NHL, You Can Play spread message of inclusion

The NHL is once again putting the issue of LGBTQ rights in the spotlight. Throughout February, the NHL, the NHL Players' Association and the You Can Play Project have celebrated "Hockey Is For Everyone" month to support diversity, equality and inclusion in the sport.

Initiative hits home with players

The Edmonton Oilers honoured the You Can Play Project on Feb. 14 for a regular-season game against the Arizona Coyotes. (@PrideTape/Twitter)

The NHL is once again putting the issue of LGBTQ rights in the spotlight.

Throughout February, the NHL, the NHL Players' Association and the You Can Play Project have celebrated "Hockey Is For Everyone" month to support diversity, equality and inclusion in the sport. 

The league and its players have partnered with You Can Play since April 2013 on activities fighting homophobia in sports, along with removing stereotypes related to gender, ethnicity and disabilities.

The You Can Play campaign was born five years ago, after a 2010 car accident took the life of 21-year-old Brendan Burke, the youngest son of current Calgary Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke. 

Just months prior, Brendan came out to the hockey world as a gay man while he was the manager of the hockey team at Miami University in Ohio.

The NHL and its teams are supporting You Can Play throughout the month, through sponsored games and public service announcements. During warmups, many players have shown their support for the LGBTQ community by putting  "Pride Tape" on their shin pads and sticks.

To further the cause, each NHL club has an LGBTQ ambassador, who is responsible for attending events and responding to media questions or issues. 

"[It's] a really exciting moment for the NHL," You Can Play co-founder Patrick Burke, Brendan's brother, told CBC Radio's Metro Morning earlier in February. "It's the first time that any professional league has had one designated player on each team who will be the LGBTQ ambassador."

However, it hasn't just been the ambassadors that have embraced the cause — fellow teammates, coaches, executives and fans have been eager to show their support.

"We are overwhelmed with the support that we've seen," says You Can Play vice president of operations and development Jillian Svensson. "The positive traction and responses that we've seen from the athletes, the coaches, the fans, the management — it's just been overwhelmingly positive. Everybody is using their platforms to support our message of acceptance and inclusiveness." 

Van Riemsdyk brothers playing big role

Forward James van Riemsdyk is the You Can Play ambassador for the Toronto Maple Leafs, while his younger brother Trevor is the representative for the Chicago Blackhawks. The Middletown, N.J., brothers are longtime advocates of the campaign and both point to their upbringing as the reason.

"I think our parents always kind of raised us to treat everyone with respect and that everyone is your equal," the Leafs veteran says. "[My brother and I] were always raised that way... As long as someone is a good person or a good teammate or in this instance a good hockey player, that's the only thing that we really care about." 

For Leafs head coach Mike Babcock, it's the bottom line that counts. 

"The world changes and everybody is important. Everyone should have the right to live the way they want to live and do the things they want to do. Here's how simple it is: If you're good enough to play, you get to play."

'At the end of the day, we are family'

Unlike several other pro sports leagues, the NHL hasn't had an openly gay player. Despite the growth of the You Can Play movement, players say there is still considerable work to be done, and creating a comfort level for athletes remains the priority. 

While playing for the Chicago Blackhawks last year in the playoffs, current Montreal Canadiens forward Andrew Shaw was suspended for one game after yelling a homophobic slur. Shaw is the You Can Play ambassador in Montreal this year. 

"The league has taken a strong stance on slurs," Leafs forward Matt Martin says. "I think that guys are pretty respectful of that nowadays. At the same time, I think it takes some time... when I was younger, the things guys would say to each other were a lot different. They weren't right." 

Neither Martin nor James van Riemsdyk hesitates when asked if he would support an openly gay teammate. 

"It's fine by me," Martin says. "It doesn't change the way I think of anyone. At the end of the day, we are family." 

Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup-winning goalie Matt Murray is a longtime supporter of the initiative who first got involved while playing junior hockey.

"I've kind of watched [the initiative] grow," Murray says. "I did a video when I played in [Sault Ste. Marie]. I was 17 at the time. I think we were one of the first teams to do it. [Current Maple Leafs assistant general manager] Kyle Dubas was our GM at the time. He was the one that set it up and asked me to be in the video.

"I love what the organization stands for: inclusion for all. It's a great cause. I'm more than happy to support it.

"I think sport is a great way of unifying people," Murray adds. "It's [something] that everyone can stand together with. The You Can Play campaign has really taken off in the last couple of years."


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