Former OHLer Brock McGillis: 'I lived a life of denial, because I am gay'

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Goaltender Brock McGillis and hockey legend Vladislav Tretiak. (Photo: McGillis family photos)
Goaltender Brock McGillis and hockey legend Vladislav Tretiak. (Photo: McGillis family photos)

 

Brock McGillis
Special to Yahoo Sports Canada

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Brock McGillis is a former OHL, CIS and semi-professional hockey player who now works mentoring minor hockey and junior-aged players. He shares his story of coming out with Yahoo Sports:

For years I lived a life full of lies. Growing up in a culture of hockey – minor hockey, the Ontario Hockey League, university hockey, and semi-pro in Europe – I felt I would never be accepted. 

For years I lived a life of denial, because I am gay. 

Hockey has always been very homophobic. I can’t count the amount of times I heard phrases like: That’s gay or what a homo in the dressing room over the course of my hockey career. Words like fag, p---y, and b---h are part of the daily banter. Those words are used to belittle players, to weaken and feminize them, because hockey is hyper-masculine, meant for the manliest of men.  

From a young age, I knew I was gay. I remember being a child and watching a movie with a gay character.  I asked my parents: “Am I gay?” Their response was: “I’m not sure but if you are, you are.”

So I was fortunate to grow up in a supporting household without judgment or negativity towards homosexuality.

That was not the case with hockey family. Hyper-masculinity and hockey go hand-in-hand, so I had to lie to fit in with my teammates. I began dating as many girls as I could to avoid being exposed. I became a womanizer. In the OHL I had to have a girlfriend and she always had to be one everyone thought was attractive. It felt empty. I felt empty. I suppressed my sexuality to the point that I was angry at myself if I had sexual thoughts that weren’t heterosexual. 

The fear of exposing myself as a fraud was all-consuming and that, combined with the drive to continue my hockey career, was a toxic mix. I tried to isolate myself from my teammates. The depression was constant and I often found myself crying for what seemed like no reason at all.

I was gay, but couldn’t share my secret with anyone. I trusted no one. I felt hollow inside. It started to manifest in my play and I was constantly injured. Playing hockey was where I always felt the most joy. As a kid I would skate 12 times a week. I was the boy whose parents would show up to the rink with dinner because I wouldn’t leave. The boy who would walk with his equipment to the arena down the street hoping a team was short a goalie for practice so I could skate. By the time I realized I was gay it had become my lone sanctuary; it allowed me to escape my thoughts and fears.

Goaltender Brock McGillis played in the Ontario Hockey League with the Soo Greyhounds and the Windsor Spitfires. (Photo: McGillis family photos)
Goaltender Brock McGillis played in the Ontario Hockey League with the Soo Greyhounds and the Windsor Spitfires. (Photo: McGillis family photos)

On the ice I could forget my secret and its consequences but when injuries took their toll, I had no escape. With hockey gone, there was nothing to live for and by this point I wanted to die. I had to face who I am and I didn’t know how to. Without hockey I had no place to hide from my thoughts and fears. I had an internal struggle with still wanting to be a hockey player and thinking that I couldn’t be myself and play the game I love. The injuries, the fears, the rehab, the secrets all seemed like too much. I didn’t see a point in living. In hindsight, I should have reached out to my supportive family, but the fear of them slipping up and inadvertently exposing my secret was so great that I felt I couldn’t tell anyone.

The decision to finally come out happened when I was 22 and playing hockey in Europe. One night I went on a gay dating website and saw a number of men married to women who were living double lives. Did I want to live that way too? How long would I have to keep up the charade? I began going out on dates in Toronto, a place where I felt I could be anonymous without being outed in the hockey community. When I began a serious relationship, no one could know. I was constantly paranoid. I used an alias for his friends and refused to let him meet anyone in my family. Even at that point, I was two years into a serious relationship but couldn’t come clean about who I was because I had intentions of continuing my hockey career.

Eventually I went to play university hockey at Concordia in Montreal. Despite loving my partner I told him that I might have to sleep with women to keep up appearances. What a thing to say to someone you loved. It still hurts to think of how badly I wanted approval in a world that didn’t approve of me. The relationship ended shortly after and it is still one of the biggest regrets of my life.

My second year in Montreal, team nights would end with me sneaking off to the gay village. There was no gay network for me or friends I could talk to about what I was going through. Then someone came into my life who put everything into place for me: Brendan Burke.

Brendan, the son of Calgary Flames president Brian Burke, had already come out publicly as gay. He had his own NHL aspirations as an executive and I reached out to him. We quickly became friends. When you spend your life feeling like an outsider it was amazing to have someone understand your struggles. Brendan inspired me because he was so driven to create change in the way homosexuals are perceived in sports.

Tragically Brendan was killed in a car accident on Feb. 5, 2010. Two days before his death we exchanged messages on Facebook and he wrote: “I can’t wait until the day that you’re out like I am.”

Those were his last words to me.

He was the only person who knew my secret and he was gone. I cried for days. Shortly after I told my younger brother, who was also a semi-pro hockey player, and with his support I came out to the rest of my family.

When the injuries finally took their toll and my hockey career ended, it felt liberating. I could finally be free and experience life as a gay man without judgment from the hockey community. It didn’t last long. After finishing school, I began to work with athletes in my hometown of Sudbury, Ont., helping them with on-ice and off-ice training. I also started coaching players who were looking to advance to the next level (OHL or NCAA).

Brock McGillis training future OHL and NCAA prospects. L to R: Matt Mayhew, Damien Giroux, Brett Jacklin, Brock McGillis, Brad Chenier & Daniel Walker
Brock McGillis training future OHL and NCAA prospects. L to R: Matt Mayhew, Damien Giroux, Brett Jacklin, Brock McGillis, Brad Chenier & Daniel Walker

For the last five years I have helped hundreds of players reach their goals – but I’ve done it with caution. I never divulged my sexuality to any of the athletes I’ve worked with and was always quick to shut down any homophobic language used in my presence. Eventually I noticed a change: when a player said something like, “That’s gay,” they would quickly apologize. Then one day, while talking to two hockey dads one used the term “c***sucker.” An hour later he called me to apologize because he respected me. He also said that he and a few others had figured out why I had been so adamant about trying to change the culture. That really hit home for me. Since then I’ve had parents try to set me up on dates and players tell me that they know and are cool with the fact that I am gay.

There has also been backlash. Homophobia still exists in today’s hockey culture. Some people in the hockey community have blackballed me from working with certain teams. People – who were once considered friends – no longer speak to me. It has been challenging being one of the first out people in this hockey community, but that has made the reward even greater. Since coming out in my community, the rewards greatly outweigh the negativity. Being able to help players get to the OHL or NCAA and work with others to realize their dreams is incredible. From my own experience the biggest hurdle in terms of acceptance will come from older generations. Some adults still perpetuate homophobic beliefs and behaviours. That dialogue must be changed and everyone – players, coaches, management, and parents – needs to play a part. Words and actions are a learned behaviour. How many times have you heard a parent, coach or player use derogatory language at the rink?

Cliches like "Boys being boys" and "Locker room talk" were never valid defences – this is why I’m telling my story. I’m telling my story to start a dialogue. If you are gay, lesbian or trans and playing hockey, know that you are not alone. Know that you are not the only one.

Know that I am here for you, the way Brendan Burke was there for me, because it gives me an immense sense of pride carrying on his legacy by saying: “I can’t wait until the day that you’re out like I am.”

Brock McGillis is a former OHL, CIS and semi-professional hockey player who now works mentoring minor hockey and junior-aged players. Follow him on Twitter: @brock_mcgillis

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