There’s a short pause while Brock McGillis tries to find the right word.
“Unbelievable,” he finally said.
That’s the word the former Ontario Hockey League goaltender uses to describe the outpouring of support he’s received since publicly coming out as gay in a Yahoo Canada Sports article published last Thursday.
Since the first-person piece detailing his struggle with homophobia in the hockey world was published, he’s been inundated by messages from people via text and social media. He said he had been prepared for negative or no reaction – save for friends and family – so when the messages started pouring in, he was shocked.
“I didn’t expect this,” McGillis said from his hometown of Sudbury, Ont. “This was on a whole different level. On Thursday the amount of messages I received – text messages, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram – I would say was almost in the 10,000 range.”
People he hasn’t heard from in years – including old teachers, friends, and former teammates – have reached out show their support.
“I had former teammates apologize and say, ‘I’m sorry if I ever made you feel uncomfortable.’ Or if they ever used language that offended or hurt me,” said McGillis. “I’ve had people who coach minor hockey say this is going to influence how they talk and the kind of language they allow their players to use.”
McGillis said he’s already met with Hockey Canada about the possibility of working with them to try and make hockey more inclusive at all levels of the sport. The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League has also reached out to see if he might be able to talk to their teams about changing a hockey culture that is often rife with toxic masculinity.
The one league he hasn’t heard from is the OHL – where he played with the Windsor Spitfires and Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He had contacted them long before the article’s release hoping to meet with commissioner David Branch, but never heard back.
“It’s the league I played in and it’s been a part of my life,” said McGillis. “I also work with players (as a trainer) who are now in the league and others who are striving to get into the league. So I was hoping we could work together to help create change and curb homophobia in hockey.
“I’m hopeful I’ll hear from them in the near future.”
Over the years McGillis and I had discussed publishing something a number of times. Timing was always an issue – particularly with his involvement in hockey. In June, after being influenced by the Pulse nightclub shootings in which 49 people were killed in Orlando, Florida, McGillis became serious about wanting to tell his story. There was some hesitation on my end. There might be a backlash – especially with his business in Sudbury – where he was training young players.
“What if they blackball you?” I asked.
“It can’t get any worse than it is now,” he said.
Prior to coming out, rumours in the tight-knit hockey community in Sudbury about McGillis’ sexuality had spread. As a result, he not only lost coaching opportunities, but some people he considered friends. It’s been an emotional journey and publishing his story has been only part of the process.
“It’s almost been like therapy,” said McGillis on a personal level. “I lost so many friendships along the way because I wasn’t myself.
“I lived it and I shared it and I went through a lot of emotion sharing it. It has been emotional.”
This experience has been so positive that he’s excited about moving forward and working with organizations to help revolutionize the locker room discourse. He said the biggest thing he’s learned is that there are many people out there – not only just in hockey – who want to be allies for the LGBTQ community.
“What I’ve realized is that there can be a shift in the culture,” said McGillis. “There can be a shift in the hockey community; it’s just going to take some work.
“Your words have so much power. It’s going to be the coaches, management, players and parents that have to recognize that at the grassroots levels. If you can change that culture with kids, then by the time they get older it hasn’t been a product of their environment. It hasn’t been ingrained in them.”