As Hockey Is For Everyone month comes to a close, I’m reflecting on my experience with the You Can Play Project , Pride Tape, and the Edmonton Oilers’ Pride Night/You Can Play Night. For almost five years now, my academic research has been on attitudes towards homosexuality in boys’ and men’s ice hockey, so I’m at the epicentre of this massive LGBTQ+ inclusion movement and it’s my job to investigate its inner workings and effectiveness and what it all means. I’ll talk about my experiences on the activist front first and then move in to my interpretation of the initiative based on what I’ve seen within it and my academic research on the subject.
The You Can Play Project
Briefly, the You Can Play Project (YCP) is an organization that promotes the inclusion of all athletes regardless of sexual orientation. It could be thought of as comparable to Athlete Ally for those who are familiar with these initiatives. It was first known in the hockey community because it was founded in part by Patrick Burke, the son of current Calgary Flames President of Hockey Operations, Brian Burke following the death of Patrick’s brother, Brendan, who was an openly gay hockey player.
I got involved with YCP because I’m currently the resident postdoctoral researcher in building inclusive sporting communities at the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services. Incidentally, it’s here that the rainbow coloured hockey tape, Pride Tape, was created (along with the help of Calder Bateman Communications Ltd.) and its partial proceeds go to YCP. In any case, my position at the University is partnered with YCP because they’re interested in the systematic and academic analysis of homophobia in sport, so I was made an official Ambassador for the organization. In that role, my job was to organize fundraising events for YCP and give informational presentations on the acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ+ athletes in sport. I’ve since been named co-chair of the organization’s Western Canadian Board and I am also involved in activities on the Eastern end as well from time to time. As co-chair, I still do the work of an Ambassador, but I’m also a point of contact for other Ambassadors who want to be connected to certain people or throw around ideas for fundraising and presentations.
Although I’m working on a couple other projects with YCP, the bulk of my involvement has been in and around hockey. In Edmonton, where I currently live, that meant being part of the Oilers’ Pride Night. As part of the NHL’s initiative to communicate that “hockey is for everyone” regardless of how they identify in any way (not just gender or sexuality), the league chose to highlight its partnership with YCP, which began in 2013, by creating an Ambassador position on every team and encouraging You Can Play Nights, where inclusion would be celebrated and Pride Tape could be used and sold at a game.
The Oilers’ YCP night was on Valentine’s Day (because ‘love is love’) against the Arizona Coyotes. The players used Pride Taped sticks in warmups, the team showed a YCP video, Pride Tape was on sale, a kid skated around with a Pride flag, and the flag was also superimposed on the ice. The day before, the Oilers hosted a press conference featuring former captain Andrew Ference, team YCP Ambassador Matt Hendricks, Oilers Entertainment Group Vice-Chairman Kevin Lowe, myself, and Dr. Kriss Wells, who is a co-creator of Pride Tape and Faculty Director of the Institute where I work. Andrew Ference has been involved with YCP for a while now. We all discussed the importance of inclusion and how great it is that Edmonton has become a hub for the initiative. On a personal level, it felt so great to be part of a group that had a hard-hitting platform on which to communicate that hockey must be an inclusive sport. While I’d like to think that hordes of people are reading my doctoral thesis, the reality is that the hockey community will pay attention to the Oilers more than anyone else—they have the best shot at reaching naysayers through this initiative. Here are a few photos and the video that Oilers TV made after the event:
Are Pride Tape and You Can Play Effective?
Are homophobia and homonegativity less of a problem in the hockey community? Are Pride Nights creating change? Why are there still no openly gay players in the NHL? Is this all lipservice or perhaps a big PR stunt? I hadn’t thought much about it until the invention of Pride Tape. I want to say up front that I think Pride Tape is a wonderful show of support for LGBTQ+ athletes and I’m pleased that it has caught on. And no one paid me to say that. Most importantly, as I have gotten to know the people connected with Pride Tape and YCP, I have been impressed with their dedication to making sport a safer and more inclusive community and their support of one another’s ideas and activities. I’ve only met Andrew Ference twice, but he’s the kind of person who listens to you as if he’s looking into your soul when you speak to him. He’s interested in research and in helping the initiative any way he can and is an excellent leader in the hockey community from my perspective.
Having said that, it’s not lost on me that there is a difference between taping your stick and not being homonegative and/or heterosexist. We know from the work of social scientist Samantha King out of Queen’s University—specifically her book, Pink Ribbons Inc. (2006)—that initiatives like the NFL’s breast cancer campaign “work to mitigate cultural anxieties about race, crime, and violence that are commonly connected to professional football (and basketball)” and not always just to battle breast cancer. I got that quotation from Hockey In Society contributor Matt Ventresca’s blog post that connects King’s work to the NHL’s Movember campaign because I couldn’t articulate it any better (read his piece here).
