to be a hockey player and make the NHL, and ultimately nothing else in my life mattered, you know?” he says. “I was just adamant that I would end up on that wall.”

So he went to work. At the humble arena down the road from his family home in Markstay, Ontario, he collected hours on the ice like other kids collected hockey cards. The routine was automatic: Finish school, sling his hockey bag over his shoulder, and set off for that beige-and-white block of a building hunkered down on Millichamp Street. On weekends, he piled up so many hours in the familiar chill of the rink, his parents would come by in the morning to drop off his meals for the day.

Out on the sheet, it didn’t matter much who else was present. His father, Brian, a longtime AAA and junior coach in the area, was chummy with the local arena manager, so McGillis had the green light to hop the boards and work on his craft whenever the ice lay empty. When teams from nearby Sudbury rolled through town down a goalie, he was there to fill in regardless of the details — older or younger, competitive or not, he was game. That was on top of tending goal for his own AA team, and then there was the house league team that his coach also manned the bench for — McGillis suited up for them, too. By his early teens, McGillis was skating 15 times a week and spending his summers in Montreal, training with famed goalie coach Francois Allaire, mentor to one of McGillis’s on-ice idols, Patrick Roy. The schedule was gruelling, but it set him on the path he’d hoped: past Markstay’s best, past Sudbury’s and on to the OHL, eventually to a Soo Greyhounds club where he played alongside now-familiar names like Jeff Carter and the late Ray Emery.

But it’s there that McGillis’s path diverged from those other elite prospects, that the lines connecting the points on the timeline he’d plotted for himself frayed and unwound. Because McGillis had a secret.

Really, it was a simple truth, but as the sport he loved showed him day after day, there was nothing simple about being gay and a hockey player. It created an impossible choice between the two identities, asking him to either give up the sport that had come to define him or exist within it as an incomplete version of himself. For years, his all-encompassing focus on the game had muscled out the need to confront that dichotomy. Eventually, though, the decision became simply too much to bear. Eventually, it pushed him to the brink. Eventually, it became bigger than The Wall.

“How am I going to be me and play the game? They’re not going to let me play.”

What convinced McGillis that two fundamental parts of himself couldn’t coexist wasn’t outright and unbridled hatred, a concentrated act of malice that made a scene of telling him he didn’t belong. Instead, his journey was so profoundly derailed by a slow, daily trickle. It was being surrounded, day after day, in locker room after locker room, by the casual homophobic language embedded so deeply in hockey culture. It was hearing “gay” and “bad” connected so often and so matter-of-factly in that environment that it became clear if he was gay, he must be bad, too.

To understand the gravity of the situation hockey’s persistent and pervasive use of homophobic language creates, you first have to understand two things: One, that McGillis’s experience is heartbreakingly common. And two, that the science around how exactly this language affects young gay athletes has been known for years. And what that science tells us is that the time for fact-finding is long past, that urgent action is the only way forward. What it tells us is eradicating homophobic language from hockey is less about simply making the game more welcoming, and more about keeping kids alive.

McGillis was six years old the first time he put the possibility into words. He was watching a movie with his parents, and saw a gay character on screen. “What if I’m gay?” he’d asked them.

“If you’re gay, you’re gay,” they’d said. “You’re Brock. We love you.” But when he eventually set off on that journey for The Wall, he found a very different message at the rink. In the locker room, being gay wasn’t met with the love and acceptance his parents had shown. “Back then it was just, this is bad. Everyone’s saying this is bad. They’re only using this in a negative way,” McGillis says. “So, my thought process was fully, ‘I’m hearing people call each other f–s when they’re joking with each other, when they’re trying to say [someone is] less than. I’m hearing people chirp each other on the ice saying language like that. It’s in the locker room, it’s on the ice, it’s always negative.’

“I’m hearing the adults say it, I’m hearing the players say it, I’m hearing everyone say it — coaches, management,” he continues. “How am I going to be me and play the game? They’re not going to let me play.”

When those questions finally hit him, during his time in junior, McGillis was pushed into a full-blown identity crisis. “That’s when it became tough. That’s where it went from, ‘Okay, I can suppress this and I’ve never really seen it so I don’t understand it’ to ‘I hate myself.’ Like, ‘I really hate myself,’” McGillis says. “‘I can’t be this. I can’t be this, because then I can’t play hockey.’”

