In September of last year, Yunel Escobar then of the Toronto Blue Jays created a firestorm with his decision to wear eye black with a homophobic message. That situation aligned with the start of the Toronto Marlies training camp and coach Dallas Eakins reached out to Patrick Burke and the You Can Play team to have him address the team. Patrick obliged and brought along Scott Heggart who is a goalie
for who attends the University of Ottawa who happens to be gay. I had the chance to exchange a couple of e-mails with them about the genesis of the meeting.
The National Post profiled Scott Heggart in March as they outlined his journey to becoming open about his sexuality. A couple of the things that stand out are how his family unconditionally accepted him (sadly, not a given), how his teammates were supportive despite his misgivings (which underscores the group's message that sometimes offensive language can just be reflexive), and how he used YouTube to share his story through his own YouTube channel and try to connect with others that may be in a similar situation. Scott has since recorded his own You Can Play message in which he discusses the impact that he feels the organization's message can have for young athletes.
He's also quite active in the Ottawa area as well as on behalf of YCP:
I help out with running You Can Play's twitter page, and I have spoken on behalf of the project just this past month at a Toronto U varsity board meeting. I'm involved with volunteering with an Ottawa-based campaign called #NoMoreBullies which is run by the local radio station Majic100. We go to schools across the region and talk about bullying and it's effects, but with a major emphasis on how to help stop it, and where to get help.
- Scott Heggart
As for the meeting, Patrick and Scott characterized it as extremely positive:
"Dallas has been a huge fan and supporter of YCP, and asked me to come in and address the team. Whenever possible, I always try to augment my speeches with an LGBT athlete who can share their story. Enter Scott, a gay goalie from University of Ottawa. Scott and I addressed the team for a little over a half hour or so, I'd guess. Scott talked about his experiences (good and bad) growing up as a gay hockey player. I talked about my brother's experiences and what I've learned from YCP."
- Patrick Burke
"The players seemed extremely attentive during the speech. A number of players came up and shook hands with Patrick and I afterwards and a few went out if their way to ask what they could do to get involved. Dallas in particular was very pleased with how everything went over."
- Scott Heggart
The response, beyond being quite welcoming, also resulted in a unique approach which is captured by the video but that will also be on prominent display for all visitors to Ricoh to see:
"At the end, several players came up and said they wanted to get involved. They all said a video was a given, but were there other ways they could help or show support? So we wrote a pledge for them to sign. Drafted it and sent it over to their staff. They decided to run with it - they printed out two big signs with the Marlies logo and the pledge on it (they look amazing). Every player and coached signed both copies. One is being hung in the locker room to remind the players, one in the concourse to remind the fans. It's a huge step for this team to go above and beyond and really take an active step as allies.
- Patrick Burke
As for the next steps after this pledge? League-wide adoption of course:
We're going to shop this pledge to other AHL teams now, and get them on board with doing something similar.
It's great to see the Marlies taking the first step among the AHL in making this kind of pledge and ensuring that there is a constant reminder for fans of the kind of organization that is being built as well as the atmosphere that the team expects from their fans. Seeing that this kind of initiative was begun at the sole behest of Dallas Eakins and the players is especially gratifying.
The full text of the pledge that was signed by the organization and that will be displayed in the dressing room and in the Ricoh Coliseum concourse is below:
The Toronto Marlies pledge to support all of our teammates, coaches, and fans- gay or straight. We stand for the idea that athletes should be judged by their character, work ethic, and talent. Not their sexual orientation. Racist, sexist, and homophobic comments have no place in our arena. Everyone contributes. Everyone is valued. Everyone matters. We pledge to make our locker room a place of unity. We pledge to support and encourage each other, on and off the ice. We pledge to make Toronto proud to have us represent them. On behalf of the Toronto Marlies, we pledge: If you can cheer, you can cheer. If you can coach, you can coach. If you can play, You Can Play.