This article was written by Kirsten Staple, who is part of the Professional Hockey Writers Association x To Hockey With Love Mentorship Program. This program pairs aspiring writers with established members of the association across North America to create opportunities for marginalized people that do not traditionally get published on larger platforms covering hockey.
To Hockey With Love is a weekly newsletter covering a range of topics in hockey – from the scandals of the week to providing a critical analysis of the sport.
As a Black woman, I’ve heard my fair share of comments about my love of hockey. “Really? You watch hockey?”; “Hockey is such a white sport”; “Black people don’t like hockey.” Despite what people say, hockey isn’t a one-size-fits-all sport and the same can be said for the fanbase. Hockey fans (and players too) come from many different backgrounds and our love for the game transcends all boundaries. As the players and fans continue to diversify, we must revisit the uncomfortable reality of hockey culture. It is rooted in many different social and economic issues with a long history of baked-in prejudices. In order for hockey to continue to grow, especially amongst those who are marginalized, these problems must be acknowledged and addressed.
In the spirit of (and my personal pursuit of) changing hockey culture, I sat down with Brock McGills, the first professional men’s hockey player to publicly come out as gay, and Kurtis Gabriel, a recently retired NHL player and ally to those who are from marginalized communities, to discuss what changing hockey culture looks like from a player’s perspective.
Note: Some questions and answers has been edited for length, clarity, and redundancy
Do you think the current state of hockey culture is trending in a positive direction? Why or why not?
Brock McGillis: “There are things in hockey culture that give me hope. For instance, the uproar that we saw in Canada over the 2018 World Junior team and the alleged actions of players on that club led to Canada saying, ‘We don’t tolerate this.’ In the past, that wasn’t necessarily the case. We hadn’t seen that happen before. There are people in this culture that give me hope, programs like this (To Hockey With Love, the PHWA Writing Mentorship Program) to engage marginalized folks to write about the sport and share the sport through a different lens. The fact that teams and leagues call me to go in gives me hope.
“But every time I get hopeful, I see things like Mitchell Miller signing, and it makes me think, ‘What is happening?’ And I experienced in my own life gatekeeping and different things where I’m like, ‘Are we headed in the right direction or do we have people spouting out what they have to say in bad faith?’ This is across hockey culture, not necessarily any particular league or team. And then, I start questioning where we’re actually at. I have no doubt in my mind that things are going to get progressively worse before it gets better. I think it needs to. I think we need to see it; we need to look at it, the good, bad and the ugly.
“After we stare it in its eyes, we have to make a conscious effort to say that this isn’t OK. I think there are people out there willing and who want to do that. There’s a lot of people who are scared of change who are holding it back and gatekeeping. There’s so many different factors at play. Whether it’s better today or not, I don’t know. I think more stuff is coming to light, so it seems worse, but the fact that it’s coming to light, is that a blessing? Does that mean that we’re getting somewhere? I think the answer is nuanced and can be looked at through a number of different lenses, but ultimately I think progress is happening in incremental steps and at a slow pace.”
Kurtis Gabriel: “Brock hit on a lot of it there. I agree 100 percent. To add from a recent player’s perspective, being in the locker room, I was very outspoken about what I do. There wasn’t language to the point where I had to make a big fuss about it. If a guy said something he looked at me and apologized right away if I was in the vicinity. I explained to them really quickly why that’s not OK, and guys were accepting of that. That’s positive.
“I think the politics and politicization of all these things, human rights, the right, the left…A lot of hockey players as we know, come from conservative backgrounds, white families with money. I think it’s almost to the point now where a lot of guys know that a lot of their beliefs are questionable. They know they and their families see the world through a different lens than the way society is going. I think because of how people with conservative views talk about cancel culture, not only is it misplaced, but it stops them from having conversations about it. Out of fear. It stagnates change. I just wish we could finally realize for once that these issues should NEVER be political, and religious beliefs should NEVER hold any weight and govern how others live their lives. Nobody says you can’t be religious. Knock yourself out, but stop thinking you can tell others how to live and thinking you are doing your god’s work. You are not supposed to judge anyone else. So damn hypocritical.”
