[Cheryl’s farewell (for now) post] Some thoughts on Yanic Duplessis and why it’s not always safe to be openly gay in ice hockey

It has been approximately a year in the making, but I have slowly moved away from hockey studies. I meant to write one last piece for Hockey in Society months ago but the truth is that I wasn’t sure what to say—where to leave off, how to conclude. I spent eleven years studying masculinity and ice hockey and in some ways I’m still not ready to stop, but I think it’s time to move on, even if it’s just for now. I still have a co-edited anthology on hockey coming out in the Fall of 2021 and am still hosting the 2021 edition of the 2020 Hockey Conference, but my official hockey research has stopped.  My hockey-related media engagement has also stopped with the exception of a few interviews that I felt would shore up my profile for whatever comes next in my career.


The catalyst for my last (for now) Hockey in Society blog post
As I searched for the words to nicely package my thoughts these past few months, an important situation was developing in my hometown of Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada. A young man named Yanic Duplessis, who had played Major U18 and was drafted to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, was in the process of coming out as openly gay. My doctoral dissertation research was on attitudes towards homosexuality in Major U18 hockey in Canada, so this event seemed to be a fitting symbol of the end of my journey. It felt like in my personal little world there had been real change. As such, I’m going to use this blog post to share a bit about my indirect connection to Yanic and then, using the knowledge I have gathered to date, provide five factors that the hockey community should consider in the context of a closeted athlete. This includes governing bodies, fans, coaches, teammates, the media, the athlete, and their families. I will always be available to help with this process because for me it’s a matter of human decency, but I think this subject is a good one to address as I make my professional exit. I saved the last paragraph of this post to tell you what I’m up to next!

Having been a hockey scholar on the national stage, my personal implication in the hockey community has not always been evident. There hasn’t been much public information about things like my own short-lived playing career, which organizations I’ve volunteered with or been invited to speak to in my community, and how my friends, family, and romantic partners have been involved in the game. Arguably, none of that was relevant to my research, but in my opinion, my personal and professional lives have overlapped in many ways. Part of Yanic Duplessis’s decision to come out was motivated by seeing me and, openly gay hockey player, Brock McGillis on In Conversation with Ron McLean. Brock approached me shortly after coming out himself in 2016 and he has become one of my best friends since then. Through me, he has gotten to know another one of my good friends, Craig Eagles, who has been a local hockey coach and media personality. Yanic came out to Craig, who suggested he speak to Brock, and eventually Craig wrote the first article in which Yanic came out to the community. Yanic’s story was also covered by local media personality Francois LeBlanc, who has graciously covered my own work and who also interviewed Brock when I brought him to New Brunswick for the Saint John Sea Dogs Pride Night (thanks to General Manager Trevor Georgie). After Yanic came out, I received questions from friends and acquaintances in the community about how to support him, whether or not to reach out to him, and whether or not this is something that should be discussed with other teams. It’s perhaps self-serving of me to say, but I’m proud that my work and my connections played a small role in indirectly forging a support network that made Yanic feel safe coming out. Conversely, I am distraught by some of the hatred that this story has received online and will elaborate later on the backlash I also received. I hope that the people in charge of his care (because he is indeed a minor and not a media-trained Junior or professional athlete as some folks incorrectly stated) have been doing their best to support him as he enters a new school year, a new hockey team, and a newfound public identity all at once in the midst of a global pandemic.

Based on my research, my community outreach, my personal relationships, and my peripheral experience watching Yanic come out, I want to share my thoughts on what it is about the hockey community that makes it difficult for an athlete to identify as openly gay. I recommend that these thoughts be taken as useful information and not as systematic instructions since I am a straight woman and therefore cannot be counted on to provide an authentic account of what it means to be a gay man in the hockey community despite my proximity to the subject. Bearing all of that in mind, here are five factors that I think should be considered if you are thinking about supporting a gay athlete, if you’re a closeted athlete thinking about coming out, or if you’re looking to make the hockey community more inclusive in general:

