Allies on the Ice

Hockey world is working to give LGBT athletes and fans warm welcome

”What we need is predominantly language-based,” Burke said of the education and guidance that You Can Play will provide to players. ”I truly believe that the hearts and minds are in the right place. We just need the vocabulary to catch up.”

Burke’s words resonate with Doug Johnson and Craig Brownstein, the cofounders of a local gay hockey blog, PuckBuddys, which bears the tagline ”Boys Who Like Boys Who Like Hockey.”

Both ardent Washington Capitals fans, Johnson and Brownstein – who also handles media relations for You Can Play in his professional life as a vice president at Edeleman, the world’s largest PR firm – say the local hockey community has not just tolerated them, but embraced them since they started blogging in December 2010.

”Flashback to 2011, there was no You Can Play, there was no officially organized effort to combat homophobia in [professional] sports,” Johnson says. ”And I remember walking through the arena at Verizon, telling Craig, ‘Dude, there are tons of gay guys, and lesbians, and transgender, there’s tons of people here,’ and he was always like, ‘No, no, no, it’s impossible.’ But they were, as fans.”

The blog has been so successful it has attracted the attention of other local sports bloggers, Capitals fans, and even the team owner, Ted Leonsis, who has commented, tweeted or linked to blog posts by the PuckBuddys.

”We were a fun alternative, but we were absolute tribal Caps fans,” Brownstein says of PuckBuddys’ success in attracting readers.

Last year, the two decided to expand the blog to include other hockey fans from around the North America and now have 22 contributors. And both Johnson and Brownstein were credentialed by the NHL to cover last summer’s league draft.

”Folks like the Burke family and others have been working on the inside for more inclusion, but we were sort of that canary in the coal mine,” Johnson said of the PuckBuddys blog’s reception. ”Nobody else had done this before. We had no idea what was going to happen, and what we found was almost the entire Caps community has just embraced us.

”What happened with us, I think, is a good indicator of how sports teams, organizations, fans react. At times, even in the stands, there will be some loudmouth is spouting out about, ‘Fucking fag, blah, blah, blah,’ and not even from us, but from other Caps fans, that person will get shut down right away.”

Jason Rogers, a straight hockey player for the Manassas SpermWhales recreational hockey team and a contributor to the PuckBuddys blog, sees the Washington-area hockey community as very accepting of LGBT people, in some ways ahead of the NHL and NHLPA.

”I would say, as far as on a fundamental level, the culture of the sport, I think a big part of [that acceptance] is hockey is a sport where everyone is expected to play hurt, so to speak,” Rogers says. ”As a result of that, it is more a sport of utter equality, where if you are skating hurt, and playing for the team and your teammates, and putting your body on the line for what the group is trying to do, I think part of that translates into more acceptance. So long as you step on the ice, you’re one of us.”

Rogers says he believes that You Can Play’s partnership with the NHL and NHLPA can help set an example for lower-level leagues and players within the hockey community by further fostering a more inclusive atmosphere in the sport.

”The way that all of this bigotry is going to be stamped out is through little actions,” he says. ”It’s on you if you hear a teammate use the word ‘gay’ to mean bad or dumb or stupid. It’s on you to say something. And I know I’ve done that at times, on my team. I know my guys are not homophobes, but they’ve never been told it’s not okay to say that to mean bad. I think what Patrick [Burke] is doing is saying, ‘Hey, these people that you aspire to be, they’re on board with this.’ So if you really want to ‘Be Like Mike,’ so to speak, you’re going to have to follow suit.”

Visit the PuckBuddys blog at puckbuddys.com or follow on Twitter @PuckBuddys. For more information about the You Can Play Project, visit youcanplayproject.org.

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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