Brock, I know you do some work with junior teams, but would you ever do a training/workshop on combating homophobia for NHL players or athletes from different sports (i.e.. NBA)?
McGillis: “Yes. I want those doors (opened) so bad. …Hockey is predominantly white with both players and staff, so there isn’t a strong comprehension of racism, there isn’t a strong comprehension that the things that they say could be harmful, sexist, misogynistic etc. You look at basketball, they probably have a greater comprehension of racism as a lived experience for the vast majority of players, whereas they might be at the same level of comprehension of homophobia and misogyny and sexism…When you haven’t lived it, you have to have it humanized for you to get a better grasp of it.
“If everyone in our circle is just like us, like in hockey, they’re all assumed to be straight, cis gender, majority white men. How are they supposed to have this comprehension, if they’re together every day, of the impact of this language and behaviors on a gay person in that space? It’s no different than basketball players who have similar assumptions about being straight, cis gender, in baseball, in football too.
“The vast majority of people are good by nature. I think if we humanize issues, they’ll see it and rally around it. Like with Kurtis, things were humanized for him and he became a vocal supporter and advocate and ally to communities because he heard people’s lived experiences. So, if we recognize that and if I could get in those doors, I would love to reach people and follow up with education; I think that (education) matters and can change language, behaviors, and attitudes. The impact of influencing younger players would matter and then when they retire and they’re running teams, coaching teams and they’re influencing others, it will matter. I would love to get to every sport. I would love to share my story. I’ll go anywhere, anytime to speak and share.”
Do you think that the expose of Hockey Canada is the catalyst for major changes within hockey culture?
McGillis: “I think it can be. I think it’s the first time we’ve seen people incensed to this magnitude. Most people think that they’re good by nature and I think most people are, but they see people around them do bad things and go, ‘Well that’s not me, that’s (not) my son’s friend, (not) my daughter’s friend etc. I have nothing to do with that.’ It wasn’t until they recognized that their dollars were being used to silence victims or potential victims of sexual assault that they then became incensed, angry, outraged.
I think there’s going to be a serious push across this country (Canada) to fix it. I think the fact that the government has stepped in, that they’re not letting this go, that they’re going to continue to do what they’re doing, is going to be a huge factor. I think the fact that a lot of sponsors pulled out of Hockey Canada and when we start to look behind the curtain of provincial bodies, of local associations etc., I think they’re going to start pulling out elsewhere too until it’s all cleaned up.
“Everyone better get their stuff together quickly because I think it’s a snowball (effect). I don’t think it’ll stop at Hockey Canada at this point; I think there’s too much money and investment and corporations are looking at it, saying, ‘How do we look funding this? How do Canadians look funding this?’ I think this could be the catalyst. I’ve also seen a member of the nomination committee that puts forth the names for the Board of Directors say that ‘We’re going to use the same criteria to pick the next board.’ So, there’s still the same people kind of influencing the culture. Will it change? Time will tell but I think it’s the first time that I have a belief that it could, and that excites me.”
Gabriel: “I think the same thing. Another thing to realize is that if you don’t have a basic knowledge on all of these issues, enough to pass by in society, in your career, you run a risk of losing your career. I think it’s another reason why people, the players need to wake up, to not sleep on these things, to not think they’re entitled to the whole world. I think every single thing like this makes hockey culture better. It’s painful and it’s awful, it sucks and it’s not surprising, it’s going to continue to happen until it gets better. It’s getting worse until it gets better.”
In wake of the recent signing of Mitchell Miller by the Boston Bruins and his subsequent removal from the team, what are your thoughts on the concept of accountability culture and redemption arcs within hockey?
Gabriel: “I love how you used ‘accountability culture’ because that’s exactly what it is…Gotta hold players accountable, it’s very clear. Some think that they can get away with it, the whole, ‘He’s a good player, we looked into it, it’s fine, it’s brushed over,’ and then they get hammered for it. I think it’s amazing that it was dealt with the way that it was, but it’s another reason for everyone to wake up and realize that you can’t just be casual about any of these situations anymore…and everything needs to be well thought of.