To McGillis, at the time, accepting his sexuality was impossible if it meant giving up his identity as a hockey player. The pressure to maintain the latter had already set in. “If you’re in Canada and you’re good at hockey, it becomes your full identity,” he explains. “It’s what people talk to you about. It’s what you’re recognized for, whether it’s relatives, whether it’s parents of friends, whether it’s teachers at school — everyone talks to you about hockey. So, for me, that became my identity. So, how do I rip [apart] my identity because I am gay? Those are two separate identities that felt like such polar opposites.”

“I really hate myself. I can’t be this, because then I can’t play hockey.”

What’s worse, McGillis had to navigate the maelstrom alone. He hadn’t yet come out to his family. With a brother also well-established in hockey — a first-round pick in the OHL and eventual pro — and a dad with more than three decades in the sport as a coach and OHL scout, he felt letting them know the truth was too risky. Not because they might not accept him — precisely the opposite. He feared one of them would begin to recognize the damage done by the language tossed around in the locker room and stand up to it, accidentally outing him, accidentally pushing him out of the game. “So, I had nobody to talk to. I was all alone,” McGillis says. “And then your thoughts start going, and every night you start questioning, and every time you think about a guy, or being gay, now you’re angry at yourself…. I just wanted to be numb. I just didn’t want to think.”

The impact that had on a burgeoning hockey career was predictable. McGillis’s vaunted work ethic faded. That kid who’d made the daily trip down the road to the arena in Markstay for any spare second of ice disappeared. He fell into injury after injury, his body paying a physical toll for the tumult.

“I was depressed, not sleeping, drinking daily, suicidal,” he says. “My life changed, because the weight of this was just so heavy and so lonely.”

There’s nothing new, nor mysterious, about homophobia in sport and the damage it causes. A half century’s worth of research has been done on the subject, decades upon decades of evidence that should have long ago pushed us towards urgent solutions. Mapping out the impact that homophobic language had on McGillis is less a guessing game than a matter of seeing well-established patterns repeat, of his experiences aligning with the pain and isolation felt by countless young, LGBTQ+ athletes every year.

Erik Denison, a researcher with the Behavioural Science Laboratory at Australia’s Monash University, whose work focuses on prejudicial behaviours in sport, has studied those patterns for years. Originally from Vancouver, Denison endured his own trials in youth sport before going on to become a member of Australia’s first gay rugby team, the Sydney Convicts Rugby Club, and was the lead author of Out on the Fields, the first international study on homophobia in sport. “Essentially it’s a cognitive drain,” he says of the state young LGBTQ+ athletes are put into when they hear this language every day. “It puts them in a state of stress when they’re in sport environments. And that state of stress, we believe, is why gay kids, but also straight kids, are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, but also attempt suicide and complete suicide, because they’re just less resilient to any other stressor that comes into their life. Because they’re in this environment where they’re constantly having to watch themselves.”

It’s that constant, draining fear of being exposed that pushed McGillis off course so early in his career, and that he continued to feel the impacts of long after his playing days. But this damage to young athletes’ mental health is just one impact of hearing this language. A 2016 International Olympic Committee consensus statement clarified some of the others, including, for example, the troubling impact its presence can have on situations of sexual abuse — research shows that in homophobic environments boys may not report abuse that occurs for fear of being seen as having invited it. Aside from that disturbing damage, there’s also harm from a pure sports perspective — kids who play the game in environments where homophobic language is common and accepted have been found to not actually get the social benefits of sport, according to research from Denison’s team. And, per a 2017 study from UBC, gay kids have been found to play team sports at half the rate of straight kids due in part to feeling unwelcome or unsafe because of the language used.

“They’re twice as likely to attempt suicide if they’re exposed to homophobic language.”

As devastating as any of these impacts are, though, at its heart, the issue is less about participation numbers and inclusivity than something far more urgent. “We need to deal with homophobia because kids are killing themselves because of homophobia,” Denison says. “They’re twice as likely to attempt suicide if they’re exposed to homophobic language, and gay kids attempt suicide at five times the rate of straight kids.”

