There are many things built in the dressing rooms of hockey; friendships, brotherhoods, memories, victories, heartbreaks, losses, life…Gongshow Gear…and all of these things, including the heartbreaks and losses, are things looked back on frequently and fondly by those who built them. Most of you will look back at what was built in the dressing rooms you have been a part of and are a part of now and recall happy memories and glory days. For some however, what was built in the locker rooms for them may not be so positive; as a matter of fact, it may be devastating to them.
What if you were scared to be yourself because you feared your teammates wouldn’t accept you? What if you felt you had to quit the game you loved because you couldn’t take one more second in a room where casual slurs were more than just casual to you? What if you felt like you were being judged on your race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation and not on your talents and abilities in the sport? What if Gongers?
The reason I pose this question to you is because it is a very serious reality to many players in our world. As a matter of fact, it is a reality in all sports that players face every single day; and every single day players walk away from the sport they love, and the dreams they’ve had since childhood because the locker rooms they are a part of feel like, and sometimes are, an unsafe environment for them. This reality has not gone unnoticed in the sports world, and if you’ve recently had any interaction with the NHL, you’ve already been exposed to a movement known as the You Can Play Project.
I wanted to be the blogger who brought this to you on Gongshow for a handful of reasons, primarily because of my own education on what You Can Play is trying to accomplish, direct from the men behind it. I had the unique opportunity to speak with Patrick Burke, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers and the son of Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, who launched You Can Play in March of 2012. I also interviewed San Jose Shark Tommy Wingels who is a member of the You Can Play Advisory Board and a straight ally to gay athletes. I took it one step farther and reached out to Steven Oleksy from the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers for his take on YCP from not only a player’s standpoint but also that of someone who runs a youth hockey program; as well as countless others I will reference in this blog.
So let’s get into it Gongers, and let me pass on my education to you. Quick history for you here; the You Can Play Project, which I will refer to as YCP, has a simple message, “If You Can Play, You Can Play.” YCP is the legacy of Brendan Burke, an openly gay member of the athletic community and YCP founder Patrick Burke’s brother. In 2009 Brendan came out to the Miami University Hockey Team where Tommy Wingels and Andy Miele (also an advisory board member and NHL player for the Phoenix Coyotes) were not only members of the team, but also friends of Brendan’s. Not long after, Brendan was killed in an accident. Luckily, his dreams of making locker rooms a safe and accepting environment for all athletes did not die with him, and brother Patrick said “Screw it, let’s do this,” and began work on YCP. Wingels and Miele, both on entry level contracts with their respective clubs anteed up the capital to get YCP off the ground, and the rest dear Gongers will go down as NHL history.
Over 40 NHL players, multiple teams across multiple leagues, fans, groups, and everyday people are involved in YCP. PSA’s are released on a regular basis via www.youcanplayproject.org, on youtube, and my favorite place to watch YCP PSAs, the rink. There is nothing like sitting in HP Pavilion “The Tank” between 2nd and 3rd period and watching Wingels’ PSA play for the sold out arena. You can see faces of well known NHL players in every official PSA including Zdeno Chara, Henrik Lundqvist, Scott Hartnell, Steven Stamkos, Tommy Wingels, and countless others. The most recent PSA released was by the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
When I initially spoke with Patrick Burke about the You Can Play Project I was blown away by his sincerity and dedication to it. He has sacrificed time, money, patience, sleep…you name it, he’s probably given it up. He was even more kind to give up quite a bit of his time to me to explain the origins of YCP, and everything that is being poured into it by the Advisory Board and Founders. I had initially asked Burke if he was apprehensive going into this project and if he was concerned about a lack of support from the NHL community.
He responded, “We knew going into it that there would be some support, but the amount of time and effort the players are putting into this, the amount of players who have reached out to us and gone out of their way to assist us, the honesty and candid nature of the interviews that the players are giving without any prompting from us, it’s been a little overwhelming and very touching to see.”
When I spoke to Tommy Wingels, a rookie center from the San Jose Sharks, I had asked him if he was nervous about bringing YCP into NHL locker rooms where he was pretty much just gaining footing. His answer was one I really respected.
Tommy said, “Yeah, I was a bit nervous at first, this is my rookie year in the league pretty much and there are guys who have been in the league much longer and seen more of the culture and the game than I have. But ya know I think from my point of view it was something our team was ready for and the league was ready for, it’s something that I talked to a few players about personally before I went and talked to more players about it and went public with it and I think that was important. The support I’ve gotten from my teammates has been unbelievable, guys reaching out to try to help out and be involved, so I can’t thank them enough for that, and I think awareness is a huge thing amongst our team, amongst our fans, and amongst the hockey community so that’s something we’re looking to build on.”
