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Why our issues with NHL individuality could keep gay players from coming out

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During the touching (and wholly deserved) public outpouring of adoration and respect for now-retired Detroit Red Wings' defender Nicklas Lidstrom — who was, according to nearly everyone, so truly the embodiment of class that "classes" in several Michigan school districts should rightly be called Lidstroms — Ken Holland gave Lidstrom a great compliment.

Holland called Lidstrom a "no-maintenance" player.

It was a great quote, a testament to Lidstrom's ability to drive the Red Wings' success without ever making himself the centre of attention, and it was trumpeted as a model for present and future NHL players. But at the same time, it's important to note that the Lidstrom approach isn't for everybody. Not every player is muted, and I think it does a disservice to progress to trumpet Lidstrom's quiet way as the only way.

Most notably, I can't help but think that if I were a gay hockey player, it's sentiment of this sort that would make me wary to come out.

Who wants to stand out in a league where standing out is perceived as a problem? The league wants no-maintenance players, and the disclosure of an alternate sexuality is going to require maintenance.

It seems reasonable to assume that there is at least one gay hockey player in the NHL, something Tanner Glass touched on when he joined the You Can Play Project back in March.

"The fact there are no openly gay athletes in our sport is not right," he told the Winnipeg Sun. "If you look at the numbers, statistically there's got to be a few guys."

Glass is correct. It's difficult to actually get a handle on what percentage of the population is homosexual, but most recent studies put the demographic at somewhere between 2-3%. Even at the two percent figure, with an NHLPA of about 700 players, we're looking at approximately 14 gay hockey players. Playing it safe, we can comfortably pare that number down to "a few" and assume that we're in the ballpark.

But right now, as far as we know, there are none in the NHL. And if someone chooses to make his sexual orientation known, there will be one. Just one.

There will also be a media circus. This individual will be a trailblazer, of course, and Lord knows that there are several parties around the league waiting with bated breath for this player to come out. In a recent interview with Adam Proteau of The Hockey News, Patrick Burke, founder of the You Can Play Project, predicted that the league would have an openly gay NHL player within the next two years.

But this isn't just Burke's opinion. It's also his hope. After all, paving the way for hockey players to be comfortable being open about their sexuality is the entire purpose of the charity. It would validate the brave work that Burke is doing, and give the project a role model that goes beyond heterosexual players obliging requests to film brief, supportive PSAs, knowing they've got nothing to lose, especially when everyone else is doing it.

The You Can Play Project is making some serious progress, but when it comes to embracing uniqueness, the league is woefully behind. In the NHL, if "individual" isn't appended by "effort", it's typically framed as a flaw. Hockey may not have any openly gay hockey players, but it does have several openly unique hockey players, and they've been openly criticized for this shortcoming all season long.

Consider the cases of Ilya Bryzgalov and Tim Thomas.

The curious case of Ilya Bryzgalov

What did we learn over the course of this NHL season? Among other things, that Ilya Bryzgalov is a strange bird.

The fact that we only truly learned this in 2011-12 — that Ilya Bryzgalov, of all people, somehow managed to fly under the radar until now -- is a testament to four things: Dave Tippett's remarkable system, which can quietly make Mike Smith and Jason LaBarbera seem like Mike Richter and John Vanbiesbrouck; the massive difference between hockey coverage in Arizona and coverage in Philadelphia, where they grow beat reporters on a farm over in Chester County; Bryzgalov's nutty contract, which pays him 70 kajillion dollars for eleventy billion years and comes with attention; and HBO's 24/7, which provided even more.

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It ain't easy bein' Bryzy

Suddenly, Bryzgalov had cameras and microphones in his face at all times, and it was excellent. All year long, he bantered with the throng, quipped, dropped hilarious non sequiturs, and made funny faces. Bryzgalov's performance in the scrum was a joy to watch.

On the ice, he was less so.

No matter what the Flyers tried (short of playing defence in front of him), they couldn't get him anywhere close to his playing level in Phoenix.

Worse, when he played poorly, many attempting to explain his struggles invariably shifted towards his personality. Somehow, his unpredictability off the ice became merged with his unpredictability on the ice, as though his tendency to let in a bad goal was a symptom of the same quirkiness that made him such a fun interview.

To hear the media tell it, occasionally, rather than stop a puck, Bryzgalov would shout "Tra la la!" and pirouette out of the crease.

