Amid heightened speculation that a male athlete in one of North America’s four major professional leagues will soon publicly declare his homosexuality, the National Hockey League and its players announced Thursday what appears to be the most comprehensive measure by a major men’s league in support of gay rights.
The NHL said it had formed a partnership with the You Can Play Project, an advocacy group pledged to fight homophobia in sports, and planned training and counseling on gay issues for its teams and players.
“Our motto is Hockey Is for Everyone,and our partnership with You Can Play certifies that position in a clear and unequivocal way,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in the statement. “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.”
In a telephone interview Donald Fehr, the chief executive of the NHLPA said: “Bottom line, it’s the right thing to do, and that’s what we’re all supposed to do in this world.”
You Can Play will help run seminars for NHL rookies to educate young prospects on gay issues and make resources and personnel available to each individual team as desired. The league and union also will work with You Can Play to integrate the project into its behavioral health program, enabling players to confidentially seek counseling regarding matters of sexual orientation. Burke said the joint venture would also step forward when players make homophobic remarks.
Patrick Burke, a founder of You Can Play and a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, said laying the groundwork for an openly gay player was not an official part of the program.
“But we’re ready to do whatever that player wants,” Burke said. “If he wants to do a thousand interviews and march in pride parades, we’re equipped to handle that. And if he wants us to pass block for him so he never has to do another interview in his life, we’re equipped to handle that, too.”
Burke helped found You Can Play in March 2012, after the death of his younger brother, Brendan, who was gay. Brendan Burke, a video coordinator and student manager for the Miami University hockey team, died in an auto accident at age 21 in February 2010.
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