Homophobia in Hockey: Raising Awareness with Tommy Wingels

Having played through the college level (2013 grad), yours truly has been a part of a number of hockey locker rooms. When the media aren’t around, homophobic comments are still far too common. In a male dominated, Caucasian dominated, wealthy dominated sport, hockey is arguably the toughest sports environment for a gay player. This isn’t to reverse stereotype all rich white men, but let’s be honest, as a group, they have never been trailblazers for social awareness.

While both the NBA and the NFL have had openly gay players in Jason Collins and Michael Sam, no NHL player has yet to follow suit. Unfortunately, given hockey’s culture, it wouldn’t be surprising if it were to end up being the last of the four major North American sports for this to happen. Minorities don’t exactly make up a large percentage of hockey players. This study didn’t even bother with the NHL when it came to analyzing diversity amongst the top professional sports leagues. 

Niche Sport

Ice time isn’t easy to find and it’s not cheap. Therefore, it makes complete sense for kids to flock to other sports. Perhaps the NHL needs to invest in more roller hockey programs in order to grow the game and make it more affordable to everybody. If hockey were cheaper, and spread through different youth cultures, it would do wonders to help social awareness. San Jose Sharks right wing Tommy Wingels is a board member for the You Can Play project, he talked about the difficulty of growing the game he loves.

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“Hockey is an expensive sport, you see a lot of people gravitating towards the other sports because they are a lot cheaper. Basketball you [just] buy a pair of shoes and a ball. Baseball, soccer, same thing. I think it’s something as a game that we need to figure out how to get more kids involved. I’m not sure what the answer is but as a league it’s something we can work on.”

Brendan Burke

Brendan Burke (Wikipedia/Creative Commons)
Brendan Burke (Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

Wingels, 26, is starting his third season as an established NHLer. Before reaching the NHL, Wingels starred as college player for the Miami (Ohio) Redhawks. The Illinois native captained a team that included the late Brendan Burke. The son of Calgary Flames President of Hockey operations Brian Burke, Brendan was both a player and team manager for the Redhawks. He made numerous headlines for coming out as gay in 2009. According to Wingels, he wasn’t treated any differently than anyone else on the team.

“He just was one of the guys. If we were in the locker room working out, he was in there working out. If it was Sunday watching football with a bunch of guys getting together, he was there sitting with us. Ultimately it didn’t matter his sexuality. As I’ve said a million times it didn’t change anything about him or his relationship with anyone else.”

Burke’s story is the inspiration for the You Can Play project co-founded by Brendan’s brother Patrick. The foundation has done a lot of work to foster awareness and acceptance of all sexualities in the sports world. Local star athletes, including the Sharks’ Joe Thornton, participated in this You Can Play advertisement a few seasons ago.

There is still a lot of work to be done though, and as Wingels points out, players have to be cognizant of their actions.

“First off, hold yourself to a high standard. The culture and environment that you’re in in a locker room it’s about respecting your teammates. You have to be aware of what you say and what you do. Focus on the individual first and then if you can help others think about it, or correct them when they say something that they shouldn’t say or do something they shouldn’t do, that’s the next step.”

Hockey’s “Bro” Mentality

Hockey is known as being a “bro” sport. Lots of predominately white, “bad boy” types drinking beer and talking about girls. With that in mind, Brendan’s willingness to openly admit his homosexuality is arguably the most courageous act in the history of the sport. The goal of course though is to make coming out not be a big deal. With the type of language still used in locker rooms today, the message needs to be sent repeatedly that certain comments are not acceptable. Many players may not even be homophobic per se, but they don’t realize that what they say can take a severe emotional toll on others.


As a former player, the comment that stands out to me personally is when guys would tell teammates to “go s**k a d**k.” Those who talk like this don’t realize what they are saying. Players need to think before they speak. They need to ask themselves the question: How would I feel if my sexuality was looked down upon by the masses? When I put myself in the shoes of a gay hockey player, I can’t imagine what it would be like. As a heterosexual male, if I had teammates express to me that giving oral sex to a woman was wrong/bad, that would make me extremely uncomfortable. Having something I do in my private time being mocked and ridiculed would be incredibly hurtful. I can’t even fathom how I would attempt to cope with that.

Openly Gay Player in the NHL?

Personally, I’m not very optimistic about an NHL player coming out anytime soon. Wingels however believes his league is “on the right track” to creating an environment where every player can be themselves.

“I think we’re on the right track. The league is doing everything they can, the players are doing what they can, and the teams are doing what they can. You have a duty to make a safe environment for someone to feel comfortable if they want to come out. I think it’s great in other sports that it’s happening. The big thing with Michael Sam in the NFL was that he was going to be a big distraction. Anything I’ve seen, heard, or read, there is no distraction at all. Just goes to show, teammates don’t care. Teammates are happy for him that he can live his life openly. It’s [only] a matter of time before we have a guy in every professional sport that is openly gay.”