“You need people in your organizations or you need to outsource people like Brock and pay them what they deserve to be paid to navigate these situations properly. If you don’t, you lose a lot of public credibility and it comes back down to money where it hurts them the most. I thought it was bad but good. I think the media is holding these things accountable, I think everyone’s woken up to it and it shouldn’t slip by anymore.”
McGillis: “In my mind, I can’t speak for everyone but I can only go for me. As a gay man, how I feel when I see homophobic slurs or homophobia happening, there’s always going to be a part of me that will resent that person. I can learn to forgive but I won’t forget. I can only forgive if there’s a form of restorative justice with the victim – in other words: two-party consent, where there’s true atonement for things that they do, not just checking boxes in order to get in the good graces enough to get an NHL or professional contract. Once they’ve atoned, (they) continue to engage in communities and don’t just shut things out at that point. Once you have atoned, it means you’ve been working with these groups, things should be humanized for you and you should be rallying around it and championing change for those groups.
“For me, I can’t speak on how Black or disabled folks feel about Mitchell Miller because I’m not Black nor do I have disabilities. It’s not my place to speak on it, other than that it’s horrific. In my mind, he’s done nothing to justify deserving anything in the sport; it’s an honor, it’s a privilege to play hockey. For me, as a queer person, I think everyone, if they atone properly, effectively and they engage with victims, deserves an opportunity to be a better human being and if that includes hockey at some point, sure.
“I think I’m more about the reform than punitive. I think it makes the world a better place and we can hopefully teach people to be better people. In some cases, you can’t and they don’t deserve that opportunity. Also, I think there has to be genuine empathy and compassion by that person… I will say this, I think the sport loves a redemption story, loves it, I think we see all too often, whether it’s abusers, people who have been homophobic, racist, people who have assaulted etc., we’re quick to give them that second chance and I think even in a lot of instances, media members are too. To me, it’s like…creating a story arc for someone instead of them doing the work and the steps to unlearn/eradicate/shift their attitudes and behaviors to become better human beings and then the story will write itself. We can’t be out here, looking and trying to write these redemption stories. We’ve got to let people write their own stories.”
What are your thoughts on the “tough it out” mentality that exists around injuries and hockey culture? How can this mentality be changed?
Gabriel: “As far as the injuries, I say that responsibility falls on the player. If you can play, and want to play, that’s your choice. Teams are always gonna want guys to push it in crunch time for the betterment of the team. That’s not going to change. But if the injury could get worse and threaten your career, you’ve got to look out for yourself. Call the people you need to: agent, NHLPA. Teams, for sure, should then realize the situation and respect the decisions, but there are always going to be differences of opinion in this area. There is a huge gray area. Hockey is arguably one of the top few toughest sports to play on the planet. You have to know the risks and understand how to navigate it. Just my opinion.”
McGillis: “I think it starts at a young age. We celebrate and glorify it. It’s in the media, it’s in the sport, it’s in the culture, it’s on the coaches. Young players learn how to rush back from injury. I say don’t rush back, don’t play through serious injury. I know some people go, ‘Well, I did it, my generation did it,’ and it’s fine for them, but I look at myself. I’m 39 years old, I’m in physio two to three days a week, from injuries from hockey that I had cortisone shots for and different things. Everyone I know is in the same boat and they can be semi-debilitating at times.
“It’s really foolish that we glorify and celebrate people doing long-term damage to their body for a short-term gain. Granted, playing sports in general, you’re doing long-term damage to your body for short-term gain. However, some of this is preventable and we should be emphasizing, almost celebrating those who take the time to come back healthy. Although you have a small window of a career, rushing back, playing hurt and never reaching 100 percent of your ability again is probably worse for you than sitting out an extra three weeks or a month or the rest of the season and getting back to 100 percent.”
Do you think hockey is doing enough when it comes to mental health?
Gabriel: “I think massive strides have been made in mental health. I have seen a few players take leaves of absence when they needed it for mental health reasons, come back, get back in shape and play again. Also, the NHLPA has it set up that any player can access any mental health help they need, and it extends to your immediate family in your household. I take advantage of that and it has been a massive benefit.
