words are all i have

National Hockey League: Players’ silence on gay issue is disappointing

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So, how do you make a strapping, 6-foot, 210-pound hockey player squirm like a drunk driver pulled over at a check stop?

Ask him to have a serious chin-wag about homosexuality.

If I learned anything from the TSN series RE/Orientation, it is this: National Hockey League players are not prepared to embrace a gay teammate. I say that because of a comment Aaron Ward made during his intro to the third and final segment of the documentary focusing on gay men in professional sports.

“Outside of the involvement with Andrew Ference, we struggled to get participation from players,” revealed Ward, a former NHL defenceman who narrated the series and conducted the interviews that aired on TSN last week. “Over a nine-month period, we reached out to 12 different National Hockey League teams. (We) could not get co-operation. It was a struggle to get guys to sit down and be comfortable and honest in front of a camera. Obviously, it’s easy to sit down and read words for a PSA, but it’s another thing to sit down and be honest and in-depth and be clear about how we feel about this process and this issue. It’s almost a barometer of where we are today.”

Where they are today is sad.

There are more than 700 players in the NHL and only three of them—Andrew Ference, Ben Scrivens and Dustin Brown—agree to discuss homosexuality with Ward for the TSN series? Just three out of more than 700? Astonishing. How can they possibly be ready to welcome a gay teammate if they can’t even engage in dialogue on the matter?

Now, I realize that men can have considerable difficulty with the simplest of things. Like stopping to ask for directions or holding their wife’s purse while she tries on a dress. But talking about gays makes them squeemish? Good grief. It’s not like they were being asked to discuss menstrual cycles or female hygiene products.

What exactly is it about this topic that makes a man fidget like he’s just passed a wet fart?

I mean, we’re talking about people who are fearless on a sheet of ice. They’ll stick their bare face in the path of a hockey puck travelling at 100 miles per hour. They’ll get clubbed with a large piece of lumber and come back for more. They’ll do a bare-knuckle tap dance on each others noggins. But invite them to a tete-a-tete about homosexuality? Eeeeeeuw. Can’t go there. They’re much more comfortable talking about tools, trucks and tits.

Are hockey players really such simpletons? Are they such nincompoops that the diameter of their discourse is limited to frat-boy follies?

No and no.

I know of a former NHLer who is a rocket scientist. True story. While other guys his age were engaged in tom foolery like panty raids and seeing how many kegs of beer they could drain while standing on their heads, Joe Juneau was earning a degree in aeronautical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic in New York. Took him just three years. Had a perfect 4.0 grade average. Built his own airplane. I’m guessing Joe Juneau wouldn’t run and hide from a discussion of gays in the NHL.

So why are today’s players hiding?

Yes, I’m aware that a number of them have spoken in support of the You Can Play Project, an initiative that seeks to curb homophobia in NHL changing rooms and in the pews of rinks throughout North America. That’s commendable. But, as Aaron Ward submits, reciting a public service announcement that someone has written for you is not a challenging bit of business. Exposing your personal beliefs on homosexuality to scrutiny, on the other hand…well, we can’t have all those good Canadian boys that Don Cherry brags about every Saturday night spout in support of “fags,” can we? Heaven forbid. Someone might think one or two of our good Canadians boys are queer.

Well, some of them are. And I guarantee you that they want to come out. Desperately.

It’s a terrible burden that the closeted gay male athlete carries. He’s skating with a grand piano strapped to his back. It’s crippling, both physically and emotionally. His secret renders him sleepless. He’s constantly on edge, for fear he’ll be discovered. He doesn’t know who to trust. Who to confide in. If he’s going to be “outed,” he wants it to be on his terms. On his timetable. He doesn’t want to see it in the headlines of a scandal sheet. He experiences suicidal ideation. It’s a suffocating existence.

In sum, the TSN series RE/Orientation didn’t disappoint me. NHL players did with their silence.

There are gay men on National Hockey League rosters. I know that. I also know it’s time for the straight guys to let them know it’s okay for them to come out and play.

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