Harrison Mooney’s Puck Daddy piece “Why our issues with NHL individuality could keep gay players from coming out” is a thoughtful, well-argued essay. It suggests that contrary to highly visible campaigns regarding gay men coming out in the NHL, the real world of pro hockey discourages that kind of attention-grabbing individuality, and instead prizes players who don’t cause a stir.
Personally, this cult of appreciation for ‘no-maintenance’ personalities strikes me as archaic and useless in the modern game; and as an overly paternal control methodology that permits the NHL to cloak its lingering bigotry in the muted pageantry of the humble hockey player.
I believe you get attention by being a good player. You don’t get attention because your hair is longer, socks are different, or what you talk about. You get attention because you’re good. – Mike Babcock
The You Can Play Project challenges the de facto requirement in professional hockey that all players be heterosexual. On its face this requirement could hardly be more absurd. There will be a day, probably long in the future, when disbelieving hockey fans will shake their heads and say, “What difference does that make? Why did that ever matter?”
Regardless, it matters now. Following Brendan Burke’s coming out to his teammates, his father Brian issued a statement that read in part:
There are gay men in professional hockey. We would be fools to think otherwise. And it’s sad that they feel the need to conceal this. I understand why they do so, however.
Mooney conservatively estimates the number of gay men in the NHL to be somewhere less than 14 but more than one or two. He awkwardly settles for “a few.” For the following example we need just one:
As Brian Burke wrote, it is indeed sad that such a player ‘feels the need to conceal’ his homosexuality. Imagine a player you like, maybe your favorite player, and what it might be like if he were gay and trying to conceal it. I would put good money on the idea that at least one other player has stumbled upon the truth about him, or just as likely, a puck bunny. And that the gay player in question lives in fear of his secret being leaked. A state of perpetual threat of blackmail. The thought of being outed has cost him many nights of sleep, he has vomited from the fear countless times, and he has taken steps to alter his personality enough to convince the casual observer that he’s not who he really is. He may have tried to pray the gay away; he may hate himself for who he is; he suffers tidal waves of guilt and shame.
Is this the kind of life you would want for your favorite player? Would you realistically wish this on anyone?
On the annual uproar over fighting in hockey, Bobby Clarke once said:
We’ve all been raised to play a certain way and if people now find that offensive, then let’s clean things up. Heck, if everyone is really so concerned, they could put in a new rule today that would eliminate the fighting tomorrow. If that’s what everybody wants, let’s do it. If not, let’s get on with the game.
If a gay hockey player presents a sufficient threat to the game’s culture and traditions, then let us all be fair about this from the outset. USA Hockey and Hockey Canada have an obligation to make it clear to kids as young as Pee wees that in advanced levels the sport enforces an unexplainable, unjustifiable but wholly traditional ban on homosexuality, and any kids with an inkling they might be gay should quit now or forever stifle their hopes of a rewarding personal life spent with someone they care about.
You Can Play has a plan to minimize the scrutiny and eliminate the pressures of being the first guy to go through this circus: no first guy. “This is why ideally we’d like to do it as a group, get four or five guys together who want to come out and do it as a group,” said [Patrick] Burke. “That way there’s no first guy — there’s a first five guys.”
That is as ambitious as it is un-American.
It’s easy for me to say because I won’t be him, but there must be a First Guy, a Promethean, pioneering figure whose bravery can inspire future generations. Brendan Burke is one such figure; he’s the Prime Mover. But his bravery must now inspire a man in the NHL to follow his lead, and allow himself to be thrown to the wolves for such a just cause. And You Can Play ought to actively seek that First Guy, because the role can’t be left up to chance.
John Scopes wasn’t a fluke. Rosa Parks wasn’t some ornery Alabama woman who was having a bad day. Jackie Robinson–who endured more taunts and slurs and death threats than any athlete in history and had it far worse than any gay hockey player today could possibly fear or imagine– was no accident. Like Parks, Jackie was hand-picked to be the pioneer based on the strength of his character. Branch Rickey needed the first black man in baseball to stand tall and ignore the hate and the antagonism and beat ‘em on the ball field. When Robinson began playing for Brooklyn in 1947, it was socially acceptable for you to be heard calling Jackie a nigger or a spook by friends, neighbors, and strangers alike.
It will not be looked upon as kindly in hockey rinks when certain fans taunt the first openly gay player by calling him a fag. In most rinks, those fans will be the minority and will find themselves cast out. They will eventually have to decide what’s more important to them: the game or their prejudices. They can not hope to maintain both.
One can easily imagine one fan shouting “Fag!” every time that certain player hits the ice, and another fan telling him, with increasing aggression, to shut up. Will fights break out in the stands across North America over this player? There might be a few, sure. As Mooney notes, this kind of unsuitably individualistic attention would be the league’s worst nightmare.
Well then fuck the league. No one individual is bigger or more important than the game of hockey, but the game of hockey is not bigger or more important than the inalienable civil rights of the individual. When hockey stomps on those rights by tradition or by functional exclusion, it acts like a sport I don’t recognize and want no part of.
You can argue that the NHL abhors a distraction; you can argue that there’s no place for individuality in hockey; but can you argue against the right of an openly gay man to play in the league if he’s got the skills to do so? Because that is the essential issue. Everything else is just a smokescreen. If you can play, then you ought to be able to goddamn play.