“Robin Lehner being open and honest about his struggles, as well as Tyler Motte, and the list goes on, have helped break down this barrier more. I think we all need to work to continue to break down the stigma surrounding mental health because it touches every single one of us.”
McGillis: “I don’t think we teach our kids at a young age to share that. I know so many kids when they go to Triple A, junior etc. would hide their struggles, be scared to tell their families, out of fear that it would get out. Then, that would lead to people thinking that they’re mentally weak and that weakness is then used against them in the drafts, in picking teams, in write-ups on players.
“Is that culture shifting? Yes, slightly. Are we getting to a place where people are starting to open up a little more? Yes. Do I think we have a long way to go until it’s a conversation that doesn’t have any judgment associated to it when it comes to men in particular? Yeah. I think it’s seen as less masculine when we share our feelings or what we’re going through in terms of our mental health. I think society has a long way to go when it comes to that. Sports culture does as well. I think that’s why sharing my story is so important. People should feel safe opening up and get help if needed.”
What are some elements or institutions in the sport who are actually doing things right, making the right kind of changes to hockey culture?
Gabriel: “Black Girl Hockey Club is setting the example right now. I know it’s a group that Brock and I monitor, pay attention to. I think they’re doing great stuff. The Carnegie Initiative, I think they’re really good too.”
McGillis: “I agree with Kurtis. What Black Girl Hockey Club has done to create a community for Black women and women of color is pretty remarkable in the sport of hockey. It’s such an incredible thing for women of color to have a safe space for them to be themselves and engage and see people like themselves in a sport that traditionally doesn’t have Black women in it. For all of those people, it’s such a massive, huge thing. I think it’s incredible, I think it’s going to change the game. I think it’s going to revolutionize the sport. (Black Girl Hockey Club was founded in the U.S. but has also opened a Canadian chapter now, Black Girl Hockey Club Canada.)
“It makes it easier as a new fan to come in and engage and feel comfortable. It matters, that’s how we grow the sport, that’s how you bring new people. If everyone in marginalized groups brought in 10 friends, engaged them with the sport, the sport is going to be that much more diverse, that much better off. Having spaces for people who aren’t the traditional/stereotypical hockey fans really matters.
“The Carnegie Initiative is great. I’ve been in contact lately with HEROS Hockey, they have a lot of different programming with marginalized folks, for underprivileged folks, for low-income families and households etc. They do a lot and it’s great to see that they’re expanding.
“Hockey 4 Youth is another one. They’re working with a lot of new immigrants into Canada, traditionally from non-hockey playing countries, sharing the sport with them, and engaging them into hockey…as a way to feel comfortable and safe, to take part in something that’s so much a part of the culture here (in Canada). They’re new to Canada and it’s a way for them to engage in our national pastime. I think those four are all doing phenomenal work and changing the game and really making it a place for everybody.”
What do you think is the key to being a good ally and helping break down barriers for marginalized people in the sport? What can players do in the dressing room to be more of an ally for those who aren’t like them?
Gabriel: “The language is the first place to start. Eliminating that language, regardless of if it’s an inconvenient time or you deal with it at a more convenient time. Pull someone aside, talk about it but you can’t allow the language to be there. It instantly makes a space unsafe.
“Brock and I talked on a call recently with an NHL player, really open minded, a really good person, who understands that he doesn’t know it all. He recognizes that, he’s a secure man, a father, he’s like, ‘I don’t know everything but I want to learn. I’m open minded to all of this, I want the world to be a better place for my son. I don’t want him to experience this in hockey. If he comes to me and says that he’s gay, I want him to understand that this is a safe place for him, regardless of how he identifies.’ We need people who are open minded like that. It starts with the language but allies can be compassionate and empathic people. That’s all it is, just be open minded to it. Don’t make it a political thing; human rights should never be that, it should have never gotten there, a lot of guys get involved in that stuff.
“Just be open minded and willing to grow like we all need to be in life. Life is just constant learning. If you’re not learning or adding to it, you’re dying.”
