Preparing the way for a gay athlete in the NHL

On June 16, Harrison Mooney of Puck Daddy posted a blog claiming that the NHL’s stance against individuality is a big factor in preventing the first openly gay player. The piece uses eccentric goaltenders Ilya Bryzgalov and Tim Thomas as examples of how players expressing their individualities hurt their teams and puts a black mark on the league, as though wishing to be accepted simply for who a player is and causing distractions to teammates with behavior can possibly be considered the same thing.

Mooney opens the article discussing the recently retired Nicklas Lidstrom and how his easygoing nature meant he was a no-maintenance player and, therefore, was never a distraction. Upon the legendary defenseman’s retirement:

(Detroit GM Ken) Holland called Lidstrom a “no-maintenance” player.

It was a great quote, a testament to Lidstrom’s ability to drive the Red Wings’ success without ever making himself the center of attention, and it was trumpeted as a model for present and future NHL players. But at the same time, it’s important to note that the Lidstrom approach isn’t for everybody. Not every player is muted, and I think it does a disservice to progress to trumpet Lidstrom’s quiet way as the only way.

Most notably, I can’t help but think that if I were a gay hockey player, it’s sentiment of this sort that would make me wary to come out.

Who wants to stand out in a league where standing out is perceived as a problem? The league wants no-maintenance players, and the disclosure of an alternate sexuality is going to require maintenance.

What Mooney inadvertently alluded to here, and later on in the article by referencing Bryzgalov and Thomas, is that any gay player will require maintenance and will be placing his individuality before the betterment of his team. 

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Well, who’s to say a gay player wouldn’t be just as low-maintenance as Lidstrom? There would undoubtedly be a media firestorm as soon as an announcement is made, but that does not necessarily call for a distraction. There’s attention placed on individuals over teams all the time, but it does nothing to deter franchises from succeeding.

Since the 2004-05 lockout, significantly more attention has been given to Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby than any other player. From his high point totals and Stanley Cup win in 2009 to his recent concussion problems and perceived whining, there is always something to be said about him. Meanwhile, despite a constant barrage of questions directed towards his teammates, Pittsburgh has become one of the most successful franchises over the past six seasons.

You could even argue that, through no fault of his own, Crosby has developed into a high-maintenance player with all of his concussion tests. But his teammates didn’t crumble under the pressure of having the spotlight all over Crosby, they took it in stride and banded together through the adversity.

To say the NHL does not embrace unique players is not an entirely true statement. Yes, NHL management, media and players dislike individuality, but that disdain is reserved for how players act, not for who they are.

Here’s the difference: A player’s identity is part of him since birth. He can’t help that. Whether he’s gay or straight, black or white, or whatever nationality, it’s how he’s born, and the NHL is typically not a league to discourage a player from playing because of it.

What a player can help, and what truly irks others, is how he acts. People didn’t get fed up with Bryzgalov because he’s from Russia, they got fed up because he spent more time contemplating how small we are in this “humangous big” universe than stopping pucks and publically acknowledged that the Flyers had a better chance of winning the Winter Classic if he didn’t play. Everyone loved the All-American Thomas, but when he skipped a team event at the White House, he gained more than a few enemies and continues to baffle others by his decision to take a year off from hockey. His reasoning may seem sound, but losing touch with family and friends is something every player has to deal with.

The behavior of Bryzgalov, Thomas and the exiled Sean Avery has earned the scorn of many writers and, presumably, teammates, but comparing their antics to a player announcing he is gay is just unfair. The way those players acted is in no way comparable to a player announcing he is gay. The greatest players the game has known were all unique. No one played with such a high level of speed, finesse and power before Bobby Orr, no one saw the game quite the way Wayne Gretzky was able to and no one wanted to wear a mask before Jacques Plante. They were all unique, played and thought the game in their own ways and are seen as innovators and legends today.

