In 1993, the Dallas Stars brought their sport to a whole new group of people when they moved to Texas from Minnesota. Much of the native population had little affinity for the game when the club arrived. Early marketing efforts emphasized similarities to American football.
The Stars gradually expanded their reach. They became the first Sun Belt team to win a Stanley Cup. Their initiatives to establish youth hockey programs have resulted in thousands of children playing the sport and even delivered locally-trained players to the National Hockey League. Sports fans previously unfamiliar with ice hockey developed affinity for the likes of Mike Modano, Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Marty Turco. The Stars gave North Texans a comfort level with their game.
Before, during, and after Wednesday night’s game against another southern team, the Arizona Coyotes, the franchise looked toward making even more people comfortable in the sport. They held a Hockey is For Everyone night at their game against the St. Louis Blues in partnership with the You Can Play organization. You Can Play aims to, as they phrase it, “develop locker room cultures that replace ‘casual homophobia’ – the unintentional use of anti-gay slurs – with acceptance and respect for an athlete’s contribution to the team.” The organization works with a number of sports, but has roots in ice hockey thanks to former NHL GM Brian Burke and his son, current NHL Senior Director of Player Safety Patrick Burke. Their son/brother Brendan came out in an ESPN interview and advocated for a more inclusive hockey culture. After Brendan’s 2010 death, You Can Play was created to continue his legacy and move the issue forward.
The league has embraced the cause and almost all of its teams have participated in some form as well. The Stars held a pregame happy hour at Dibs on Victor. Their foundation’s staff, including Turco, the Dallas Stars Foundation’s president, attended and they also set up a silent auction. The video interviews in this post were conducted there and they offer some real insight into what the issue is all about.
And there does seem to be plenty of misunderstanding of this initiative. Check out the comments on the Stars’ Instagram post about selling pride-taped sticks as a fundraiser. Many commenters take a strongly supportive tone. Others condemn the post.
Some objections consisted of juvenile jokes. Others were Biblically-based. Several called it out as a political play and wanted the team to stick to hockey. My conversations from Wednesday’s event lead me to think these hostile commentators miss the point. This whole thing IS about “sticking to hockey.”
You Can Play doesn’t have a PAC. They aren’t trying to get laws passed giving LGBTQ hockey players special privileges or restricting straight people’s freedom of speech. Their function is one of education. They want to help straight teammates and fans understand that certain jokes and terms can be detrimental to a teammate’s psyche. A stray comment can create a hostile atmosphere without the speaker even realizing it.
That’s especially true for young players. Coming out is hard enough without having to wonder if doing so will put you at odds with your teammates. Billy Scullion, one of this post’s interview subjects, spent years overcoming the repercussions of the challenges he experienced hiding his sexual orientation amidst what the perceived as hostile junior hockey dressing rooms.
Scullion appeared with defenseman John Klingberg in a video that Stars created that discusses the initiative, and a number of other NHL players have expressed support for the principles behind Hockey Is For Everyone. You Can Play wants athletes to view teammates and opponents strictly on the basis of their performance. Their mantra is “if you can play, you can play,” meaning that if players have the requisite skill to compete on a team, they should be able to do so regardless of factors like race, creed, or sexual orientation. Scullion and You Can Play co-founder Brian Kitts explained how an environment where all players are comfortable helps them perform better and leads to a greater chance of realizing the shared goal of all teammates, gay or straight: to win the game. As I discussed with Fort Worth dentist Bill Ralstin in his interview, that can apply to business, too. An inclusive environment also improves employee productivity.
Any Stars fan or player wants the team to win. If an inclusive environment leads to a better quality of play, that seems like a good enough reason to get on board with it, even if one can’t summon up empathy for the particular people involved. What we’ve seen in the past, however, with issues of, for instance, race in sport, is that excellence in competition leads to greater overall acceptance eventually. The late Fort Worth baseball icon Bobby Bragan often talked of his objection to Jackie Robinson’s presence when the African American trailblazer first joined Bragan’s Brooklyn Dodger team. But soon enough, the Alabama-reared Bragan came to realize Robinson’s worth as a player and a person and it changed his whole outlook. You Can Play hopes to see that scenario duplicated, but without the initial hostility.
Hockey’s an uncomfortable sport. Bodychecks ram you into the boards from every angle as you glide along on tiny metal edges. You try to use a stick to convince a little blob of rubber to do what you want it to. And have you ever smelled a hockey dressing room? But the Stars and the NHL want to ensure discomfort in their sport remains confined to icing sore muscles or regretting you didn’t get a better shot on net in the second period, and not whether one can be oneself in front of one’s teammates.