McGillis: “From my perspective, I don’t think there’s such a thing as a perfect ally because I don’t think there’s such a thing as a perfect person. I think as a whole, we have to recognize that. I’m not a perfect advocate, activist, whatever my term is.There’s no handbook or manual to being a good ally, to be a good advocate for any of it. It’s about constantly learning, growing, and evolving. It’s about engaging and learning, learning on your own but also learning from people and diversifying your train of thought.
“Critical analysis, I think, is really key…There’s no perfect science, it’s not easy but gradually that helps with allyship. To Kurtis’ point, language is the first step. It’s very easy for someone to say those things. I talk about three ways to be a shiftmaker: (1) Humanize issues, (2) Create a good environment, (3) Break down barriers for conformity. If we look at humanizing issues, if someone says something homophobic, you could scream at them, which I don’t believe in, because I don’t think it’s effective. I think there’s times to yell, times to riot but if we want to get a message across, the first time shouldn’t be screaming. I think we can engage and educate instead of creating barriers of communication, we can open it up. We can humanize that issue so that someone can go, ‘Hey, isn’t your sister queer or don’t you have a gay uncle?’ and go, ‘How would they feel if you used that language?’
“Then we can critically think, and then they’re going to start learning lessons of what to say and not to say and the impact of it because it’s hurting their relative, the person in their lives. We bring them back to the humanization aspect of it. Then they’re going to recognize that there is someone in their space that they’re going to want to keep safe: this space with their buddies, people they care about, their teammates. They have to switch the way they talk because they realize that it could be any one of them.
“From there, if we all embrace the fact that we’re weirdos and we embrace that we’re all individuals and not this hockey robot, we’re going to be less likely to judge others for their differences, which ultimately creates better allies because now we’ve stopped judging and we’re not alone. It makes you a better person, which ultimately makes you an ally to speak out on different things if you’re not judging people. When you see other people who are, it’s going to make you uncomfortable.”
What can be done at the grassroots level to make the sport more open and inclusive going forward?
Gabriel: “Hockey Canada runs all of the hockey in Canada… hockey in Canada needs to have a set protocol. The kids are the future. Kids are already doing things, you see amazing things all of the time, kids wearing pride tape on their sticks and it says a lot. I think it needs to be mandated all through those levels, not just the players but the coaches too. The coaches are from an older generation that are a product of it.
“Like Brock says, ‘We don’t fault the individuals, they’re products of the culture for the most part.’ It needs to start at the top with the NHL doing it and it needs to start at the bottom with Hockey Canada doing their due diligence of putting these programs in place together for all teams to know the basics. It’s just part of it. There’s a certain age you’ve got to start at: How to bodycheck, how to do this, how to do that, how to treat your teammates, how to make the locker room an inclusive space, it all helps the team win. It’s a big cycle; if you have a more inclusive team and every kid knows how to treat everyone, players are going to get along better together.”
McGillis: “At a grassroots level, people say that they put their children in hockey to learn work ethic and teamwork and discipline and learning from a boss or coach. All of these are wonderful characteristics that you should learn from hockey, but why can’t they learn how to engage with people who are different than themselves? Why can’t that be something that they learn? Because the reality is No. 1, The vast majority of these kids aren’t going to make a dime from playing hockey. Less than one percent will. No. 2, They’re going to end up in the real world and the real world is diverse. They should be more open about these things. Even in their space, the more inclusive they are, the more they can be themselves and the happier they are, the happier their teammates are.
“I think the way things are set up in hockey are incredibly selfish. There’s a saying that goes, ‘You play for the logo on the front, not the name on the back,’ but if you don’t allow people to embrace their individuality, suppressing it from them, that’s actually selfish in my mind. Opposite of individuality is one person’s perspective of what a team should be. So, after we recognize the need for all of that, I think what they need to do is humanize issues, and once they do, people want to rally and engage further because they’ll realize that this matters. At that point, we can educate them.
“When people step out of line or do the wrong thing – which is inevitable, none of us are perfect, we all screw up – for those that can be reformed, from there, we will set up a much better culture that’s inclusive, supportive, celebrates us as individuals while also recognizing that we’re all there for the same goal of wanting this team to succeed. We can embrace everyone’s uniqueness and be themselves.”