In an effort to stamp out his damnable whimsy, as early as November, Bryzgalov had been muzzled by the Flyers. A Bryzgalov start meant he was kept from reporters the day before the game and during the morning skate, and only released to them afterwards.

The media were annoyed, but they reacted mostly with amusement. Broad Street Hockey's Travis Hughes went with bemusement:

Why is it that a man getting paid $51 million to stop pucks is distracted by talking to a few people with recorders and note pads? If the problem is that there's a lot more media in Philadelphia than there was in Phoenix, let's point out the absurdity in that. Talking to eight people or ten people or 15 people is no more difficult than talking to two. Not when you're a professional athlete, and especially not one who's clearly the opposite of shy with the media.

The Flyers instituted this policy with Bryzgalov today. Why did they do that? It's absolutely insane to believe that he just can't handle the distraction of talking with the media. That assertion does not pass the smell test.

No kidding it doesn't pass the smell test. But it's an indication of what happens to unique characters in the NHL. If they play poorly, they effectively lose the right to stand out. It's entirely possible — nay, likely — that Bryzgalov's jesting with the media had absolutely nothing to do with his spotty play this season, but because he had the audacity to draw attention to his personality, it was assumed that the problem lay there.

What upset me so much about this was the notion that Bryzgalov was hurting the Flyers because of who he was. I wonder if any closeted gay hockey players noticed that.

But Bryzgalov wasn't the only player to pay a price for letting the public get to know him.

The curious case of Tim Thomas

By the end of the 2010-11 season, Tim Thomas was an American hero. He had just put in one of the best individual campaigns in NHL history. His praise was endless.

More than just his netminding, however, people praised Thomas's personable nature, his never-give-up attitude, and what Joe MacDonald called his boy-next-door image.

The irony is that people loved who Thomas was precisely because they didn't really know who he was. This couldn't have been more evident than when he unexpectedly opted to skip the team's ceremonial visit to the White House in January. The Boston Herald's Margary Eagan summed up the reaction of the hockey world upon learning of this:

"The only thing I knew about Thomas until yesterday had to do with phenomenal hockey playing. Here's what I suspect today: He's a spoiled brat."

Eventually, Thomas made his political views known on his Facebook page, explaining that he didn't agree with the direction of the government and that he had exercised his right a a free citizen by skipping the trip. It rubbed plenty the wrong way, but it truly was his right.

Furthermore, speaking of right, this was the first time anyone realized how far in that direction Thomas leaned politically, and it caused sentiment to turn sharply, even within the Bruins' fanbase.

This was Thomas the person showing himself, and people didn't like it. Thomas attempted to make the distinction at the All-Star break. From ESPN:

"Everything that I said and did was as an individual. It was not as a representative of the Boston Bruins," Thomas said Friday at All-Star Weekend in Ottawa. "All it has to do is with me. But it's separate from hockey. That's my personal life and those are my personal views. Those are my personal beliefs. It has nothing to do with hockey. It has nothing to do with this All-Star Game. It has nothing to do with the Boston Bruins."

Unfortunately for Thomas, not everyone found it so easy to bifurcate the incident, and his White House no-show was held up as a contributing factor in the Bruins' decline over the back half of the season. The before and after statistics didn't help: the Bruins were 31-13-2 before Thomas stayed home, and 18-16-2 after.

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But did this incident really effect Thomas's or the Bruins' play?

Probably not.

Nevermind that the team's superior record prior to the visit was inflated by their remarkable November, or that they were already cooling leading into the trip to Washington, with 4 losses in their last 9 games. Thomas took much of the blame for disrupting the delicate, delicate team chemistry by having opinions not everyone shared.

Effectively, most argued, he should have swallowed his convictions -- a pretty important aspect of his identity -- because it was best for the team.

I hate this. I thought it was a pretty silly decision at the time, and I still do, but that's because I'm me. I don't have Thomas's convictions or his opinions. I'm not Tim Thomas. If he believes strongly in this decision, he should be allowed to make it, and the fact that we expected him to be someone he wasn't for the sake of the team seems unfair.

Furthermore, the fact that most of the hockey community turned on him after seeing a part of his identity that had nothing to do with his play on the ice is alarming, especially as a reflection of how we might embrace a gay athlete.

As I said, hockey doesn't have any openly gay athletes, but we saw with both Thomas and Bryzgalov what I believe to be part of the reason why.

