“It’s hard to be different in the NHL”: Six former National Hockey League players discuss conformity in relation to the lack of openly gay players in the league

As part of my postdoctoral work on LGBTQ inclusion in hockey at the University of Alberta, I had the opportunity to interview six former National Hockey League (NHL) players. This is part of the same study in the context of which I wrote a post about openly gay competitive ice hockey players. My goal was to interview current NHL players, but to make a long story short, that didn’t happen. I asked participants to reflect on their professional careers and discuss the argument that hockey encourages problematic attitudes and behaviours associated with masculinity such as homophobia and sexism. I also asked them why they thought there are still no openly gay players in the league. While my questions produced a range of interesting responses, the interviewees often came back to the fact that, regardless of representations of masculinity and their own opinions of homosexuality in hockey, it is not advisable to stand out in any manner that will draw attention away from the team and its quest for success. I will briefly introduce the participants (using pseudonyms) and drill down into this idea of standing out.

The interviews took place either in person or on the telephone and they lasted between 20 and 75 minutes each. Together, the participants had a combined total of twenty-nine seasons in the NHL ranging from the 1980s to early 2000s. Terry spent approximately fifteen seasons playing between the 1990s and 2000s. Martin and Bill were active in the NHL for approximately ten and twenty seasons respectively during the 1980s and 1990s. Jacques, Ken, and Cecil each played one to two seasons in the league during the early 2000s. Demographically, all six were born in Canada, spoke English, and were over the age of thirty-five. Four of them had a post-secondary education. They all identified as white, although one added that one of his parents identified otherwise (left vague for anonymity purposes). Lastly, they all identified as heterosexual and classified themselves as either married, divorced, or in a long-term relationship.

Being different isn’t always a good thing.
Five of the six former NHL players—all but Bill—discussed homosexuality in relation to the general challenge of being ‘different’ in the NHL; exhibiting character traits or behaviours that do not fit with those of the rest of the team. This could even include drawing extra media attention (think PK Subban) because competitive male ice hockey players are unofficially expected to be humble and put the team ahead of themselves. On a more serious level, according to the five participants in question, to identify as openly gay has the same illogical yet negative connotations as situations such as being injured, having mental health issues, or drug and alcohol abuse problems. These are all matters that can be seen as weaknesses that take away from an athlete’s focus and performance. The athlete is then considered damaged and is thus a detriment to team success. Ken succinctly stated that, in general, “it’s hard to be different in the NHL—outside the confined lines they draw for you”. This phrase prompted me to dig deeper into the ways in which the NHL creates parameters or expectations for its athletes.

When I asked Jacques about the necessity to fit in among teammates, he shared that something as simple as being educated and seeking knowledge can be considered a distraction. For example, he overheard a conversation in the American Hockey League (AHL) about how an athlete had not performed well on the ice because he had been reading a philosophy book before the game, which apparently was a distraction to team success. Jacques thought that these mentalities were unfounded “old school stupidity”. He believed that those who are uneducated or somehow sheltered, as well as the older generation at the helm of professional hockey, are narrow-minded and choose not to make room for things they do not understand—such as homosexuality…or philosophy.

Ken, Cecil, and Martin suggested that, since to be gay is to be different, there is value in examining how the NHL has handled other ‘differences’ among its athletes in order to predict how an openly gay athlete may be received. They offered examples such as sexual abuse victims, perpetrators of crime, or athletes with mental illness and concussions. For example, Cecil stated the following in his example about athlete crime:

There’s no sample pool to pull from [no previous openly gay players], so you have to gauge it on other things: how teams and players have welcomed ex cons, how they’ve welcomed people that have been arrested for DUI’s, for manslaughter, domestic violence—stuff like that. How many chances did Theo Fleury get? Granted, it’s not [the same as homosexuality], but there’s nothing to pull from, so you have to gauge it on…well, when there’s been adversity…how have the players and teams dealt with it?

Similarly, Martin uses the term ‘culture of fear’ to refer to the overarching ways in which professional hockey players’ identities are policed. He offers misunderstandings of mental illness and sexual abuse in the following example of why athletes may remain closeted or suffer in silence:

There’s a fear and a culture that doesn’t allow people to be vulnerable—in whatever it is. And I think when you show vulnerability, at least back in the day, that shows weakness. I mean guys have just started talking about how they struggled with mental illness, you know? And people have confused pedophilia with sexual abuse, male on male, and homosexuality has nothing to do with that! […] But when people live in sustained toxic and stressful environments for the majority of their life, that’s the way their brains get built and we wonder why they can’t shut them off or why they struggle with this or struggle with that.