CDC data from as recently as 2019 showed that a staggering 26 per cent of American 16- and 17-year-old LGBTQ+ teens had attempted suicide, compared to five percent among straight 16- and 17-year-olds — numbers that would be similar in Canada, according to Denison. The role homophobic language plays in that equation is clear: Among LGBTQ+ teens who experienced this type of verbal abuse — that is, heard the F-word, or other such slurs — 33 per cent harmed themselves, while 40 per cent considered doing so. Those figures were roughly double those of LGBTQ+ teens who did not experience this verbal abuse. “This is why we need to stop the language,” Denison says. “And this has been known for quite a while. The first sports psychology paper to document this was in 1986, so this isn’t new information to the sport industry.”

For the hockey world in particular, the lack of meaningful change is partly due to the fact that those who govern youth hockey in North America continually frame the issue as one of making the game more welcoming, rather than keeping children safe from harm. “Unfortunately, hockey has almost exclusively put its focus on the inclusion argument, which is ‘We should just be inclusive and nice to people, and allow them to play sport,’” says Denison.

But that approach fails to address the gravity of the situation, and the need for immediate solutions — and, says Denison, the legal obligation to stop behaviour that harms children. “These are not things that are optional,” he says. “You know, it’s optional to be inclusive. It’s not optional to protect children from harm. And that’s why this is viewed as a serious public health problem that needs urgent action.”

By 26, McGillis had all but given up on his hockey dreams. It was 2009 and he was living in Montreal, enrolled at Concordia and suiting up for the university team on the off-chance he eventually felt compelled to take another run at it all. But even seven years on from his OHL days, he was still navigating the unending maze of life as a gay man in the hockey world.

The path from the Greyhounds to the Concordia Stingers, winding as ever, had taken McGillis overseas for a spell, giving him a shot as a pro with the Dutch club Duindam Wolves Den Haag. It was there, half a world away from home, that he first turned a corner. Still numbing himself with a steady stream of alcohol, still simply trying to survive and draw as little attention to himself as possible, he reached a point he thought he might not come back from. “I went from being on an NHL Draft list, thinking I was going to have this linear trajectory to the NHL, to constantly being hurt, being depressed, struggling mentally, and now I’m playing in the minors of Europe,” McGillis says. “I thought to myself, if you don’t figure out who you are, and this continues… one, my career was about to end, and more importantly, I wasn’t going to live much longer.”

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So, he made a decision. He returned home to Ontario after that season and went on a date with a man in Toronto — a date that grew into a three-year relationship. It was a huge step toward accepting himself, but with McGillis still embedded in the Ontario hockey scene, finally opening up to that part of his identity only brought more secrecy, more worry. “It actually got worse, because now I wasn’t suppressing my sexuality, I had accepted it — but I was now closeted, hiding it,” he says. “And not only was I hiding myself, but I was hiding another person. I dated somebody for three years without a soul in my life knowing.”

The end of that relationship, along with the culmination of years of on-ice injuries, pushed McGillis to step away from the game for a time, and from Ontario. It eventually led him to Montreal, sat on his couch doing schoolwork, paying half-attention to the television as a Maple Leafs–Canadiens game hummed along in the background. “There was this young guy being interviewed between periods, and he was talking about following in his father’s footsteps and making the NHL as a GM,” he remembers. “And then he said, ‘And I’m gay.’” McGillis’s head whipped around, his eyes now glued to the screen. “I had never heard somebody say they’re gay in hockey, unless it was calling somebody gay as an insult. So I was shocked.”

The young man was Brendan Burke, son of longtime NHL executive Brian Burke. McGillis tracked down Brendan’s number through the hockey grapevine and sent him a message. “I came out to him, and we formed a friendship,” McGillis says. Just like that, Brendan became the only person connected to the hockey community who knew the truth.

The two spoke every day. “We talked about advocacy and changing hockey culture and sport culture and making it inclusive,” McGillis says. “We talked dating — I finally had somebody in my life I could talk to about my breakup. The only thing worse than dating somebody for three years without anyone knowing is breaking up with them and being sad, and nobody knowing why you’re sad, you know? It was so nice to have somebody to talk to.”

“If I didn’t figure out who I was, and this continued, I wasn’t going to live much longer.”

One day in early February 2010, a message from Brendan appeared on McGillis’s phone. “I can’t wait for the day that you’re out to your family like I am to mine,” it read. He remembers seeing it pop up on the screen; remembers throwing his phone to his bed and ignoring it. He remembers the same fears beginning to well up — that telling his family meant opening up more opportunities to be exposed. Even here, nearly 30, nearly out of the game, McGillis still worried about what a future looked like in a hockey world that knew him fully. So he ignored the message.

