I swear, I didn't mean for this to be Conway Loves Hockey week, but yesterday the National Hockey League announced their official partnership with the You Can Play project and I've basically been crying into my hands ever since.
For the last year, YCP has been working with the NHL to sponsor LGBT nights at minor league games and produce public service announcements that feature players denouncing homophobia and looking like they have briefly forgotten how to speak any sort of human language.
(If you want to simultaneously cry into your collar and feel an acute sense of secondhand embarrassment the likes of which you haven't felt since middle school gym class, I highly recommend burning through all of You Can Play's PSAs. You'll feel warm and fuzzy, and also a little like you accidentally went to school without pants on or something.)
With this new partnership, the NHL will now host mandatory LGBT educational seminars for rookies and offer counseling and confidential outreach resources for any players who might feel inclined to shoot the shit about sexuality, whether it's theirs or their teammates'. I know it might not sound like that big of a deal. Major league sports get a lot of bad PR, and my hardened cynical heart can't help but wonder just how sincere a lot of its philanthropic initiatives are. Though I'm totally onboard with players wearing pink sweaters in honor of breast cancer and tweeting earnestly about mental health, it just doesn't seem like it requires a lot of personal risk on their or the team's part.
I can't imagine a drunken, belligerent fan stomping into an anti-Alzheimer's charity fundraiser and screaming "Fuck senior health care!" or something. It's great and all, but it's not exactly controversial.
So it'd be easy, I think, to brush this initiative off as just more lip service. And honestly, some of the partnership's project aspects sound more effective than others. Take the rookie symposium seminars, for example: considering that most of the rookies present will be mouthy, overgrown teenagers who have spent the last decade smacking their friends around with wooden sticks, it's easy to envision the lectures. I'm thinking lots of good-natured eye-rolling, giggling, and surreptitious dick-pics. You know. Teenage boy bullshit.
I'm sure some of what they're taught will stick, and it's a really fucking excellent tone-setter, but it's not exactly world-rocking.
What really does make me want to barf elation-rainbows, though, is seeing the responses that top players around the league have already started making to yesterday's announcement. Hockey players have a history of being mouthy on social media, and when I heard the YCP press release, I have to admit that I winced a little at first.
See, I first got really into sports fandom because of the dynamic among the players. Don't get me wrong: I really fucking love the sport of hockey itself, and I could contentedly watch pretty much any game now without any knowledge of the teams, so long as they managed to move the puck around the ice.
But the narrative of the team experience is what initially drew me in and made me stay. There's a reason I snot-cried like a toddler in a BART station the night the Anaheim Ducks beat the Chicago Blackhawks, and love of Patrick Kane's shootout technique ain't it.
There's a part of me that's also always been a little nervous, though, because I know sports. I played soccer for 11 years growing up, so I'm hard-wired to like pretty much any activity that involves fast-paced play up and down a rectangular area. Until recently, though, I shied away from professional sports fandom because of all the parts of it that I found repugnant: the misogyny, the racism, the classism, and, yes, the homophobia. It varies among sports, but hockey isn't exactly exempt.
I mean, the team I root for most passionately has a Native American head for their logo. It's not like I'm cheering on the Judith Butler Performativity-Unpacking Squad, here; there are problems with sports on an institutional and personal level that can't and shouldn't be ignored.
When knee-deep in a fandom, negotiating the behavior of its characters and creators with your own values is often a tricky balance. I've always had trouble, say, genuinely enjoying music produced by artists whose politics I despise. I can't watch TV shows starring actors who have behaved in misogynist or bigoted fashions, even if I otherwise like the show.
And I have a hell of a time turning the social-justice-dickwad part of my brain down enough to genuinely enjoy reading a book written by someone I would kick in the shins if I ever saw on the street (Orson Scott Card, I am looking at you).
It's been even trickier with hockey, because that performance aspect present with musicians or actors or writers is all but absent. Hockey players are youngish, mostly white, mostly straight dudes, and they act like it. And often, that means that they behave like assholes. Players I like and admire, players I have legitimately wept over, have done things like ask strange girls for blow jobs in bars or punch out a cab driver over 20 cents. That's not exactly swastika-tattoo levels of douchebaggery, but it's still tough for me to justify ignoring in favor of cooing over their passing skills.
I spend a lot of my time dreading the day when one of them does something even worse, something I can't negotiate past. Pushing a piece of rubber around ice, after all, doesn't guarantee your admission into the Good Person Club, even if you have an endearingly crooked toothless smile.
So I think I would have actually been kind of heartbroken if any of my favorite players had taken the You Can Play announcement poorly. I'm a queer hockey fan, after all, and I took the NHL's declaration not just as a move toward acceptance for LGBT players but for their fans as well.
Like my friend Randi, a lifetime hockey fan, said, "It means a lot to be accepted within a sport that I've loved since I was a little girl." If any players had been dickwads about it, it wouldn't have just felt like a 21-year-old homophobe airing his grievances; it would have felt like personal, skin-to-skin rejection.
Luckily -- and this is what's been making me emote heavily all over everyone about this -- all of the players who have responded thus far just seem really fucking psyched, in a way that seems far more genuine than the standard "My coach is making me do this" spiel. It's hard to read this bit from Huge Bruins Bro Andrew Ference, for example, without coming over all weepy:
“It’s not a big deal if you’re straight or gay or whatever you are, it’s a matter of being a good teammate...We take a lot of pride in viewing the locker room as a family and treating each other like brothers. If one of those brothers feels ostracized for what he is, it’s just wrong.”
THEY'RE TEAMMATES, GUYS! TEAM FIRST, SEXUALITY SECOND! IT'S LIKE WE'RE ON THE TEAM, TOO! Oh God, I feel like I'm going to cry again.
And this familial culture of teammate support that players like Ference, Armstrong, and others are encouraging isn't the only potential positive outcome of the YCP partnership.
You Can Play founder Patrick Burke has said that his vision for YCP was for the project to last eight years -- the length of time it takes for a high school freshman to graduate from college.
For a lot of young athletes, myself included, their team unit is the most important aspect of their social and recreational life. The idea of risking player dynamic for the sake of trading true-pronoun kissing stories is a terrifying one. As a former gay-ass baby goalie who never actually came out to her team for a decade, I can personally attest to this.
But now, kids who look up to professional sports players as role models can have a full eight years of being told that the team versus honesty choice isn't actually one they have to make. They're learning that their sexual preferences won't just be tolerated, they'll be welcomed; that they can be part of "everyone" regardless of whom they want to bang; and that, if and when they do decide to come out, the NHL administration and many of its players won't tolerate anyone harassing them about it, even indirectly.
If I, a 20-something queermo living in the gayest city in America, still spent most of the day quivery and joy-panting over this, I can't imagine how a closeted teenager must be feeling.
Of course, it's not like this partnership is a homophobia-curing wand that will magically compel everyone in the NHL to behave like rational adults when confronted with different lifestyles. And I haven't missed the fact that my personal favorite team has yet to comment on the initiative, which naturally sends me into fits of anxiety that I've been rooting for secret homophobes this whole time.
But the partnership starts an open, honest conversation, and it really feels like the league is holding itself and its players accountable for their attitudes and behavior on and off the ice.
I know it sounds cheesy as fuck, but I can't help but be hopeful about all of it. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
Kate is having Feelings (not only about hockey, promise): @katchatters.