And if you think it’s a stretch to talk about a player solely for what he did on the ice – there’s always going to be superstars after all – then what about Larry Kwong, who became the league’s first non-white player on March 13, 1948, Willie O’Ree who became the first black player on January 18, 1958 and Ulf Sterner who became the first European player on January 27, 1965? They all received attention because of who they were and, while they may not be household names, paved the way for some of the best players in the game today. O’Ree played 45 games, Sterner four and Kwong just a single shift.

They didn’t have to be great players and they didn’t have to stand out. They made a positive difference just by being there.

Imagine if they too had felt they shouldn’t play because the NHL isn’t supportive of uniqueness. Just think of all the stars we may not be watching, players like Paul Kariya and Devin Setoguchi to Grant Fuhr and Jarome Iginla may not have had the motivation to play just because their skin colors were a bit different or their parents weren’t born in the “right” country. What if Nicklas Lidstrom, Teemu Selanne, Jaromir Jagr, Dominik Hasek, Peter Forsberg or a host of others never felt comfortable crossing the Atlantic Ocean? The NHL would be a much poorer place had a few players decided their birthrights weren’t worth defending to play a game they grew up loving.

The type of individual the NHL doesn’t like is the “me first” player. Everyone got sick of Avery’s act because he was outrageous, selfish and arrogant. Crude comments about his ex-girlfriend Elisha Cuthbert, punching players from behind, incessant diving and just generally never knowing when to keep his mouth shut eventually wore thin. Even his own teammates were annoyed by the super pest, just watch Chris Drury come over and tell him to knock it off during his infamous screen of Martin Brodeur. Avery wanted attention on himself at all times while Kwong, O’Ree and Sterner just wanted to play.

And even Avery can find it in himself to support same-sex marriage.

It’s extremely unfortunate that in this day and age, there are still people who refuse to accept others for who they are, but that is the reality. There will be negative reactions, as Mooney explained:

[S]entiment won’t be entirely positive. While I’d argue that many of us and many within the hockey community are progressive enough to accept a gay hockey player as they would anyone else, there are several that don’t share this acceptance and are simply smart enough to say nothing about it.

Consider the reception retired basketball player John Amaechi received when he came out in 2007. It was very mixed. There were those that embraced it openly, those that denounced it stupidly, such as Tim Hardaway, who said, “First of all, I wouldn’t want him on my team,” then only made worse points, and plenty of others who exposed some serious uneasiness.

 And further:

I have my doubts that anyone coming out in the NHL today would be met with only positivity. More likely, he’d see homophobic, accepting, and uneasy reactions in equal measure, and all of these would add up to the worst thing imaginable: attention.

Mooney’s right, but that doesn’t mean the sporting world at large is not ready. There will be doubters and naysayers, but when Avery, the most hated and despicable player in the NHL, can show his support for homosexual community, as well as newer initiatives such as the You Can Play Project, it stands to reason there will be overwhelming support around that hypothetical NHLer who chooses to come out during the prime of his career, both from within and outside the league.

GMs, coaches, players and prospects are all teaming up to make sure that player is welcomed and treated with respect, even before his arrival.

The player wouldn’t have to live through the same negative extremes that, say, Jackie Robinson faced because of a similarly ingrained character trait. This is the relatively inclusive and accepting world of 2012.

Sure, it wouldn’t be easy for a gay player to exist in today’s NHL; not with all the stereotypes associated with that orientation, and those reinforced by mainstream television, but there is a movement in today’s society toward acceptance rather than rejection.

Besides, this is a league where you have to fight if you look at someone’s teammate the wrong way, just imagine what would happen if an opposing player verbally attacked a gay player, not just on the ice, but also considering the NHL’s reinforced stance against homophobic slurs as a result of an altercation between Avery and Wayne Simmonds.

The You Can Play Project’s slogan is – simply enough – “If you can play, you can play,” and that’s all the first openly gay player will have to do. As long as he can avoid acting out, which the vast majority of NHL players seem capable of, and just be who he is, it’s unlikely there will be a problem.

While there may be other circumstances surrounding a player’s decision to keep quiet about his sexual orientation, a focus on individual attention is likely not one of them. There have been many innovators and pioneers in the NHL’s history who played because they wanted to and not for attention and the league has never had a problem with that. So why would it now?

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