Brock McGillis, former OHL player and professional goalie, lived the typical ‘hockey bro’ lifestyle for years. It was a lie.
“I was the cocky hockey guy who was womanizing. I always had a different girlfriend,” McGillis says. “But I’d go home at night when I was 18 or 19 in the OHL and I would break down crying and want to kill myself. I would suppress it. I would say ‘no, no, no. You’re not gay,’ but the reality was that I am.”
McGillis was never out as a player. He remained closeted throughout his pro-hockey career in the OHL, OUAA, UHL and while playing professionally in Holland. It wasn’t until last year he made headlines by coming out publicly.
McGillis’ story is an anomaly. The stereotypical hockey player is usually hyper-masculine and as cold as the ice on which they spend so much time.
Locker room banter includes talk of womanizing, partying and chirping each other, calling friends and opposing players “fags” and feminizing them to get under their skin.
Examples include Dallas Stars’ captain Jamie Benn and forward Tyler Seguin attempting to joke about the Sedin twins on a Dallas radio station in 2015.
“Who knows what else they do together,” said Benn.
“Seriously,” Seguin added.
Benn publicly apologized later that year.
Another high-profile incident in 2011 saw Wayne Simmonds toss a homophobic slur at Sean Avery.
The language used in chirping and trash talk can be harmful to players like McGillis.
Recently, players and officials within the NHL have made efforts to shut down offensive trash talks.
As an organization, the NHL has taken steps towards LGBTQ inclusion not seen by most in the world of professional sports.
February was officially dubbed Hockey is for Everyone Month. The NHL partnered with the You Can Play organization to host a number of ‘Pride Night’ games.
This included logos for the NHL and its teams decked out in rainbow colours; as were players’ sticks, thanks to Pride Tape, a rainbow coloured hockey tape.
Even Brad Marchand, an elite offensive talent on the Boston Bruins, has done his best to make everyone feel safe in the world of hockey.
On the ice, Marchand is one of the most controversial players in the game. Off the ice, he’s spent the last few months being vocal in support of the LGBTQ community.
Last December, a hockey fan took to Twitter to send some trash talk Marchand’s way.
“Put Chara’s d**k back in your mouth you f***ing f*g,” they tweeted at him.
Marchand responded by quoting the tweet for all to see. “This derogatory statement is offensive to so many people around the world [you’re] the kind of kid parents are ashamed of,” he said shutting down the hater.
“I think it’s cool that Marchand did that,” says McGillis, who now delivers presentations as an advocate for LGBTQ equality. “I think we can always use as many allies as we can get.”
In an interview with ESPN, Marchand says, “I want to stand up for what I believe in, and I don’t think it’s right when people say things or bash people because of their sexual orientation.”
He went on to say NHL players would accept a gay teammate “no question”.
But in the 100 years the NHL has been around, there has not been a single confirmed LGBTQ player from the nearly 6,000 to hit the ice.
TSN stats expert Kevin Gibson says the trash talk might be to blame.
Players will use anything to get under another player’s skin.
“Players will use anything to get under another player’s skin,” Gibson says. “Mother jokes, sisters, wives. If there’s sexuality in question, I’m sure that type of language would be used.”
And it has been used, time and time again.
During the first round of the playoffs in April 2016, Andrew Shaw made headlines after angrily lashing out at an official using a homophobic slur.
After public outrage, Shaw issued a standard apology and was suspended for one game.
It’s not just members of the LGBTQ community this language affects. NHL players, like professional athletes in most sports, are looked up to as role models.
“You’re going to have a lot of kids going to games,” Gibson says, “they can hear what the players are saying on the ice. You don’t want the kids going to schools and using that language.”
With every game being televised and an increase in the popularity of ice level mic feeds, players need to be more careful with their words.
By partnering with You Can Play, the NHL has shown they are working to do just that.
You Can Play is a non-profit organization working to ensure the safety and inclusion of all people in sports.