1. The level of heterosuperiority in the boys’ and men’s competitive hockey community is dependent on an athlete’s skill and the degree to which he is able to conform to other standards of acceptable conduct. My interviews with former NHL players, openly gay hockey players, and Major U18 hockey players have all indicated that if an athlete is highly productive on the ice, his sexual orientation matters less. This is especially true at top levels of the game where winning comes first. Next, my research has also shown that openly gay players have had more luck coming out to teammates when they conform (naturally or performatively) to the hypermasculine culture that hockey fosters. The more similar you are in appearance, interests, and attitudes to everyone else, the less your sexual orientation matters. I personally take issue with this because I don’t believe an individual’s skill level or ability to fit in should put them in a position to be judged based on their sexual orientation, but this is what I have found and I think it’s something worth reflecting on as we try to navigate the struggles associated with being openly gay in the boys’ and men’s hockey community.

2. The hockey community is insular, likes to manage its reputation, and doesn’t approve of athletes drawing attention to themselves.  Some folks know through grapevine anecdotes or personal experience that hockey organizations prefer to deal with problems internally; this is how we end up with well-respected non-experts making important misguided decisions about things like inclusion in hockey. Most importantly, though, this means that teams may not want to have it sprung on them when a player comes out. To my knowledge, the players with the most positive experiences have come out to their teams first and once they established that support, they came out to the public. This way, the team-first mentality in hockey is maintained and the team or organization has some level of control over the narrative. This also saves the athlete of having their skill questioned because they are already on a roster cannot be accused of using the publicity to make a team. Relatedly, it’s considered selfish in hockey to go out on your own and garner attention. The former NHL players I’ve interviewed often offer PK Subban as an example of this; regardless of his sexual orientation, Subban’s avant-garde wardrobe, social media activity, and media attention were supposedly a distraction to the Montreal Canadiens and he was thus traded. I will not use this blog post to share my thoughts on the way Subban has been racialized, but please know that this subject is on my mind. Nonetheless, a player coming out publicly without the support of a team could be seen as individualistic and looking for attention. I disagree with this mentality and believe that certain members of the hockey community are more concerned with burying information that could give the sport a poor reputation than they are with supporting an athlete, but this, in my opinion, is the reality. Maybe if certain sectors of the sport were more inclusive, an athlete wouldn’t feel the need to step out on his own and make this announcement.

3. Media personalities assisting with an athlete’s coming out story have a major responsibility that goes beyond reporting the news or current events. While I am not a journalist, my experience as a researcher has shown me the importance of ethically and thoughtfully handling personal stories, especially among minors who may be experiencing psychological distress as a result of their situation. When possible, have the athlete write the piece and then edit it to media standards in order to preserve their voice in the story. A great example of this is Voight Demeester’s coming out article, which he wrote for Outsports. If the individual is not comfortable writing their own story, be sure to ask them questions that are logically ordered, that don’t lead them to a particular answer, and that focus on one subject at a time. Avoiding leading questions is a big one for me— to frame questions using words like “secrets”, “lies”, and “hiding” implies a kind of negativity that the individual may not want to associate with their story. Also make sure that they know they can refuse to answer any questions that make them uncomfortable and make a point to give them opportunities to add anything that you might have missed. When writing the story, I recommend avoiding a tone and structure that sensationalizes the situation, including the use of several one-sentence paragraphs. After all, this is likely one of the most important moments in the individual’s life and they should not be made to look or feel overdramatic in a culture that values humbleness and conformity. Lastly, make sure that the individual has given some thought to the timing and context of the article’s release because it will likely have a ripple effect throughout their friends, family, the media, and the hockey community, which could be overwhelming.