While hockey teams often participate in ‘pink in the rink’ and similar initiatives, it’s this new push towards combatting homophobia that is making waves. Hockey is not known—arguably—for criminal activity and violence against women like other male professional sports; It’s known for casual homophobic language and the kind of anti-femininity that requires homosexuality to articulate it. With this in view, is Pride Tape and a partnership with YCP a way of easing cultural anxieties about hockey breeding or encouraging homonegativity and heterosexism? Or is hockey culture beginning to embrace inclusion in a big way? Is it both? I plan to conduct research on just that at some point in the near future. I’m currently working on converting it from an idea to a theory-driven empirical investigation.
Here is my take on the situation: My research with male youth ice hockey players (see my blog post on it here) shows that their attitudes towards homosexuality are all different. The population I worked with had never had an openly gay teammate, but based on speculation, some were open to the idea, some were unsure, and some were not comfortable with it at all. Something they could all agree on is that they frequently used casual homophobic language (like calling something ‘gay’ or calling someone a ‘fag’), but it was in no way connected to their actual attitudes towards sexual orientation. Moreover, some communicated that although they have no problems with homosexuality, it is easier to keep quiet about it in dressing rooms where inclusion is less favourable so as not to be belittled or singled out.
My inclination is that if younger generations still haven’t achieved a fully comfortable engagement with it, there is a good chance that the adults in hockey culture haven’t either because they grew up in an even more judgmental atmosphere than the teenagers with whom I spoke. With that said, the idea has been thrown around that there are gay men in the NHL and that their teammates know about it and support them. Should this claim hold weight, I’m left thinking that perhaps hockey fans are not all supportive or that team authorities don’t want to cause a commotion with an announcement of this magnitude (i.e. the players aren’t the problem).
I think that a significant challenge for Pride Tape and YCP is the fact that the initiative is not always set up in such a way that it reaches populations that don’t share our stance on making sport safe and inclusive, but I also don’t think that’s necessarily their responsibility either. What I mean by that is the initiative seeks like-minded people to raise awareness (and there are a lot of them, which is amazing) but society can be so divisive in the sense that if you don’t like or agree with something, you have the right to change the channel or read different news sources or not follow someone on Twitter or not attend your team’s Pride Night and cut out entirely anyone who doesn’t agree with you.
In my opinion, it’s important to do more than raise awareness; we need to seek out and educate and have dialogue with people who don’t support LGBTQ+ inclusion because my experience shows that homonegativity is no longer an absolute product of hate and prejudgment. It’s better described as a lack of understanding and experience and the teenagers with whom I spoke had made uninformed assumptions about having a gay teammate, such as their fear that said individual would be defacto sexually attracted to them after seeing them naked in the team showers. Those were the same ones who hadn’t really bothered looking into YCP despite knowing what it was because it was easy to avoid it. I don’t see this situation as a fault of the initiative, however—only a challenge. And like I said, I’m not sure it’s their job. YCP, in particular, does offer the informational presentations and I think academics like me should be more responsible for trying to reach out to people and get a sense of their attitudes towards the queer community and then come back to YCP to discuss outreach strategies. Pride Tape and YCP, as far as I’m concerned, are doing their job by making a lot of noise and showing people, one arena and one hockey stick at a time, that like it or not, everyone deserves the chance to play hockey and feel like they belong in the community.
What I’m trying to say…
Is the hockey community still as heteronormative and exclusive as we’ve known it to be? No, not really. Am I convinced that Pride Tape and YCP are changing the world? Yes, slowly but surely alongside other means of doing so. Is the movement over represented by people who support it and under represented in terms of the voices of people who don’t support it? Absolutely—those are the people in whom I’m interested. What will it take to convince them that hockey is for everyone? I think there is still a lot of work to be done and this is why no players have come out. But we’re off to a strong and impressive start where the NHL is concerned and I think that with a bit more critical thinking and strategizing, we’re going to keep seeing change in the hockey community in leaps and bounds. But we can’t make that first player come out–it’s a lot of pressure. Maybe it will be someone who is already out and works their way up to the NHL instead? I have no idea. I just know that the outlook is positive and I’m happy and fortunate to be working alongside of people that think my research is important and are also committed to making hockey and the hockey community safer and more enjoyable.