“Those ended up being the last words Brendan ever said to me. Two days later, he passed away in a car accident,” McGillis says. “I was sitting there in Montreal, and I had this breakup that I was still trying to process and get over, alone, internally. I had nobody to talk to about it, and now my only friend who knows my life has passed away — and nobody else in my life even knows that this is my friend.

“So, I thought, ‘Well, what can I do?’ And I knew in that moment I had to honour his last message to me. So I sat my brother down… I said, ‘Cory, I’m gay.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, so? Brock, I love you.’ And then I told my parents.

“And I told all my friends who were outside of hockey, and didn’t have any links or connections to the sport.”

For a sport that turns so often to metaphors of family, men’s hockey is often poorly equipped to live up to the comparison. If it’s a family, it’s one that forces some to hide who they are from the rest, instead of being able to turn to their brothers for support and acceptance. For young gay players, whatever bonds are formed through shared experiences at the rink are often betrayed by the language that punctuates them. “Any of the gay hockey players I have interviewed, whether closeted or not, have said that one of the main reasons that they didn’t come out was the [homophobic] language that they heard,” says Dr. Cheryl MacDonald, who’s been studying attitudes towards homosexuality within hockey for more than a decade. “I think when that kind of language gets drilled into your head for so long — if you’ve played hockey your whole life, you’ve probably heard it your whole life — you start to internalize that.”

Though MacDonald and others have seen subtle signs to suggest overall awareness around the issues facing the LGBTQ+ community may be growing in the hockey world, the increase in understanding hasn’t led to a marked decrease in homophobic language. “It’s the insular nature of our sport,” says NHLer Kurtis Gabriel, who suited up for the San Jose Sharks in 2020–21, explaining the slow struggle to change damaging behaviours. “Hockey’s a predominantly white, middle- to upper-class sport. You play with the same kids. Especially the guys that we call the role models now, at the higher levels — they’ve been elite players for a long time, played with the same kids, from the same city.”

It’s more than who players are around, though. It’s the whole process, too, says McGillis. “You’re in the same locker room with the same 20 kids every single night. And then you move away to junior, and now the only people you know are your teammates. So you hang out with people who come from the same culture, in a different place, and now it’s being reinforced seven days a week. Then you go home in the summer and who do you hang out with? The other hockey players.”

And, adds Gabriel, the whole time you’re guided by coaches who came through the same system. “They’ve learned the culture from coaches who played at a time when it was more normal to be saying those things, and views against LGBTQ people were much worse. It just perpetuates down the line,” he says. “It’s just kind of like an echo chamber.”

“There was a lot of, ‘We’re just a hockey team. Why does this matter? Why are we supposed to weigh in on LGBTQ issues?’”

That said, as far as Gabriel can tell, the presence of homophobic language at the pro level has diminished. And Patrick Burke, Brendan’s brother, has seen signs of that progress, too, in the years since his brother’s passing.

In 2010, hoping to continue Brendan’s legacy, Patrick co-founded the You Can Play project, which has since become a key voice in efforts to promote inclusivity in the game. “I look back to early phone calls reaching out to teams and asking them to do various things, and getting a lot of confusion or, you know, ‘Why is this necessary?’ or ‘Okay, well, who else is doing this? We don’t want to be the only ones doing something,’” Burke says. “There was a lot of, ‘We’re just a hockey team. Why does this matter? Why are we supposed to weigh in on LGBTQ issues?’”

Now the NHL’s senior director of player safety, Burke says he’s seen that hesitation subside. “There’s obviously still work left to be done — I think it would be naive to say that everything’s perfect and everything’s fixed, because that’s definitively not the case,” he says. “But in the past 10 years or so, since my brother’s accident, the hockey world has taken huge leaps and bounds forward in regards to diversity and inclusion — in regards to language, (and) in regards to player education and involvement.”

And yet, the data bears out a crucial point amid all this perceived progress. Even with young players seemingly more aware of the issues facing the LGBTQ+ community, even with what appear to be genuine steps forward at the NHL level, little has changed where it matters most. Drawing from more than 50 studies over the past two decades that have tracked whether kids in sports have heard homophobic language used, Denison says the results are relatively unchanged. Homophobic language persists.