That last sentence Gongers, is what I want you to pay attention to, “…something we’re looking to build on.” I wondered, where do you start to build out a project that is aimed at more than just the NHL dressing rooms of North America? Who do you really look to when you need to start spreading this thing like wild fire? The answer came to me one night while I was bantering back and forth on Twitter with Steven Oleksy; a player for the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers, and someone I’ve personally never met face to face, but a guy who has some of the most entertaining tweets I’ve come across in recent history. Regardless of all of that, the answer is the youth. Make sure ALL players of ALL ages in EVERY level are exposed to the message of “If You Can Play, You Can Play.” My brief conversation with Oleksy led to the discovery that he founded and operates an elite Hockey training program for players of all ages in Michigan on top of his AHL career.
He was gracious enough to weigh in on You Can Play from his perspective as a player and youth trainer, saying “…I feel the project (YCP) more than anything will help everybody feel more comfortable with themselves and express themselves on various levels whether gay or straight. I think that reflects the need for the campaign and if it can help one athlete through some of the struggles we face as athletes than I believe it is a success.”
Oleksy’s views are found time and time again throughout the opinions of other players and fans alike. I sent out a twitter request to my followers asking for them to tell me in 140 characters or less what their thoughts on YCP were. I did this to demonstrate to all of you how important this project is to not just the die-hard hockey community, but also to the community surrounding it. Here are just a few of the MANY tweets I received:
“The ability to keep personal dignity and honor in tact, while participating in a game more beautiful than breath.”
“As a straight male, I fully support the YCP cause. Equality for everyone! We need to encourage acceptance, not tolerance!”
“(YCP) means a lot to me as it GAVE me the tools to help my mate and team mate feel safe in the locker room.”
“(YCP) gives me faith in humanity.”
“Patrick Burke deserves a lot of credit for his tireless work on (YCP). It makes me proud to be a hockey fan.”
“What is there to say besides I am behind it 100% & proud that so many Pro Athletes are too!”
“As a parent who wants all kids and adults to be treated equally, you can play must be possible and make a change!!”
“Inspirational, Heartbreaking, and Overdue.”
The list goes on and on and I was truly inspired and awestruck by the amount of tweets and support that flooded my timeline. But I wanted you all to see what kind of an impact all of this was having here in North America. Every single day people are becoming more and more aware of their actions and taking steps to police themselves up with their use of casual homophobic slurs and behaviors. I know one player who went so far as to remove comments made on twitter in the past that contained the passive use of homophobic slurs. I would encourage you all to support YCP in any way possible, even if all you can do is clean up your own use of passive slurs and ask your teammates to do the same. You never know who is listening and who you may be hurting.
Tommy Wingels really summed up the goal of the project by saying,
“I think long term goals we want this project to no longer exist. We want this sport to be accepting for who people are and not need a project like this to promote awareness. That is probably years away but we’re going to do what we can up until then to really create a safe environment and eliminate that casual homophobia in the sport. I think as we’ve seen more teams across the league, across junior teams, college teams, are helping out and that’s what’s really going to start as newer players come into the leagues, they’ll have seen these ads and campaigns and that will really help out and change the culture.”
So what are you going to do Gongers? Are you ready to stand up for your teammates in any way possible and help change a part of the culture that may be holding back players from reaching their full potential? After all of the research I have done on YCP, and the hours of interviews with players, fans, founders, and officials, I have come to the realization that this will not be easy. You Can Play has yet to find its way into every locker room. In the past few days I have spoken with players ending their seasons in the SPHL about YCP, one who said “I have no idea what you are talking about,” and another from a different team who said, “I think this is a great initiative and will definitely do something about it.” A player in Denmark had yet to hear about it when I spoke to him recently, but the bottom line is, it only takes one conversation to start raising awareness.
Player participation is key to making You Can Play work and according to Patrick Burke as far as the roles players (specifically Wingels and Miele right now) are playing is this,
“A lot of the information that is given out to athletes is given out by academics or ex experts in LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender) culture and there’s not usually a lot of crossover there with athletes and what Tommy (Wingels) and Andy (Miele) have done by immersing themselves in this issue is giving us a really valuable sounding board for “Hey, if we approach a player and ask him to do this, what do you think?” and Tommy may say well “I wouldn’t do it like that, I’d do it like this.” or “That’s a great idea I’d definitely be on board.” So, they are really invaluable as far as that perspective.”
You Gongers, whether you play or not currently, are just as invaluable as Wingels and Miele to You Can Play and in making every dressing room a safe environment for you and your teammates. Never forget that an effective team is one that plays for each other no matter what, and with YCP teams can become even stronger in some cases.
Until Next Time Dear Gongers, W.S.P. and never forget that you can change the world, starting in your own dressing room.
Follow Me On Twitter @AmySnow17
**I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Patrick Burke, Tommy Wingels, Steven Oleksy, and the countless other players who have been in my ear, or in my chat windows in recent weeks to assist in bringing this to you Gongers!**
If you would like to see the full series I wrote on the You Can Play Project, including the full interviews with Patrick Burke and Tommy Wingels, Simply Click The Links Below! Have a specific question for Wingels or Burke? Let me know and I’ll do my best to get an answer for you!