Sports

Transgender hockey pioneer would 'love to see a gay man come out' in NHL

For years, something always felt off when Harrison Browne heard his name announced after scoring a goal. After playing as Hailey Browne early in his career, he is believed to be the first publicly transgender player in professional hockey.

Retired NWHL player Harrison Browne speaks of journey as part of COC discussion panel

Harrison Browne, believed to be the first publicly transgender player in professional hockey, weighed in on his journey as part of a COC panel on Friday, discussing inclusion in sport on the eve of Pride weekend in Toronto. (Adam Pulicicchio/COC)

For years, something always felt off when Harrison Browne heard his name announced after scoring a goal.

Browne, who played as Hailey Browne early in his career, is believed to be the first publicly transgender player in professional hockey. He went public with his story in 2016 and finally got to hear the different pronoun and name called out after scoring for the National Women's Hockey League's Buffalo Beauts later that year.

"I scored a goal and I heard, 'Harrison Browne, his first of the season,' over the speakers," Browne said Friday. "It was just seeing my two worlds come together and I didn't have to worry any more."

Browne, now retired from the NWHL, weighed in on his journey as part of a Canadian Olympic Committee panel discussion on inclusion in sport on the eve of Pride weekend in Toronto.

The Oakville, Ont., native played for Canada at the 2011 world U18 women's hockey championship and had a three-year run at the University of Maine ahead of his debut pro season in the NWHL in 2015-16.

Friends, family and teammates — who would often call him by the nicknames 'Harry' or 'Brownie' — knew for years that Browne was a transgender man.

He decided to go public after seeing Chris Mosier become the first transgender athlete to pose for ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue.

"I saw the wrong name all the time and I saw the wrong pronouns," said Browne. "Every success that I had, it was taken away bit by bit every time that I saw that because it wasn't me. It wasn't me winning those games, it wasn't me coming together with my teammates.

"To not be able to be myself, my on-ice play definitely struggled and my everyday life. I was spiralling down into a pretty dark space. But once I was able to let the world know who I was and I took that mask off I said, 'I'm Harrison. This is me. Take it or leave it."'

He advised the league of the change and felt a lot of support from all corners. The word really got out when Browne's story was featured in an ESPN article before his second NWHL season.

From left to right: Olympic figure skating champion Eric Radford, Egale Canada’s Helen Kennedy, cyclist Kristen Worley and former National Women's Hockey League player Harrison Browne (Adam Pulicicchio/COC)

A week later, hearing his goal announcement brought everything into alignment.

"I was just playing my sport for the love of sport and I didn't have anything in the back of my mind because I was able to be free," Browne said.

"It was such a powerful moment," he added. "My teammates were congratulating me on the bench but the crowd was actually the loudest I had ever heard it. To hear the support with that, with Buffalo, was amazing."

Browne won the NWHL championship — the Isobel Cup — with the Beauts in 2017. He won again last year with the Newark, N.J.-based Metropolitan Riveters before ending his NWHL career and proceeding with hormone therapy and physical transition surgery.

Browne, who makes regular speaking engagements across the continent, said that he'd like to see more visibility in the men's side of hockey.

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"For next steps, I'd love to see a gay man come out on an NHL team," he said. "I'd love to see the support that they would receive and I would love to see the league's reaction to that because it's a long time coming.

"I think we're ready for it."

Browne was joined at the COC panel discussion by figure skater Eric Radford, cyclist Kristen Worley, CBC sports journalist Devin Heroux and Egale Canada executive director Helen Kennedy.

Radford announced a $10,000 contribution from the Canadian Olympic Foundation towards the sports inclusion officer and facilitator position created by You Can Play and Egale Canada.