One month ago The Hockey News had an article that stated that hockey is closer to having its first openly gay player. Patrick Burke, a professional scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, Co-Founder of the You Can Play Project, and the son of former Maple Leaf GM Brian Burke, predicted that we may see our first openly gay player within the next two years.
"Within the next two years, I predict we'll have an openly gay National Hockey League player... That is my personal belief and numerous people, including people within the charity [The You Can Play Program], disagree with me completely. It's my opinion only, but I think I'm right."
The You Can Play Project, backed by various NHL players including the Rangers' own Rick Nash, Henrik Lundqvist, and Brian Boyle, is a fantastic step in the right direction. The You Can Play Project is all about ensuring equality and respect among athletes, regardless of their sexual orientation.
As encouraging as it would be to have our first openly gay NHL player in the next two years, I have my doubts about it happening. I understand Patrick Burke's desire to see that the NHL and its fans are ready for an openly gay player but I would imagine something like this is going to take a perfect storm. It is going to take an exceptionally brave athlete who feels comfortable with their teammates and the team's fanbase who is also prepared to turn their personal life upside down.
I hope for a lot of things when it comes to the sport I love. One of the things I hope for more most is that when that first brave athlete steps up and lets the world know he's gay and proud and is a professional hockey player that hockey fans will embrace him.
The single most important factor, in my eyes, is that athletes feel comfortable coming out as openly gay and they won't be doing it because they feel they need to. Still, I would understand why they might feel like they need to, given the climate of America, especially the sports climate. The example of US national Soccer team forward Robbie Rogers comes to mind, Rogers chose to leave the sport after coming out as openly gay to discover himself away from his sport. So much more can be done by fans, the league, and professional players to promote a hockey and sports community that embraces tolerance and above all states that it doesn't matter who you sleep with, what color your skin is, how much money your parents had, or where you were born... if you can play hockey at an elite level you belong here.
The question I keep asking myself whenever I hear about the You Can Play Project or see an openly gay athlete like Megan Rapinoe (a midfielder for the US Women's national soccer team) excel at their sport is whether or not New York City and the Rangers' fanbase would be hospitable to an openly gay athlete. Most of you are probably aware of the stance that former-Ranger Sean Avery took when he declared himself as a supporter of gay marriage and made it known that he would stand by an openly gay teammate and support them and their decision to come out.
"I'll stand beside him in the dressing room while he tells his teammates he is gay. Maybe if Sean Avery is there, they would have less of a problem with it."
Obviously Sean Avery is no longer a Ranger but as I said earlier in this piece, there are several prominent Rangers who have lent their voices to the You Can Play Project. One would imagine that the Rangers' locker room would be as accepting as any in the league, especially with influential players like Lundqvist and Nash making it known that they support the idea of openly gay athletes in their sport but there are always concerns about an entire fanbase being as accepting and tolerant as Hank, Nash, and Boyle.
Of course it is unfair of me to categorize an entire fanbase's prejudices based on drunken shouts at the Garden and countless ignorant, hateful comments on message boards. I sincerely hope that I am wrong and that the majority of Ranger fans will do what I think Ranger fans do best, which is support a player who does his job well, regardless of who he is, where he's from, or what his personal life is like. With that being said, I would expect Ranger fans to be just as vicious and short-tempered should an openly gay Ranger start to struggle or underperform and that is just the way it should be... equal treatment, equal respect, and equal support so long as you can play.
Even if New York and its hockey fans embrace an openly gay player, that player would still have to play half of their games on the road. So the real question isn't whether or not New York City and Ranger fans are ready for an openly gay player. The real question is whether or not the league and hockey fans everywhere are ready for an openly gay hockey player.
One can hope that hockey fans everywhere of every age and gender are ready and waiting for that first brave athlete to step forward. I for one know that I am ready for that athlete and have been for as long as I've been a hockey fan. No matter how uncomfortable discussing gay rights and openly gay people might make some people there is no escaping the fact that if a gay hockey player is good enough to make an NHL team then he deserves to play in the NHL.
My question to you guys is do you think that New York fans would embrace an openly gay hockey player? Do you think we'll see an openly gay NHL athlete in the next five years? The next ten? Do you think New York is among the more "hospitable" places for an openly gay athlete?
Have at it in the comments.
Let's Go Rangers.