It was going back to where it all began that helped McGillis find his path forward. After making the decision to finally walk away from his on-ice career, he left Montreal and moved back to Sudbury to finish his studies. Before he could plan his post-grad steps, though, a chance encounter with a few young hockey players at a local gym, who heeded his advice about new exercises to try out and asked McGillis to train them, led to a new career working with young athletes in the area. Soon the ravenous work ethic he’d shown as a young netminder not far away in Markstay was channelled into developing the next generation. He turned his garage into a gym and started building up his clientele. Within a few years, he was working with more than 100 players daily.

But he was still living with the same secret he’d held all those years before. “I feared at that point that if parents knew that their kids, their teenage sons, were training with a gay guy, they wouldn’t want them to,” he says. “So I didn’t tell anyone. And then my business grew, and before I knew it, I had an on-ice training business, a goalie training business, and an off-ice training business…. I feared that telling them would end my work.”

Even years removed from the locker room, the fear remained. “I was still in that self-preservation mode,” McGillis says. “I didn’t know how to get out of that mode in this culture. But then something happened that changed it. I got a call from a hockey mom.”

By this point, McGillis had been running his hockey businesses for a half-decade, his double-life intact. That morning, he picked up the phone, ready to hear the usual hockey-parent qualms — not enough power-play time, where should my son play next season, and on and on. Instead, the voice on the other end of the line said, “Brock, I want to set you up on a date.”

“My initial thought process was: ‘Oh shit. What do I say?’ So I said, ‘What’s her name?’

“And she said, ‘Steve.’

“I said, ‘What?’

“She said, ‘Brock, you’re gay.’

“‘How do you know this?’

“She says, ‘Oh, my son told me.’ Her son was 15 at the time. She’s like, ‘All the boys know. They’ve known for years.’

“And I panicked. I freaked out. I thought, ‘I’m going to lose my businesses. They’re not going to want to work with me,’” McGillis says.

“One of the older players, who was already in the OHL, looked at the younger player and said, ‘We don’t say that here. Give me 50 push-ups.’”

The fear eventually gave way to the realization that these young players knew the truth and had already chosen to keep working with him. He wondered whether it was time to come out publicly, whether this was how he could begin to shift the culture. But first, he took the opportunity afforded by the unique position he found himself in and observed how the players acted around him. He noticed homophobic language still being thrown around at times — but when it was, the players would freeze up, turn to McGillis and apologize. That seemed to be progress, some type of awareness in the moment of the impact of their words. “Or maybe they know I’m gay, so they apologize to me because they like me, but then they go to school or the rink or anywhere else and call kids f–s,” he says. “I had no idea.”

But one day soon after, McGillis wasn’t able to work with the young crop of big-league hopefuls, so he had a sprint coach train them instead. The stand-in relayed what happened in his absence. It was near the end of the day, a two-hour grind of a workout already endured, and the coach informed his young pupils they had 10 more 200-metre sprints on deck. In response, one of the younger kids in the group, around 15 years old, looked at the coach and said, “This is so gay. I don’t want to do this.”

“One of the older players, who was already in the OHL, looked at the younger player and said, ‘We don’t say that here. Give me 50 push-ups,’” says McGillis. “That became something my athletes adopted. And because hockey players in our culture, especially elite players, are influencers in society, they took that to their peers at school, to their friends, to their teammates, and other people started doing push-ups when they would say something homophobic. That’s when I realized shifts can happen in this culture.”

To be able to remove something that has so deeply infected the sport for so long, you have to first be able to identify how and why it’s spreading. It’s in this latter aspect that much of the hockey world’s response to the issue of homophobic language has fallen short. The reason it is still spreading even as attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community appear to be shifting, according to recent research from Denison and his team, comes down to the process by which this language is learned and passed on in the locker room.

It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, Denison explains. It starts with a new, young player first hearing the language thrown around the locker room by a coach, by teammates. The player observes positive responses to the language, observes that its use earns laughs and social status. The player also perceives that no harm is being caused by the language, because the assumption, due to the stereotypes inherent in hyper-masculine sports like hockey, is that everyone in the room is straight. So, with clear incentives and no obvious consequences, the player uses the language to conform, to gain acceptance within the group. When the next young player eventually comes into the environment for the first time, the cycle starts anew.