25 thoughts on “Homophobia in Hockey: Raising Awareness with Tommy Wingels”

  1. Floor Hockey (not ball hockey, not Roller blade hockey, not ice-hockey Ringette) is a great way to spread the sport of hockey as a low-cost alternative to expensive hockey schools, etc., away from minor hockey associations. I grew up playing it at the ‘Boys Optimist’ club in Toronto and took it up again in St. Catherine’s when I moved out of Ontario and back later. Strangely, I never played ice hockey other than on city rinks and ponds.

    I do know though how expensive the sport has gotten. Anyone who coached (I’m a former ice-hockey coach!) could have seeing this coming over 15 years ago. For the so-called lower end middle to lower wage to minimum wage earners the sport is almost if not out of reach on both sides of the 49th.

    In many ways it has become a sport for the higher end middle to upper classes in both Canada and the U.S. I don’t know about Europe, Japan or China’s situation.

    It is likely that parity which is being achieved around the world in the sport may be more due to lower expenses and if so, these sporting countries (and wannabes) have an advantage over high cost economic countries such as the the U.S. and Canada, and their expensive arenas and other associated costs. Lower costs means more inclusion, and hence a bigger pool of players can be drawn from. It doesn’t necessarily mean they have more talent, just more to draw from because of lower expenses, etc. It may also mean their governments like the old Russian model are more involved, too. Just a guess as I’ve said I’m not too familiar with those areas.

    Nevertheless, if you can’t get in on power skating schools because of their expense, you can roller blade. Can’t afford private hockey schools try floor hockey. You’ll be surprised just how well your daughter or son’s on-ice performance in their respective minor hockey associations will improve.

    They will see the ice better. They will become better handling the puck. They will use the space on the ice much more effectively thus giving them time to become better play-makers. These are but a few of the many benefits that will accrue to players who have the opportunity to participate in this sport.

    Leo O’Brien

  2. Roller hockey is a great way to spread the sport. I grew up playing it on the streets of Brooklyn and took it up again in San Francisco when rollerblades came in, which revolutionized things. There’s still some investment in equipment but NHL teams can help with that and with setting up leagues.There are also plenty of free places to play informally and if you want a more professional feel there are dedicated rinks with fast plastic surfaces, boards, glass, the whole deal. Good for Tommy Wingels of the Sharks in encouraging more diversity in the fantastic sport of hockey.

  3. It is a good article. Both about the struggles of gays to be accepted as normal. Not a choice of their making but something they must deal with none the less. Makes no difference who they are, or what they do. And those that think hockey is available to any no matter their economic status should try paying for ice on the west coast. No winter ponds to play with the neighborhood kids. Even if you just want to go out and play on a pond, it is not available. The NHL does need to step up. They need to look outside of the east coast and Canada to do more to promote the sport. Would it hurt the owners and league to invest in some ice time, maybe a few NHL owned rinks in small communities? Expensive yes but maybe an investment well worth making. I am sure it could qualify for tax exemptions from the communities who would also benefit. Maybe a partnership with the likes of , Nike, Intel, Microsoft, et al. Too much of their PR money is wasted on celebrities anyway. Give back and reap bigger rewards. Canada has Hockey Night and communities are included when the League and country sponsor Hockeyville Canada to recognize the kids, communities and game. Why not here?

    • just look at the lack of success in most “sun belt” markets, big problem is the lack of building up youth interest in the sport. Big reason the Sharks have such a big following in San Jose is because it has become a super popular rec sport out here. Sharks ice in SJ has 4 rinks and there is a 3 rink roller facility in SJ as well

  4. You’ve got to be kidding w/this nonsense, the NBA would be the toughest for a gay player.
    The league is majority black and they aren’t down w/gay.

    • I said arguably, everyone is entitled to an opinion in this case. Not sure why that would be your takeaway from this piece that you would choose to comment about.

  5. I’m not sure about hockey being a wealth dominated sport. When I grew up most of the families I knew didn’t have a lot, but we always played hockey. But I suppose it is true that gear and ice time are more expensive now, and will never be quite as simple as just picking up a ball, and the game would improve if it were less expensive for kids to play in tournaments, etc.
    As for homophobia in the NHL, I couldn’t say for sure that it’s worse than in any other league. Former NFL coach Tony Dungy was on TV very recently saying he wouldn’t have drafted Sam because it would have been a distraction. Not exactly blazing the trail for acceptance. But I do think Burke’s courageous stand will inspire other people, and hopefully this will be a non-issue in the near future.

    • It is by far the most expensive. Just to buy a set of gear if you want to start playing, 50 dollars for shin pads, pants, elbow pads, gloves, 80 for a reasonable helmet, 125 for a decent twig, 150 for used pair of skates, looking at over 500 dollars just to get started. Thats not including ice time and nice jerseys if you want to play on a team.

