WASHINGTON — The National Hockey League moved Thursday to formalize its work in support of making the sport welcoming for LGBT players and fans — the most comprehensive action taken on the issue by any of the men's major leagues.
In announcing a partnership with the You Can Play Project, a program started by Patrick Burke to fight homophobia and transphobia in sports, the league and players' association are breaking new ground among piecemeal efforts in several of the men's major leagues to make sports more welcoming for LGBT people.
"Our motto is 'Hockey Is For Everyone,'" NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement announcing the news, "and our partnership with You Can Play certifies that position in a clear and unequivocal way. While we believe that our actions in the past have shown our support for the LGBT community, we are delighted to reaffirm through this joint venture with the NHL Players' Association that the official policy of the NHL is one of inclusion on the ice, in our locker rooms and in the stands."
Burke, who started the You Can Play Project in part to advance the legacy of his brother Brendan, an out collegiate hockey coach and former player who died in 2009, called the NHL's move historic.
"I think the most important thing is that we're seeing a major professional league and a major professional players' association step up and make an official statement about inclusion. This isn't, 'Oh, we'll deal with it.' This isn't, 'Oh, we'll tolerate it,'" he said. "This is the hockey community saying to the LGBT community, 'You are invited. You are welcome. You are embraced here.' This is huge. From a sports perspective, this is historic."
The news comes at a moment of intense attention on gay issues, even within the sports world, where discussion about whether professional football players are readying to come out has been front and center in the past week.
Despite the discussion, no mens' major league sport can claim to have had an out gay player still active in the sport — although several athletes have come out after leaving the sport.
Thursday's announcement looks to formalize actions, some of which have taken place elsewhere in the sports world on a lower-profile basis. According to the announcement, the partnership with You Can Play means the group will be conducting seminars at the NHL's rookie symposium to address LGBT issues with new recruits. The National Basketball Association conducted a similar effort at its rookie camp this past year in coordination with Athlete Ally and GLAAD.
The You Can Play Project partnership also means the NHL will be involved in more public service announcements to advance LGBT inclusion.
"NHL players have supported the You Can Play Project since its inception, which we are pleased to formalize and expand upon with today's announcement," the NHL Players' Association's executive director, Don Fehr, said in a statement. "The players believe our partnership with the NHL and You Can Play will foster an inclusive hockey environment from the grassroots level to the professional ranks."
The partnership also includes an element focused specifically on helping players who might be dealing with questions about whether to come out. As part of the new partnership, the NHLPA and NHL also will work with You Can Play to integrate the project into their Behavioral Health Program, enabling players to confidentially seek counseling or simply ask questions regarding matters of sexual orientation.
Looking at the potential impact of this new partnership, Burke told BuzzFeed he is focused on the reason he started this work in the first place.
"The big thing for me as an older brother is that, looking back, I didn't do enough because I didn't know. I didn't do enough at the time to make sure that his locker room was safe and that he was feeling at home in the sports culture. By the time I learned to change my ways and to do what I needed to do, it was too late for him as a young athlete," Burke said. "This is, from the Burke family's perspective, this is making sure that the next generation of LGBT athletes and coaches and fans don't have to go through what Brendan went through."