The You Can Play Project was founded by Patrick Burke after the untimely death of his openly gay brother Brendan. This past January 19th, the Saint John Sea Dogs hosted the first ever You Can Play Night in the QMJHL. On hand in Saint John, NB, for this momentous night was one of Brendan’s confidents and current You Can Play ambassador: Brock McGillis.
McGillis is the first and only openly gay professional hockey player. Since publicly opening up about his sexuality, he’s dedicated his life after hockey to giving back to the community that he once felt ashamed to be a part of.
“I forced myself to believe that I wasn’t gay and I told myself that I couldn’t be”, McGillis said.
While in Saint John, McGillis engaged in discussions with players, coaches and management, to share his story and create what he calls a “shift”. “It’s illogical that I’m the only one. This tells me that our sport needs a shift”, McGillis explained.
For him and many other members of the LGBTQ community, this shift requires a change in attitudes and in language. So why does he feel this shift is required?
“Because it matters”, Mcgillis exclaimed. “I often speak about the language I heard on a daily basis and how it impacted me. Whether it was on the ice, at school, or in the locker room, it made me think I was bad or wrong”.
As hockey fans, we often look solely to an organization or league to set the standards for inclusivity in their respective sport. However, for McGillis he sees a unique platform that these players have, which is furthered by their “minor celebrity status” in the CHL.
He believes that these players can shift culture, and they are at a level where they can have an immense social impact. In a unique way, acknowledging their influence and platform shifts the onus from the organizations to the players.
In an age of social activism coming from high profile athletes such as Lebron James and Colin Kaepernick, will we ever see this come to fruition in the junior ranks? It’s tough to say, but ultimately the players have the ability to change the attitudes of their teammates, peers, and fellow community members.
As for the work McGillis is doing, he has had an immediate impact in the hockey community. He has organized speaking engagements with different teams throughout the OHL and recalls instances where players have approached him just to say ‘Hey, you’ve really opened my eyes’.
However, for all the success he has had, there was no way for him to know the hurt he would experience through the lives of others. “I get people from all over the world who contact me daily with the most gruesome and sad stories you’ll ever hear – there’s no handbook for that”, McGillis said.
He references the “astronomical” rates of depression and suicide amongst LGBT youth as a call to action for leagues, teams, and players. This is a battle that he, himself, knows all too well.
“I often talk about how I wanted to kill myself most days, and how I attempted to on a number of occasions”, he added.
He felt this way without ever being directly targeted by any of his teammates, he even fit in with the “hyper-masculine culture” he depicts. “I was never bullied; I was a cocky hockey player, I was a womanizer, and I was all the stereotypical things that go along with being a junior hockey player”.
But it’s not all doom and gloom according to McGillis. “I’m in a fortunate position where I speak the same language as these players, and I think that’s critical for [them] to resonate with my messaging”.
Throughout our entire discussion, one theme continued to come up. He constantly had this fear of being found out. This came to light during a specific line of questioning:
Me: “How important is it to have events like You Can Play Night in terms of visibility of the symbols, specifically the Pride flag for closeted athletes?”
McGillis: “If you’re struggling and closeted you are not going to associate with the [Pride] flag, I wouldn’t have wanted that flag anywhere near me”.
Me: “Where does this fear of being found out stem from?”
McGillis: “That your career is over”.
For fans, teammates, and teams everywhere, it is important to judge athletes by their character, ability and, least of all, their sexual orientation or gender.
If you can play, then you can play.
For more information on the You Can Play Project visit, www.youcanplayproject.org
For more information on Brock McGillis visit, www.brockmcgillis.com