  6. …hockey definitely creates a financially prohibitive environment & although there are programs offering opportunities to interested kids from low income families, that opportunity generally encompasses a limited few…

    …whilst enjoying playing hockey immensely as a youngster, this canadian kid grew up in a middle class household playing league hockey with guys who actually went on to make the bigs & I hadda look at it from the perspective of – “do I honestly think I might have the ability to make this my life’s work & if so, do I have the dedication to go all the way” while the reality was that it was only a limited few who actually made it…my folks offered me the financial support if I really wanted to pursue that dream but made it abundantly clear that i’d have to forego other family activities due to the cost…
    …btw – ultimately I hadda accept within myself that I just wasn’t that good but the vision was a pretty standard “canadian thing”…

    …as far as the main point of the article, it would seem amongst ignorant people that it’s thought being gay is somehow a choice, a sin & against family values & thus egregiously wrong…
    …personally, I see that kind of ignorance as so extremely limiting as to be amazing in this day & age…

  7. This writer stinks. Wealthy dominated? Maybe in the U.S. in certain places. However, I know for a fact most places in Canada and quite a few in the U.S. tier 1 hockey is available to working class families.

    • try paying for your kids hockey making minimum wage and get back to me. Kids get into other sports on a regular. Yes hockey is the top sport in canada, but not in a lot of other places

    • rather, i came from a middle class family, my dad made over 6 figures at certain points in his career but was out of work here and there, wouldn’t of been able to play high school hockey without financial aid.

  8. This is about equal rights regardless of sexual orientation. It is this generations civil rights.
    No one should have to hide who they love to be accepted by their teammates. The only thing that should matter is if they are doing their job. They will still be one of the guys if they happen to be gay. That does not change their personality, their humor, or their work ethic,

    @Chris you state “What’s annoying about these stories is that the writer sees no issue in forcing other people to change their culture to fit one person”.
    I must have missed that. I didn’t read anything that forced anyone to change their culture to fit one person. I find it interesting that you assume it would just be one person. Your bias is showing even though you kept repeating over and over again you weren’t biased.
    It’s always good to gather your facts before you post. While Wingels was on the original board and along with the Warriors GM helped financially get You Can Play off the ground the list of NHL players who support the program is extensive. There was no forcing anyone to do anything. Most of the biggest stars in the league and many, many other players shot video pieces for the program.

    • Thanks for the comment, as I told Kenneth, it is indeed the modern civil rights movement, no different than Martin Luther King fighting for racial equality.

  9. what a shitty article. if I was gay id be offended. who cares if you’re gay or not, no one cares anymore. it’s the media that makes it a huge deal.

  10. Well written piece Andy, not sure what to make of the comment above me here though…respecting someone’s sexuality isn’t about them forcing their beliefs on you (btw, sexuality is genetic not a “belief”), it’s about forming an inclusive society where people don’t feel ashamed to be themselves.

  11. So sick of this topic, and yes I know plenty of gay people. It’s just part of life. What’s annoying about these stories is that the writer sees no issue in forcing other people to change their culture to fit one person. All of us enter into situations where our thoughts & beliefs are not the norm in a group setting, yet we would never think to say “I feel uncomfortable with how you people think and feel about things. Therefore you must change.” That would be viewed as utterly ridiculous yet the writer of this, and many articles like it, seem to think when it comes to sexuality it is reasonable. To me that is just as ignorant as expecting others to adopt your religious beliefs. The fact the writer doesn’t even acknowledge that he’s placing a completely unfair and unreasonable burden on others is stunning. The reason he doesn’t acknowledge it though isn’t because it doesn’t support his point, it’s because he doesn’t even recognize it as an option! That is what frightens me about the young, ignorant p.c. types is that they are so completely unaware of the outside world and context which we we all exist. Also, FYI, I am a lifelong liberal democrat who has no religious affiliation. I’ve had many gay friends as well so I’m not ignorant on the topic. It’s just that I think for myself and don’t espouse the groupthink articles like this assume.

    • First of all, you know an argument is going to be good when it starts with: “I know plenty of *insert demographic here*”. Second, I believe you’re missing the point that the article is trying to make. The author is not trying to imply that people need to change their beliefs and values. Players are welcome to have their own opinion, but as soon as that opinion starts to impede the freedom and safety of another, it crosses the line. Sure, oppose LGBT values. But when you talk to the public and make any sort of statement, you are representing the National Hockey League. As an athlete, you’d better be open-minded, or at least not spout hate speech.

      • being anti gay values is no different than being racist. It’s something people are born as, they can’t chose it. Just like MLK Jr paved way for the civil rights campaign of his time, this is the modern civil rights issue. It’s unfortunate that people look down upon anyone for something out of their control.

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