Gay Men in Hockey: A Short History
There are few men in hockey who seem to embody the sport quite like Brian Burke, whose famous gruffness toward a prying scrum of reporters as an executive roughly equaled his playing style as a college and minor league scrapper in the 1970s.
He has spent nearly all his life in hockey, but Burke, 62, the president of the Calgary Flames, has come to represent something else to the game.
In 2009, when Burke was president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, his son Brendan revealed himself to be gay. Though Brendan, then 20, held no position with the league, he immediately became something rare: an openly gay man with proximity to the N.H.L.
Burke threw an arm around his son, and the father became a champion of gay rights in sports, marching forward by Brendan’s side until the moment unimaginable grief found him. On Feb. 5, 2010, just three months after he came out, Brendan was killed in a car accident along a snowy Indiana highway.
Before his death, Brendan confided something to his father. As a teenager, Brendan played varsity hockey for his high school in Massachusetts, but later quit to join a town team instead.
“He told me long after high school that it was because homophobic language made him uncomfortable,” Burke said.
It has fallen on Burke, more than anyone else in hockey, to clean up a culture in the sport that made Brendan feel so unwelcome. Through Hockey Is For Everyone and You Can Play, an N.H.L.-backed initiative founded in 2012 by Burke’s elder son, Patrick, the league has made strides. Burke said Flames players had approached him unsolicited, reporting that if there were ever any gay players on the team, they would be greeted warmly.
Of the first openly gay man to play in the N.H.L., whoever he should be and whenever he should arrive, Burke said, “I think he’s going to find that the road isn’t as rocky as he thinks it’s going to be.”
In the five years since Jason Collins became the first openly gay man to play in the N.B.A., and Michael Sam followed as the first openly gay man to be drafted by an N.F.L. team, professional leagues have been trying to ensure sports are a place where all feel welcome.
But in a culture where anti-gay slurs have for decades been used casually as verbal digs, progress has been rocky. In 2011, Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers was fined $100,000 for muttering an anti-gay slur toward a referee. In 2015, Rajon Rondo of the Sacramento Kings was suspended one game for yelling the same word at the referee Bill Kennedy, who later revealed he was gay. A year later, Andrew Shaw of the Chicago Blackhawks was suspended for a playoff game for using the slur. Baseball players have also been suspended in recent years for using homophobic language.
The Shaw suspension was a landmark measure by the N.H.L. But a year later, when Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf was caught during the postseason angrily calling an official the same slur used against Barone, Getzlaf was only fined and allowed to play his next game.
The league declined repeated requests to receive questions for this article, or to comment further on the Getzlaf episode. But to many in the gay community, the decision undid much of the evolution the league had made with Shaw’s punishment.
In the history of pro hockey, there are known to be very few gay male players. One is Peter Karlsson, a Swedish defenseman. In 1995, he died after being stabbed 60 times, the killer reportedly sickened by Karlsson’s sexuality.
Another is Brock McGillis, a Canadian junior goalie who later competed professionally in Europe. When McGillis was a player, he kept himself closeted and dated women. He felt so unwanted as a gay man in hockey that he began to drink away the pain.
“I hated myself,” he said. “Most days, I woke up wanting to die, and I went to bed wanting to die.”
Sean Avery, a 10-season pro who retired in 2012, said he had never even heard the term L.G.B.T. growing up in central Ontario. But as a Los Angeles King with a home in West Hollywood, and later as a Ranger living in Chelsea, he made gay friends. In 2011, Avery announced his support for gay marriage. “Misguided” was how Todd Reynolds, a prominent N.H.L. agent, described Avery’s position on Twitter.
“Legal or not,” Reynolds continued, gay marriage “will always be wrong.”
Avery is not gay, though while he was in the N.H.L., he said, players and fans would yell anti-gay slurs at him.
“But I’m also straight, so that certainly doesn’t hurt,” he said. “But if I had a gay teammate, which I’m pretty sure I did at some point — God, I can’t imagine what he was feeling like.
“He was probably thinking, ‘Thank God they think it’s him.’”
Continue reading the main story