Hockey's New Battle Against Homophobia

In the year since player Sean Avery voiced his support of gay marriage, the sport has gotten more tolerant—but the fight is just beginning.

Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke marches in Toronto's 2011 Gay Pride Parade Reuters

"If there's a kid in Canada or wherever, who is playing and really loves the game and wants to keep playing but he's worried about coming out, I'd tell him to pick up the phone and call [NHLPA executive director] Donald Fehr and tell him to book me a [plane] ticket...I'll stand beside him in the dressing room while he tells his teammates he is gay. Maybe if Sean Avery is there, they would have less of a problem with it."

–NHL player Sean Avery in a February 2011 interview with the Toronto Sun

When Adam Knoerzer and his partner were in Los Angeles to see the Pittsburgh Penguins play the L.A. Kings, last November, they found themselves sandwiched between two, seemingly incongruous parts of hockey culture. To their left was a lesbian couple, supporting the Kings. To their right was a father-and-son duo cheering for Knoerzer's Penguins, all the while talking about "what a fag the PA announcer was," Knoerzer recalls. For Knoerzer, a self-described beer-drinking, TV-screaming, show tune-hating, hockey guy who came out a decade ago, it remains a jarring, telling experience.

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"It was so bizarre being in between lesbians on my left and a father and son on the right, who are unabashedly trashing this guy because they think he's a gay and a queen," Knoerzer, 27, says. "When the Penguins scored, [the father] would give us high fives. I kept thinking, 'Would you give us a high five if I told you that this is the man I love?'"

This experience highlights the tensions that still exist among hockey fans when it comes to homosexuality. It has been a little more than a year since Sean Avery, the lightning-rod of an NHL player and gay marriage advocate, spoke out in support of gay teammates in hockey. Avery's endorsement was just one of several recent milestones in the discussion concerning the sometimes complicated relationship between players, coaches, and fans of hockey and the gay community.

"We've created an atmosphere where players can come out in support of LGBT issues," says Brian Silva, interim executive director of Marriage Equality New York. "But we're still not at the point where anyone from the LGBT community feels comfortable playing."

IT'S A BUSY TIME of year for Patrick Burke at his job. With the Philadelphia Flyers beating the Penguins and advancing to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, there is no downtime. But there's even more happening for Burke. He isn't known as just a scout for the Flyers or the son of revered hockey executive, Brian Burke, but rather, as one of the main figures trying to make the culture of casual homophobia within hockey, one he grew up with, a thing of the past. "I grew up, unfortunately, in the locker room saying, 'Don't be gay,'" says Burke, co-founder of You Can Play. "For me, it was natural and normal, and I never stopped to think of it. It wasn't until Brendan came out and what it meant to have a gay teammate that I said, 'Whoa, OK.'"

Before Avery's advocacy, there was Brendan Burke. In November 2009, Brendan Burke came out publicly while he was still student manager for the men's hockey team at Miami University. Almost immediately, Burke's announcement helped change how players and fans view gay hockey players. It shifted the common hockey fan's understanding of masculinity and what's right and wrong to cheer for during a game. Brendan, however, wasn't able to see the cause through. He died in a February 2010 car crash.

But the seeds had been planted for the You Can Play campaign, which launched last month and with a set of PSAs playing during some hockey broadcasts. In the PSAs, the players stress tolerance, equality, and gay rights at all levels of hockey, noting that if a hockey player can skate, score and even fight, then nothing else really matters—including sexual orientation. To date, about 30 players from the NHL and elsewhere have been filmed for PSAs. Recently, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman also gave his public support to the campaign.

"The big thing we've seen in the past year is that the athletes are showing a willingness to talk about it," Patrick Burke says. "We've had athletes who've been quietly supportive but never spoke up about it. Now, it's no longer seen as exceptional when athletes speak out against homophobia."

Avery's influence on the tolerance of gay players in hockey is a little harder to quantify. As the gay hockey conversation has hit a tipping point, the casual fan may still point back to Avery—he of "sloppy seconds" and "fatso"—taking a stand for gay teammates and his subsequent support of same-sex marriage in New York State as their only knowledge of the topic in the past year. Even more than a year later, Avery's endorsement still elicits a wide range of feelings, most of them directed toward Avery's polarizing character and reputation as an agitator rather than his support for the cause. In terms of figuring out Avery's influence in helping the conversation in the past year, it's a delicate dance in trying to separate the good from the bad, especially when the public perception of Avery's image is, by and large, sufficiently negative.

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Timothy Bella is a journalist living in New York City.

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