US: National Hockey League announces formal partnership with anti-homophobia organisation

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

The National Hockey League has become the first major professional team sport in the US to announce a formal partnership with You Can Play, an advocacy group aiming to reduce homophobia.

The group You Can Play has already worked with the NHL on its public service messages, and hopes to send the message that players should be judged solely on their abilities, not on their sexual orientations.

The NHL and NHL Players Association came together in agreement on the agreement for the partnership, which hopes to reduce casual homophobic language in locker rooms, and a more inclusive community, in all levels of hockey.

Patrick Burke, You Can Play co-founder told USA TODAY: “Our league is ready for this and our players are ready for this. The culture of the sport, when it comes to LGBT issues, is so far ahead of the other sports that I have no doubt that there will be openly gay athletes in the NHL in the near future.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said: “We are welcoming and inclusive and we want to make sure that our sport has the right environment… And that is a message that resonates from our players, our fans and our teams.”

When asked whether the NHL was ready for openly gay players, Bettman said: “If and when it happens, I believe we will be ready.”

NHL Players Executive Director Donald Fehr, said that the agreement is just a re-affirmation that NHL players should only be evaluated on their abilities, nothing else. He said: “I just think this comes down to doing the right thing… Other matters aren’t relevant for that purpose.”

He also said that it was nothing special that the NHL was the first to sign up with You Can Play, saying that was not important. He continued: “I don’t think you should be ranking people in terms of first or second. I’m just pleased that we were able to do it and that we have the support of the players.

“And if there are matters which arise, you can have some education. And if there are some individuals who need assistance you have an organization that is in a position to provide it.”

The scheme will allow education and awareness for all players and will allow You Can Play to speak at a symposium with younger players. Teams and players will have personnel and resources provided upon request.

The NHL’s Behavioural Health Program will also be altered to include counselling, and confidential advice or information on sexual orientation where requested.

The issue of coming out is particularly topical in US professional sports, and in the US there is currently no openly gay player in the National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association or National Hockey League.

You Can Play’s co-founder Patrick Burke, an anti-homophobia in sports campaign group, visited the camp of the baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays, and spoke about the damaging effect of homophobic slurs.