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Pride Tape and good intentions: Maple Leafs host a You Can Play game on Saturday

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For the NHL, You Can Play games are like a child’s first skating lesson. It barely leaves a mark on the ice, but it’s a necessary first step.

Sarnia Sting v Niagara IceDogs Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

February is Hockey is for Everyone month in the NHL. This is a broad program aimed at growing the sport in concrete terms, but also in expanding the minds of fans, sponsors, and insiders around the NHL as to who a hockey player is.

The Big Tent

It is a big tent program. There have been Girl Scouts on the ice, wheelchair hockey events, and skating clinics for physically disabled athletes. There are also You Can Play nights.

By including the You Can Play games inside the big tent, there has been an unintended consequence of disguising the real purpose of the You Can Play ambassadors announced recently.

The Sportsnet report of the New York Islanders getting involved in wheelchair basketball mentions Casey Czikas as an ambassador, but that role is defined thus:

lead role in the initiative’s goal to “drive positive social change and foster more inclusive communities.”

They link to a page that tells a reader what the ambassador program is all about, but they never mention or allude to the idea that inclusive includes LGBTQ members of the hockey community or that Hockey is for Everyone includes You Can Play.

Affirmations

Some reports of Hockey is for Everyone events leave no one in doubt as to the message of the program as a whole. The Colorado Avalanche made use of their yearly Break the Ice program, where they teach skating to children who have disabilities, as one of their events for the month. But ambassador Gabriel Landeskog said this:

Sport in general is such a great way of getting everyone together. It doesn't matter what age or gender or sexual orientation or race or whatever, sport is fun. Anybody that wants to play should play, it's as simple as that. Introducing some kids to hockey, to come out and try it, it's a fun thing.

The Buffalo Sabres, like the Leafs, went straight to hosting a You Can Play night. Their ambassador, Anders Nilsson has been wearing a rainbow flag on his goalie mask all year. He spoke about the ideals behind the game:

Some kids quit sports, team sports, because they’re gay. I think that’s a big problem and it shouldn’t happen. You should have a right. You should be OK to play sports … if you’re gay, lesbian or whoever you like. It shouldn’t matter.

Last year at about this time, Sportsnet held their Hockey Day in Canada promotion. One of the parts of that event was a feature on the Toronto Gay Hockey Assosciation. If you want some frank and adult discussion about language, exclusion, masculinity, the locker room and what it means to be both born to play hockey and born to be gay, this is the video to watch.

Colin MacPhail, the commissioner of the TGHA says, “One day—if it’s not today, it will be tomorrow—where you’re going to actually take those two people and they’re going to be connected as one hockey player.”

As part of the Leafs You Can Play night on Saturday, February 11, more than 20 members of the Toronto Gay Hockey Assosciation will take part in morning skate with the Leafs and will meet Darryl Sittler after. So for a time, there will be gay men on the ice as part of this program.

Brian Burke is interviewed in the Sportsnet feature, and he says that, “Statistically, there have to be have been and have to be gay players in our league. They are not comfortable coming out at this point.”

These decisions are personal and not for others to judge. But the unintended consequence of that reality is that this is all a bit theoretical for the NHL. They might wish to raise the comfort level in advance, some individuals and teams clearly want that very much, but they are skimming the surface with their efforts, and haven’t yet really grasped the nettle of the depth of cultural change that needs to happen in sports, in hockey, or in the NHL.

Actions, not Affirmations

The Canadian Olympic Committee gave up the luxury of theoretical inclusion and dug down to something deeper than affirmations of values. They had to, in part because they had openly gay athletes on the team. The affirmation has to come first, though. For the COC, they began with an ambassador program of their own in December, 2014:

The #OneTeam Athlete Ambassador program will hit schools to speak about mental fitness and equality, supported by a first-ever school resource on LGBTQ issues. Egale Canada, the foremost national charity promoting LGBTQ human rights, is on board to guide all programs and resources. Plus, a partnership with You Can Play rounds out a great top line. In good form, the COC is also taking care of its own house. The Committee added language to its by-laws and is training staff to create a highly-inclusive corporate culture.

The follow up came in April of last year when the COC and the University of Toronto partnered with You Can Play and Egale Canada to create “a fully accredited Sports and Sexual Diversity course in the world, available for U of T students.” The course was taught this past fall, and the professor, Caroline Fusco, discusses the deeper issues around sexuality in sport here:

Beginning at the 8:05 mark of the video Fusco talks about the idea of professional athletes being out and if that or other awareness campaigns really affect the everyday lives of people playing sports.

There are some reports that homophobia is going down in sport according to some social theorists. I’m not exactly sure that’s true. I think that campaigns, particularly what we have here at the University of Toronto on allyship have helped varsity athletes at the University of Toronto, so I think that’s important and that’s something.

She goes on to discuss how awareness or an idea of growing “acceptance” of gay athletes with a public profile might matter to the experience of star athletes but may not make any difference to the ordinary recreational athlete or user of a public gym.

When the course was launched, the COC held a roundtable discussion with sport community leaders in Toronto. Participants Mark Tewksbury and Greg Louganis spoke to the CBC after it was over.

They discuss their own experiences as athletes in a frank way, but they also agreed on something their roundtable had discussed. The experience of a child or young athlete coming out is largely determined by the coach of their team. The coach sets the tone.

And for the NHL, the Hockey is for Everyone program is about setting the tone.

The hill to climb to get to MacPhail’s ideal of a single person, gay and hockey player, combined into one healthy whole, is very steep. So steep that rainbow stickers, pride tape and good intentions seem like empty gestures. But you do have to start somewhere, and the NHL might actually need to climb out of the hole they are in first, one made of decades of love and devotion to conformity and a narrow definition of who hockey is for, before they can start really climbing the hill.

Affirmation and a Promise

This is the Leafs promotional video that will be shown in the ACC on Saturday night.

They are also setting up a table in the concourse during the game to provide fans with more information about You Can Play. Stop by if you’re at the game and tell us what it was like.