The bottom line for Jacques, Ken, Cecil, and Martin was that if two athletes have the same skills, but one is dealing with any of the above issues, that athlete will not be prioritized. Moreover, when an athlete has worked his entire life to get to the NHL and is making millions of dollars in an arguably short career span, it is simply easiest to silently play through the adversity, whatever it may be.

Being gay might not always be great either.
While I saw value in the participants’ points of view, they didn’t necessarily account for the disproportionate use of homosexualization to insult or ridicule teammates and opponents alike. For example, at the risk of sounding facetious, I’m relatively confident that I’ve heard far more taunts of ‘faggot’ and ‘cocksucker’ than things like ‘head trauma victim’ and ‘depression case’. For me, although homosexuality may very well sit on a list of things that somehow render an athlete less valuable, it seemed to me that to be accused of or perceived as gay was somehow worse. I brought this up to Jacques and he helped me reason it out—no matter what makes the hockey player different from the others, it is grounds to call him or accuse him of being gay. He recalled that a member of the leadership group on his Major Junior team told teammates that an opponent was gay because he played the violin. This set off a connection in my brain to my conversation with Bill.

You’ll recall that I said all six participants except Bill viewed homosexuality as one of many things that could cause an NHL player to be cast aside. Bill viewed the situation differently. When asked why he thought there were no openly gay men in the NHL, he responded that he didn’t have an explanation because there was a possibility that there have been no gay men in the league to begin with—not even closeted ones. In other words, he didn’t interpret homosexuality as part of a list of things that make athletes different since, to his knowledge, this difference may not even exist. Something else he said stayed with me, though. After having suggested that there were no gay NHL players, he spoke to me about how sometimes he perceived former teammates as gay because he never saw them with women or even just because they didn’t demonstrate a physical style of play on the ice. That’s when I put it all together: to be seen as weak or vulnerable or inferior—to somehow not be okay or not be the poster child for masculinity—is to be different. And to be different is to be gay. This may sound overly philosophical, but homosexuality is at once on the list of differences as well as the explanation for them and both the proof of this and its conduit lies in anti-gay language. All six players admitted to having used anti-gay language in the past (and some in the present) and they all agreed that it was the worst form of insult out there. Some of my other work (also forthcoming) shows that although hearing anti-gay language is not the single most offensive experience that openly gay hockey players go through, that does not suggest that there is room for this kind of language in the game.

To end on a positive note…
Despite everything you’ve read here, all six former NHL players agreed that it is becoming easier to identify as openly gay in sports in general. All six also said that the risk appears greater at more competitive levels because there is more at stake—notably a hefty salary and a greater loss of privacy. All in all, Bill was confident that an openly gay teammate would be accepted while Ken, Jacques, Terry, and Martin felt that it was becoming more acceptable. Cecil is now a junior-level coach and said that although he suspects it will never be perfectly okay to be an openly gay NHL player, it is important to talk to younger players about equality and inclusion. Jacques, Terry, and Martin believed that it was important to use their identities as former NHL players to demonstrate that not everyone would exclude an openly gay teammate and that they saw evidence of the culture changing. They indicated that this was also the reason they elected to be interviewed for this project—they wanted to get the word out that not everyone is prejudiced. These six athletes certainly do not speak for the whole group, so I will not claim to have had any major revelations about the current state of homophobia and anti-gay attitudes in the NHL, but I am pleased with my work for two reasons. First, I believe that researchers in this area should listen to anyone who is willing to speak because the hockey community can be so insular and difficult to access that I will take as few or as many interviewees as I can just to keep the conversation about this subject going. Second, these findings are consistent with all of my previous findings: some athletes are more comfortable than others with the idea of having an openly gay teammate but it’s evident that it is indeed becoming safer to be openly gay in ice hockey.


7 thoughts on ““It’s hard to be different in the NHL”: Six former National Hockey League players discuss conformity in relation to the lack of openly gay players in the league

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  2. Beautifully written Cheryl. The acceptance of society as a whole and the disdain to use homosexualization as insults more than ever before is a step in the right direction. The sport as a whole struggles to accept different personalities which contributes to the same old responses to the same old interviews week in and week out.

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