On the NHL's Colossally False "Allyship" Origin Story
- 5 min read

On the NHL's Colossally False "Allyship" Origin Story

On the NHL's Colossally False "Allyship" Origin Story by Andrew

On Monday, The Athletic's Katie Strang wrote the latest edition of the now-annual "what will it take for an NHL player to come out as gay" piece. It's not the first (see: 2015 by Pierre LeBrun; Brian Burke to George George Stroumboulopoulos in 2012 [transcript]; Chris Hine for the Chicago Tribune in 2016, among others) and it probably won't be the last. It follows the conventions of the genre to the letter. It emphasizes the support such a player would have, the league and sport's strides at inclusion and education, the invaluable work of ally-run organizations like You Can Play (YCP). It's frankly a terrible, insipid piece of work from a writer many in the hockey world hold in high esteem and from a publication often considered to be a prestige outlet. There is no new ground uncovered nor does she challenge any of the superficial statements made by the NHLers she talked to.

Unlike previous pieces, Strang's work cannot be criticized for not talking to any LGBTQ2IA folks. She talked to precisely one cis white gay man, Brock McGillis. Congratulations. I have nothing against McGillis and respect the work he does educating minor hockey players on homophobia. But one cis, white, gay man working within the existing conventions of men's hockey simply cannot represent the full variety of queer experiences. It reminded me of Ken Rosenthal's 2018 Kevin Pillar apologia in which Rosenthal spoke to precisely one cis white gay man, MLB's Ambassador for Inclusion, Billy Bean. The voice of a lone cis, white, gay man simply cannot articulate the totality of queer discrimination.

Of course, that's not what Strang or any of the (mostly white) men quoted in this piece are trying to achieve. Strang does that thing many who write about this topic do, where they use terms like "LGBT" when their focus is much more narrow. This isn't a piece about queer inclusion broadly, despite several times throughout the piece where Strang implies that it is. Rather, it's about the discrimination white gay men experience in men's sports. This is the only LGBTQ2IA topic that's occasionally of interest to mainstream sports outlets like The Athletic.

It is in this context that Strang grounds the NHL's queer allyship in the actions of the Burkes: Brendan, Patrick, and Brian. For those who write "what will it take for an NHL player to come out as gay" pieces, the Burkes are the foundation of queer advocacy. It's only by privileging cis white gay men that the Burkes work is foundational.

This month marks 10 years since Brendan Burke came out publicly to his team and coworkers at Miami University. I do not wish to undermine Burke's courageousness in coming out publicly while working in college hockey and while having prominent family members working in the NHL. Nor do I wish to dismiss the advocacy work he accomplished in the few short months between his coming out and his tragic death in February 2010. What Strang's piece highlights is how little has changed in the intervening decade. Brendan's brother Patrick and their father Brian created You Can Play, the ally organization that aims to combat homophobia in sports, and launched the project in March 2012.

Brendan Burke's coming out and Patrick and Brian Burke's involvement in the launch of YCP is treated as the hockey's queer allyship origin story – the very beginning, and seemingly the end, of such work. While both Burkes have stepped back from their initial involvement with the organization, their work is still seen as the genesis of queer inclusion in hockey. It is a laughable and damaging myth that continues to be trotted out in fluff articles like Strang's. From its earliest beginnings, hockey has had queer advocates and queer athletes. They have often been women and they have often been people of color. They have faced considerable discrimination by those same NHL men who insist they will be welcoming this time.

It is impossible to know what Brendan Burke's activism would look like today, especially given an increasingly vocal and hostile queerphobic element in contemporary politics, and I would not presume to speak for him in 2019. Part of the reason we are still talking about Patrick and Brian's advocacy is because they help root the discussion where men's hockey feels most comfortable: in the thoughts and feelings of cis, straight, white, privileged men, and how they feel about queer people.

The NHL's discussion of queer inclusion consistently centers white, cis, straight privileged men and frames their opinions and beliefs, such as the ever popular "we're ready for a gay player," as obvious truths. There is rarely discussion of how the league's rampant sexism and racism contribute to queerphobia and the isolation of queer athletes. Strang's article does not interrogate the statements made by these cis, white, straight NHLers. Little is said about how hockey's toxic masculinity actively push queer athletes out of the sport long before they reach elite levels of play.

To move away from the Burkes' story is not to denigrate Brendan's experience or advocacy, but simply a necessary step to move the conversation forward. The Burkes did not establish queer advocacy or inclusion in hockey. Moving away from their story as the origin of advocacy helps undermine the convention that we need to hear from more allies. Brian Burke, Braden Holtby, Gary Bettman, Kyle Dubas, and Max Domi simply do not have the experience or knowledge to say what is safe for any queer person. They are flawed spokespeople and allies for a variety of reasons.

Despite his constant association with the cause of queer inclusion, Brian Burke is also a problematic example. Perhaps Burke's most famous soundbite from his tenure as Toronto Maple Leafs GM was this much-quoted line: "We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence. That's how our teams play." Burke's ideal hockey player conforms to all the conventions of the toxic masculine stereotype. That toxicity fuels men's hockey culture's deeply rooted queerphobia. As I wrote previously:

This sport still enforces the dictates of a code which prescribes a set of normative behaviors for players. The code is based in a specific kind of masculinity; expressly toxic, it emphasizes physical toughness and retributive violence while privileging whiteness. It is also a heteronormative code that is enforced as early as the ranks of minor hockey and at the junior level, associating masculine weakness with both femininity and homosexuality. This code thrives on seeing difference as other and enforces its standards on those who would challenge such rigidity through hazing, bullying, verbal abuse, and in extreme cases, physical violence.

Burke's "testosterone and truculence" comment is an accurate abbreviation of the NHL's culture and explains his early approach to queer advocacy. In this December 2010 GQ article about his advocacy, Burke recalls telling a high school class about violently attacking a school bully when he was in high school. One need only to watch one of Sportnet's NHL broadcasts to hear Burke continue to express approval of this type of masculine violence. Homophobia cannot be eradicated by only celebrating gay men who are also stereotypically masculine and violent. That's simply assimilation, and it's a growing problem when it comes to queer inclusion in sports. For men's hockey to become truly inclusive of the infinite variety of queer lives, to welcome not just queer teammates, coaches, and managers, but those who work for the team and at the arenas, as well as the fans who come and watch the games, this toxic culture needs to be torn down. This cannot happen by continually talking to the same men who benefit from its existing toxicity. This is what Strang did and it's not going to do a bit of good – and arguably it's actively harmful to the queer people that she and her interview subjects claim the NHL would be so welcoming towards.

Hockey writers should take a page from Brian and Patrick Burke and take a step back. Both men have retreated from their public roles with YCP, with Patrick retiring from the organization in March 2017. It's time our efforts to write about homophobia in men's hockey take a step back, a step away from the thoughts and feelings of "allies" and ally organizations.  It's time to listen to actual queer people.