The more we know about players, the more ways we can criticize them. Frankly, it's dangerous to stray from the mould at all, as Ellen Etchingham recently pointed out. From Backhand Shelf:

All it takes to ruin an image is the mismanagement of one interview, one bad soundbite, one embarrassing iPhone pic. Every player has something in him, some opinion, some idea, some off-ice habit that could be that thing, for things that are in no way wrong by human standards- like going clubbing, or not understanding Chinese tiger-poaching laws, or disliking the Flyers- are heresy for hockey players. Cross any one of these arbitrary and often invisible lines and your life becomes a sea of the same stupid jokes and repetitive questions, people making fun of your habits and questioning your character, which (again) is difficult to handle gracefully and even more difficult not to be distracted by.

There are reasons why hockey might be the ideal sport for an openly gay athlete, but the way we suppress and criticize the other into submission is hardly one of them.

Granted, in both Thomas and Bryzgalov's cases, there were a few additional circumstances working against them. Bryzgalov's contract made his poor play downright impossible to stomach, and you can't snub the White House as Thomas did without eliciting gasps. Additionally, many will hail the first gay hockey player as brave, and attack pretty much anybody who attempts to say otherwise.

But sentiment won't be entirely positive. While I'd argue that many of us and many within the hockey community are progressive enough to accept a gay hockey player as they would anyone else, there are several that don't share this acceptance and are simply smart enough to say nothing about it.

Consider the reception retired basketball player John Amaechi received when he came out in 2007. It was very mixed. There were those that embraced it openly, those that denounced it stupidly, such as Tim Hardaway, who said, "First of all, I wouldn't want him on my team," then only made worse points, and plenty of others who exposed some serious uneasiness.

(My favourite was Shavik Randolph, who said, "As long as you don't bring your gayness on me, I'm fine." I remain uncertain as to whether Randolph fears being confronted by gayness or infected by it.)

I have my doubts that anyone coming out in the NHL today would be met with only positivity. More likely, he'd see homophobic, accepting, and uneasy reactions in equal measure, and all of these would add up to the worst thing imaginable: attention.

In both Thomas and Bryzgalov's cases, winning more games would likely have muted the criticism, and no doubt the best thing that could happen to the first openly gay hockey player would be a quick Stanley Cup. But any slump that followed the disclosure would be blamed on the disclosure and the way it disrupted team chemistry. If what we're led to believe is true, teams are fragile collective psyches whose soul resonance isn't even remotely possibility without the complete removal of any sort of static whatsoever.

All of this in mind, and with the public crucifixions of Thomas, Bryzgalov, and anyone else who fails to be a no-maintenance player, I could see more than one gay hockey player deciding, for the sake of team chemistry and the avoidance of distraction, that it's probably easier to stay in the closet until they're done with hockey.

According to Burke, if it's strictly performance the player is worried out, coming out could improve his play. I spoke to him about his experience speaking of other athletes that have come out.

"They talked about burdens being lifted from their shoulders," he said, "feeling more comfortable with who they are. These guys have all told me it's almost a universal sentiment ... I don't anticipate it being a distraction for the player or the team. I anticipate it being a positive."

Burke also had something to say about any player's fears of the media circus and potential team distraction that would come with that.

"We've dealt with enough media members, we've dealt with enough fans, we've dealt with enough other players that we know that that won't be an issue," he said. "The hockey world is ready for it and frankly I think going to become a rallying point for the players, for the team. They're gonna rally around the guy who does it and not use him as a scapegoat or anything."

But that's optimistic. We see players scapegoated all the time, often for the silliest crap (such as, say, being born in Russia), and his teammates can do only do so much to combat this negativity. Furthermore, in my opinion, if a gay hockey player shared that optimism, he wouldn't still be keeping his sexual orientation under wraps.

And finally, You Can Play has a plan to minimize the scrutiny and eliminate the pressures of being the first guy to go through this circus: no first guy.

"This is why ideally we'd like to do it as a group, get four or five guys together who want to come out and do it as a group," said Burke. "That way there's no first guy -- there's a first five guys."

"We've let enough people in the hockey community know that we're here to support anyone who wants to come out. What we would like to do is make it so there's a group. Whether it's retired players, whether it's current players, whether it's coaches or media or whatever it might be. Having it done as a group, I think, would take a lot of the pressure off everybody."

It really would. Our problems with those who stand out are at the root of my concern for gay athletes opening up about sexual orientation, but that concern is definitely mitigated if we can take the individual out of it by rolling out a supportive and like-minded community all at once.


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