As It Happens·Q&A

Hockey Canada report the tip of the iceberg for homophobia in the sport, says ex-player

Hockey Canada report says that of the 512 penalties called by officials last season, 61 per cent involved sexual orientation or gender identity. Brock McGillis, one of the first pro hockey players to come out as gay, says that represents a small fraction of the homophobia at play in the sport.

'There's a homophobic slur or some type of slur said every time a team enters a locker room': Brock McGillis

A man in a white T-shirt pictured in profile speaking into a mic and gesturing with his hands.
Former Ontario Hockey League player Brock McGillis was one of the first professional hockey players to come out as gay. Now he works to improve the culture in the sport. (Submitted by Brock McGillis)

Warning: This story briefly mentions self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

Homophobic and racist slurs are downright commonplace in hockey locker rooms, says Brock McGillis. 

And he should know. He played professional hockey for much of his young adulthood, in Europe, the U.S. and the Ontario Hockey League.

After he retired, he came out as gay in 2016, making him one of the first pro hockey players to do so. Since then, he's worked as a hockey mentor and an activist, pushing to change what he calls "a culture in deep need of repair."

On Friday, a Hockey Canada report found there were 900 documented or alleged incidents of on-ice discrimination across all levels and age groups during the 2021-22 season. Of the 512 penalties called by officials last season, 61 per cent involved sexual orientation or gender identity, according to the report.

McGillis says that's just a small fraction of the homophobia at play in the sport. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

What kind of behaviour, specifically, do these results point to? What exactly is happening out there?

If I break down hockey culture, I look at it, and the reality is — and this isn't a bad thing; I don't want anyone to get upset when I say this — it's predominantly white. It's assumed to be straight.

And it's an incredibly insular world where you're broken up by age and skill level and put into a locker room with coaches who come from the same culture and grew up in that culture. And you can basically say or do whatever you want without any ramifications or recourse. 

This happens throughout our minor hockey years, five or six nights a week. And then when they reach junior, they move away from home, and now they're seven days a week, day and night, with their teammates who come from similar cultures all over, into one team.

Is there homophobia? One hundred per cent. Is there racism? You bet. Is there misogyny and sexism? Yes. 

And we have to do more to humanize these issues so that people recognize it and the impact of it.

 Man in a hoodie stands on the ice with five young players.
McGillis, centre, hopes junior hockey players heed his message of acceptance. (Submitted by Brock McGillis)

What kinds of things have you seen or have people in those seminars revealed to you about what they've experienced?

I have heard and seen everything from kids calling a kid a slur and threatening to "Jeffrey Dahmer" him, to direct homophobic language.

I've had hundreds of kids come to me who have quit the sport, if not more. And that's just kids. That doesn't include adults who have come to me that left the sport long ago because of either the harassment and bullying they experienced; just the casual language they were exposed to, which made them feel bad or wrong, or like they couldn't be themselves; or a combination of the two.

Why do you think, especially at these young ages, this language is still accepted and is still considered OK by a lot of people, even though it clearly is not?

We're told in hockey what's said in the room stays in the room. We're told by coaches from a young age. So when you have coaches who come from a culture, they perpetuate the culture, because it's all they know. We're all products of an environment, and this is the environment we are a product of.

And the scary part about it is hockey has such an influence on Canadian culture that then it filters into schools and it filters into mainstream society, and it becomes normalized language and behaviours elsewhere. And then the cycle continues over and over again.

What are other LGBTQ+ younger hockey players telling you about what it has meant for them and their decision to play or not play this game?

They're leaving. They're quitting. I had a kid one year come to me. He was a 90-something [grade] student in school and a really good hockey player. And then he started to figure out his sexuality, and he became a zombie. He felt like everyone was judging him, even though he wasn't out. The language being used made him ... resent himself, hate himself.

And he would just write his name on tests. His hockey play deteriorated. His life was collapsing, in a sense, until he quit hockey and started getting himself back on track.

How is he doing now?

He's doing a lot better. And I worked with him for a long time.

I look at myself. I was self-harming and suicidal. I hated myself. I resented who I was. I adhered to the hypermasculine norms of the culture. I was a womanizing hockey pro that partied hard. And I'm ashamed to admit that I was a womanizer, but I was. And I think it's important to admit, you know, as we come to terms with the things we've done and we evolve and grow.

I couldn't be me and play a sport I loved. Even when I finally accepted that I was gay and I started dating somebody, I dated somebody for three years closeted. Not a soul in my life knew. And for his friends, we had an alias, so they wouldn't find me on social media. I had a secret life so that I could play hockey.

That's an impossible way to live, isn't it?

It was exhausting. It was worse than suppressing it.

How are you doing now?

You know, I'm great. I really am.

WATCH  | A junior A hockey team captain weighs in on his sport's culture:

'There’s no room for that,' says young athlete in wake of Hockey Canada scandal

2 months ago
Duration 2:36
Ian Devlin, captain of the Coquitlam Express junior A hockey team, weighs in on his sport’s culture.

Documenting these numbers, keeping a record of the statistics, will help — or should help — as things move forward. Because if you have the statistics, then you can build strategies to combat it, one would hope. But how do you think Hockey Canada should deal with the players who do these kinds of things?

Ultimately, I don't care about the statistics, to be quite honest with you. I think they can be skewed. Like I said, I think there's a homophobic slur or some type of slur said every time a team enters a locker room. So I think these numbers are incredibly low versus the amount of language that's been used. 

We'll know when it stops because we'll see queer kids and more BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of colour] folks and trans kids play in the sport. That's when we'll know. But currently, we don't have that.

To me, we need to be proactive as opposed to reactive. The suspensions aren't doing anything to change people. They're just not. People are just learning not to get caught.

What can Hockey Canada do today — or someone in a locker room [do] today — to change things?

I actually wrote a piece in the Globe and Mail in July right after the [Hockey Canada sexual assault allegations] came out. And I talked about a path forward with all these issues. And it starts with humanizing.

That's what I try to do. I'm a humanizer. I go in and share my lived experience in these spaces and the impact.

From there, they will be engaged. I've seen it. 

If you or someone you know is struggling, here's where to get help:

This guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you're worried about.

With files from The Canadian Press. Interview produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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