“Our idea is that an athlete should be judged on their skill, their work ethic and their competitive spirit and not on their gender identity and/or sexual orientation,” says Chris Mosier, VP of Program Development and Community Relations.
Essentially: if you can play, you can play.
Mosier himself was the first out trans athlete to join a U.S. national team.
He had the chance to take part in the Hockey is for Everyone Month festivities, taking to the ice during a sold-out Blackhawks game and shooting the puck.
“It was great because it wasn’t just LGBTQ athletes and fans in the stadium,” Mosier says. “While it was targeted towards the inclusion of all people, it was not specifically only LGBTQ night.”
Fans in attendance were just there to see a game.
“It was great for regular fans to get this information and see that hockey really is for everyone,” Mosier says. “That the NHL is making a pointed effort to say ‘we appreciate our LGBTQ fans, and potentially athletes and coaches that might be out there, and you’re welcome here.’”
Though progress is being made, McGillis thinks the problem needs a bigger fix than a month.
“I think the NHL is trying to take some initiative, and organizations like You Can Play are working hard to change it,” he says.
However, for McGillis the issue is still very real. He believes part of the problem is those involved in the game aren’t looking at the issue from a grassroots level.
“We’re products of our environment. The language you hear in locker rooms starts at novice, tyke…” says McGillis. “No one really knows what it means at that age, but they’re using it and then they get older and it’s habit. I work with athletes every day. Triple A, junior, professional hockey players that know I’m gay and still say it and then go ‘oh’.”
McGillis believes the players don’t always mean what they say in a malicious sense, but that it’s hard to break old habits.
“They’re recognizing and I think that’s half the battle, to get people to recognize that they’re using those words,” he says. “It’s the same thing with racist comments or sexist comments.”
McGillis says he’s known closeted players with a lot of potential who have left the game because of homophobic language.
These are not isolated incidents.
For players in this situation, leagues specifically geared towards members of the LGBTQ community exist. For instance, the Toronto Gay Hockey Association (TGHA) which has over 170 members, making up 11 teams.
Advancements in inclusivity within the sport have begun to become apparent to those involved.
“As the league gets older and older, you need new people to come in,” says Chris Murray, commissioner for the TGHA. “A lot of the younger crowd say my team that I’ve been playing with for 5-10 years doesn’t care if I’m gay, so I’m just going to stay where I am.”
Murray calls it a utopian evolution. “You come to this world where nobody really cares if you’re black, you’re white, you’re coloured, you’re Muslim, you’re Israeli, gay, straight or otherwise,” says Murray. “You’re just playing with the people you’ve always played with.”
You come to this world where nobody really cares if you’re black, you’re white, you’re coloured, you’re Muslim, you’re Israeli, gay, straight or otherwise.
The progress made in the past few years alone has brought the hockey world closer to being a safe place for the LGBTQ community than ever before.
Andrew Quinlan, a forward in the TGHA, says the league itself is more respectful than others he plays in.
“There’s less trash talking,” Quinlan says, “it definitely still gets heated on the ice, like in any hockey league, but there’s less trash talking and never any fights.”
While Quinlan himself has been fortunate enough to not face homophobia on the ice, he acknowledges the issue in the game today.
“I would be surprised to learn if other leagues, at least in Toronto, have the same sense of community that our hockey league has built. It goes beyond hockey.”
Homophobic trash talk players once used without a care is slowly becoming a rarity.
“It’s not as big of an issue today,” McGillis says. “Is there full equality? No. Society has shifted. If sports don’t shift, then they’re falling behind, and they have.”
Now, McGillis stays involved in the game with current players doing off-ice training, on-ice skill development and in-season mentoring.
What advice would he offer to LGBTQ players?
“They need to learn to accept themselves,” he says. “Before they start thinking about how it will affect their hockey or sports or life, they have to accept and love themselves and then from there, know that you’re strong. You can achieve greatness. You have it in you.”