Understanding this process is crucial, because it makes one thing clear: Unless this cycle is interrupted or upended, larger-scale efforts to provide education about the LGBTQ+ community and shift individual attitudes, appear to have limited impact. If the language is in the locker room already, it will be — continually revived by this self-perpetuating process — until the cycle is broken.

“I still have the urge to say things sometimes, and I’m catching myself. It takes effort, because it’s so ingrained in us.”

Gabriel, who earned a King Clancy Memorial Trophy nomination this season due in part to his work advocating for hockey’s LGBTQ+ community, has seen firsthand both the impact of education on these issues, and the pervasiveness of that cycle. On one hand, having the issue humanized for him and getting educated about the issues facing the LGBTQ+ community have brought Gabriel a long way from his early years in the sport. “I was using it,” he says of the homophobic language common in the locker rooms of his youth. “I was that kid playing hockey and just saying things that were what everybody said. It’s kind of strange to say, looking back on it now. But just because my intentions weren’t there doesn’t mean I wasn’t hurting anyone.”

On the other hand, even amid all the progress he’s made himself, even as one of the LGBTQ+ community’s most vocal allies in the game, he still feels the weight of the sport’s pull to conform at times. “[At AHL Lehigh] some of the guys would get on me a bit being language police. But I’m right there with [them]. I used to say these things. I still have the urge to say things sometimes, and I’m catching myself. It takes effort, because it’s so ingrained in us.”

In November 2016, McGillis finally stepped out of the shadows, his decades of fear giving way to a historic truth, as he became the first professional men’s hockey player to come out as gay. A confluence of events led him there. The mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando — the deadliest attack against LGBTQ+ people in American history — happened just five months prior, a painful reminder for McGillis of the importance of queer spaces and identities. A local hockey association had barred him from training young athletes, just as he’d feared, when word about his sexuality began to spread. A few other threads began to unravel too, he says, until he felt compelled to make a change. So he finally told the hockey world who he truly was.

“I just did it to empower myself,” he says. “I thought, ‘Nobody can use my sexuality against me anymore, and whisper behind my back. Because it’s out there.’”

The impact of that decision hit much harder and in a different manner than he thought. It catapulted him into an entirely different space in the sport, flooded his inbox with roughly 10,000 messages — most of them positive — and made him the face of something he had been running away from for his whole hockey life. It also gave him the chance to do the work he and Brendan had talked about all those years before.

He’s used that opportunity to great effect in the years since, emerging as one of the leading voices for hockey’s LGBTQ+ community, granting visibility to a group that has long been forced to the background. But this new position has also granted McGillis a unique view of how prevalent these issues still are in the sport, as young players routinely reach out to him with stories of their own trials, desperate for support and advice on how to survive it, like he did.

“I get kids coming to me that are dealing with the same stuff I dealt with 20-plus years ago,” he says. “It’s the same culture. It’s the same thing…. Most of them don’t even realize the issues. They don’t know that these issues exist. It’s never been humanized for them. And hockey isn’t doing a good job of bringing people in with a lived experience in the culture to humanize the issues for players.

“Maybe it’s a little less overt, but there’s still a lot of homophobia and there’s still a lot of bias that exists. It hasn’t gone away…. And it’s a real damn shame that it’s been 20-plus years and I feel like we’re just spinning the tires.”

What will it take to turn spinning tires into movement? Even with a greater understanding of the issue, the solutions aren’t simple. The most public, polarizing and oft-discussed work happening in the hockey space so far has been the NHL’s Pride Nights. While they’ve drawn criticism from some corners for being a band-aid solution for a deep, painful issue, they have served an important purpose, says Denison. “Hockey deserves credit on that end, in terms of these more visible events, marketing kind of activities, that have been really useful. That’s helped normalize the idea of addressing homophobia, which is important, because even though it’s against the law that this occurs, laws aren’t enforced unless the norms align.”

The central issue with the approach in his view, though, is that these efforts to promote awareness can give some the sense that key problems in the sport are being dealt with, when evidence shows they persist.

And while the NHL’s immense influence comes with a responsibility to help push the game forward on this front — and in that sense, there’s surely more work for the league to do — the most urgent action is required not in the professional ranks, but at the youth level. “The difference between how things have been done in North America and other countries where they’ve probably made a bit more actual traction,” says Denison, “is in North America almost everything’s focused on the professional leagues, which doesn’t make any sense at all. Because they have no connection to where this harm is actually occurring.”

