Kurtis Gabriel has been using his platform to raise awareness for numerous social issues, and he knows his profile can get much more prominent if he makes the Toronto Maple Leafs. So he has been preparing for training camp for weeks while also planning his skate designs. “We are getting a little more creative,” said Gabriel during a recent Instagram Live. He will continue to have one skate dedicated to LGBTQ+ and the other with Black Lives Matter. But, of course, he will still have Pride Tape on his stick.
His dedication to those causes remains, but something has changed. He noticed it minutes into his live broadcast, “I’ve never had so many questions fired at me. This is going to be a little different than the last ones,” said Gabriel. He struggled to keep up with the comment feed as hundreds of viewers were asking questions. “Leafs’ Nation is a little bit bigger than the other markets I’ve played in.”
Larger Audience Draws More Good and Bad Attention
He was joined on his Instagram live by his close friend Brock McGillis. McGillis has been an advocate in the LGBTQ+ community since being the first professional hockey player to come out as gay publicly. The two have known each other since Gabriel scored on Carey Price in 2019. Not only was it a goal against a great goalie, but he did it with Pride Tape on his stick. Unfortunately, moments after McGillis appeared on Instagram Live, homophobic and derogatory comments started to show up. Although, it seemed Gabriel is used to it, “the amount of people who think because I’m friends with you (McGillis) and do this kind of work and bombard me with that kind of stuff. It is just so telling of why we need to do this kind of stuff.”
Instead of ignoring the messages, the two friends discussed them and called out the hate. I asked Gabriel why he pays attention to those kinds of comments. “I have no problem giving the haters attention if they need to be corrected,” said Gabriel. “If they keep doing it, then I just tune them out, but I think it is important to address it.”
McGillis agreed, “we are on an Instagram live with a lot of viewers. Some potentially straight young hockey players may see this and realize they could take Kurtis’s example and not be afraid to stand up and not care about what other people think. So, talking and have an open dialogue about that issue is critical.”
Maple Leafs Are an Ally
Gabriel’s example is posed to reach much further. He has a chance to play in the biggest hockey market in one of North America’s largest cities and for an organization that has been a solid ally to the LGBTQ+ community. The Maple Leafs made the organization’s stance crystal clear in 2019. Morgan Rielly was accused of using a homophobic slur. The accusation was proven false. But general manager Kyle Dubas used the moment in a memorable way. “If a homosexual, a bisexual or transgender fan walks in the rink, [we want them to] feel welcome here and safe here,” said Dubas during a media conference in 2019. “If we have a player who’s contemplating what their sexuality is [we hope] they feel safe here and can be themselves here. That’s why the cause matters to me. I think that because of our role in the community and the country as the Toronto Maple Leafs, we have a unique opportunity to be proactive and to take a stance on the matter.”
Gabriel believes everyone can make a difference, “I think honestly the biggest thing I can do is just be in this space as a straight dude. I get a lot of messages from even Junior B or Double-A hockey players who say I appreciate you being there. That is the biggest contribution I can make just being here and just talking about it openly.”
Gabriel Knows the Importance of Communication
Perhaps it was the open dialogue and the critical change it made in Gabriel’s life. When he was ten years old, his father took his own life. Gabriel learned the death was suicide years later, and it filled him with a lot of anger and confusion. But, once he started talking about his pain and listening to others who’d experienced trauma, his life changed for the better.
During the hour and a half Instagram live, he invited viewers to join on a video call. One viewer, who Gabriel had messaged with a few days earlier, said, “I really wanted to say thank you. I messaged you a few days ago, I’m going through a rough time, and that meant the world to me. I already feel so much better; I’m so much happier about my life. It means the world.”
“No problem,” Gabriel responded, “your message came in the right at the top… I was like, holy cow, man. I remember when I was back in high school and getting heartbroken by a girl – such a small thing, such a small thing.” After a short conversation, he told the viewers to focus on himself.
Another viewer told Gabriel he was nervous to start high school. “Oh, don’t worry about it too much,” Gabriel said. “I used to worry about that too, but now you look back at high school. It didn’t mean much at all, dude. Just be yourself.”
It may be one of the oldest pieces of advice, but just being himself has worked for Gabriel. He achieved his dream of playing in the NHL and now he has an opportunity to play for his hometown team. But the Newmarket boy knows it will be a challenge to make the Maple Leafs roster. However, he seems to thrive when challenged. It would’ve been easier to keep the black tape on his stick and not to design his skates with social issues. It would be easier to stay quiet when the haters start trolling him on social media. But that’s not who he is. Gabriel is taking his own advice and just being himself.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.