4. The anti-gay and anti-feminine language used in the hockey community may not be offensive to everyone, but it has to go. Both my research and my personal experiences have shown that it’s really easy to dismiss language as inoffensive when you aren’t the one being targeted by it. As a woman, I do feel offended when I hear hockey players call each other pussies and bitches because it seems to imply that they are women and they are inferior. I know the person using that language didn’t mean to offend me personally, but after hearing it often enough, it’s hard not to take it to heart. Most of the gay athletes I’ve interviewed feel the same way about anti-gay language and I have only ever heard straight athletes make the comment that society needs to stop policing it because it’s not actually harmful. It has become more widely understood that you cannot call someone the N-word, and certainly not out of a racial context, so how is this any different? The hockey community should work on getting a bit more creative with its trash talk because, in my opinion, there is absolutely no more room to put someone down at the expense of a third uninvolved party’s dignity. Some of the openly gay players I interviewed said that this kind of rhetoric was nearly entirely eliminated from the dressing room when they came out to their teammates, so there is proof that it’s possible.

5. Identifying as a gay hockey player does not automatically obligate the individual to be a spokesperson or activist. I wish this wasn’t the case because I want so desperately for younger gay athletes to have healthy role models, but the truth is that Yanic didn’t have to go to the media with his story (although he seems to have wanted that) and no one else has to either. To my knowledge, there are gay men in the NHL who don’t want to come out because they don’t want the attention—they want to live a quiet life. I can understand that; not everyone is comfortable being in the spotlight and not everyone feels equipped to speak on behalf of their whole community just because they’re a member of it. Sometimes I think that it’s easy to overlook the pressure that closeted athletes must feel to go about disclosing their sexual orientation the ‘right’ way since it’s so important to raise awareness and humanize the issue. I hope that we will one day live in a world where these kinds of announcements are no longer important.

I was never given the opportunity to speak with Yanic myself and I understand that the article was published before Brock had the chance to speak to them about the ripple effect of this event, so I cannot confirm whether or not he and his family truly considered these five factors when Craig presented them with this information. I expressed to Craig that I felt he had written a sensationalist and rushed piece and he opted to release the article anyway, stating that it’s what the family wanted. As a result, I have been accused by my community of putting Yanic at greater risk and betraying my friends and acquaintances when I knew better. But I am an adult, I know I did my best, and I will get over it. My concern here lies with Yanic and how he is doing. Thankfully he has received so much love and support from all over the world and I do believe with my whole heart that the folks in charge of his care want to do the right thing even though they may not always know how. This situation is new to almost everyone but this is how we learn, myself included.

So then, what’s next for me?
My true passion lies in supporting young athletes and I love the university environment, but I don’t like the idea of a tenure-track job. Constant teaching, research, publishing, and conferencing does not look appealing to me. As such, I have decided I’d like to get into a job that bridges athletics and academics. I want to be able to work with university student-athletes on things like personal and academic success while maintaining a teaching and research program that supports this work. The National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) has an established program for this, but there is less evidence of it in Canada. I’m hoping to change that and am available for hire once my postdoc is complete! I thought I might have a job nailed down but the pandemic has done a good job of complicating things for almost all of us. Regardless, I have chosen to reorient the remainder of my postdoctoral fellowship in preparation for this career goal. I recently launched an online study of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the lives of Atlantic University Sport (AUS) student-athletes. I want to know demographics and better understand how their activities, relationships, and mental health may have changed as a result of this experience. I’m hoping to be able to use this information to provide athletics departments and university administrators with information on how best to support student-athletes as a result of the cancellation of their seasons, some or all of their classes moving online, and their transitions back to sport participation.

Wish me luck. Maybe we’ll meet again. I love the sport and my community too much to say I’m leaving hockey studies forever. But just the same, thank you to everyone who has read my posts over the years and supported me in both my personal and professional life. I feel like I have had a positive impact on both my academic and hockey communities and despite my various challenges, I am moving forward with a full heart.

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To better understand my experiences that informed this blog post, see some of my previous Hockey in Society posts by clicking here.

2 thoughts on “[Cheryl’s farewell (for now) post] Some thoughts on Yanic Duplessis and why it’s not always safe to be openly gay in ice hockey

  1. thanks for this amazing post and for all that you’ve offered to the hockey community over the years. best of luck in the future!

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