Mandi Duhamel, a former university-level and CWHL coach who now serves as the NHL’s regional director of industry growth and youth hockey, is part of a team working within the league to figure out how it can expand its impact in this area. Part of the Youth Hockey Inclusion Committee formed in September 2020 with the goal of developing programs to support underrepresented groups in the game, Duhamel’s own experiences as a member of the LGBTQ+ community working in the sport has given her a firsthand understanding of the progress needed. She says the Committee’s focus is currently on creating model programming — potentially in partnership with Hockey Canada and USA Hockey — and working with the league’s current programs (Learn To Play, First Shift and Future Goals) to set safer standards and expectations of youth hockey environments, and move the league from trying to lead by example to having a more direct impact. “We’re trying to establish what that means,” she says of where that process is at. “We’ve done a fantastic job of exploring it, being honest about it, getting the right people to have opinions on it, and going to the experts in these areas. And now it’s about implementation and continuing to fight for the culture change that needs to be done.”

“These are coaches of children, and they’re not doing their basic job of making sure children are safe.”

But regardless of how these big-picture efforts play out, none figures to serve as a significant solution to the most urgent problem facing the LGBTQ+ community in the sport: the harm still being done by the everyday use of homophobic language. That comes down to the dynamic in each and every locker room. It comes down to the authority figures in those rooms taking seriously the well-known harm caused by that language, and doing something to eradicate its use. “You can’t really fix homophobia without addressing the systemic problems that are supporting racism and sexism, because they’re all very closely aligned,” Denison says. “And that’s this banter culture. It’s the coaches not doing their job. That’s a fundamental thing — these are coaches of children, and they’re not doing their basic job of making sure children are safe.”

The other key is dismantling that self-perpetuating cycle that’s kept this language alive in locker rooms. In Denison’s view, that has to be done through the most influential voice, or voices, in each environment. That’s the basis of the approach he and his team have used for three years with with rugby teams in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, and the one they’re now developing with the University of British Columbia for the hockey community. “Individualism is not celebrated in hockey. It’s very much conformity [that] is celebrated in hockey,” Denison says. “The person who’s deciding what the norms are is largely the captain [and assistant captain], but also the coach. So those people need to be recruited.” The goal, in essence, is to use hockey’s reliance on conformity — giving team leaders the tools to alter the norms to which their fellow players will conform.

Stepping back, the key for McGillis comes down to how those in the sport view this problem — whether it’s understood only as a large-scale issue of statistics and policies or seen through the human prism of his own story, and all the others like his. What must come first, though, is a wider commitment from the hockey community to meaningfully engage with either approach, to view this as a chance to grow the game rather than as an attack on it. “When I say all this and I’m critical of hockey culture and critical of the sport, people get very defensive, because it’s so personal to them,” McGillis says. “Just like there’s white fragility, I think there’s straight fragility…. Instead of just going, ‘How do we make this better for everyone?’ there’s, you know, ‘Well, that’s not true. My child’s a good kid,’ and blah blah blah. Nobody’s disputing that your child’s a good kid.

“It’s not that I think these people are bad. It’s that [the issue] hasn’t been humanized for them.”

Any effective solution seems to require both approaches — just like McGillis saw years ago in Sudbury, when his players changed the culture of their locker rooms. When the issue was humanized for them through their relationship with McGillis, when they understood the need to alter the norms their teammates conformed to, when they showed the ones who came after that this language had no place in their room.

“We’ve seen what happens when things are humanized,” McGillis says. “People don’t even realize that this game is an oppressive tool, and if they did, if we taught them that they need to rally around these issues — the same way they rally around cancer, the same way the hockey world came together when Humboldt happened — [they would].”

It just takes opening the door, allowing those who’ve experienced the pain the game can dole out to share those experiences. It takes teaching the sport’s leaders why this is worth fighting for, and empowering them to begin breaking those cycles. “We can humanize the experiences of a queer person in a men’s locker room without vilifying [everyone else]. ‘This is what I went through as a gay man in a locker room, and I’m telling you this is what kids are going through.’ More people than not would rally around that,” McGillis says.

“If we teach them, they’ll rally.”

Photo Credits

Caitlin Taguibao/Sportsnet (5)