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Canucks goalie looks to 'shutout' homophobia in hockey; expert says more needs to be done

Last Updated Aug 3, 2018 at 12:32 pm PDT

Anders Nilsson posted a video to Instagram on Aug. 2, 2018, speaking out against homophobia. (Source: Instagram @andersnilsson31)

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Canucks backup goaltender Anders Nilsson took a stand for LGBTQ athletes as the first player in the NHL to display a rainbow flag on his helmet.

Now, he’s speaking out against homophobia as a strong ally of LGBTQ players.

In an Instagram video, Nilsson speaks in Swedish, saying he has friends who are gay in both Sweden and the U.S. He explains some haven’t even come out to their families.

He says if he was gay, he would have quit hockey when he was a teenager.

In the video, Nilsson talks about the “macho” culture in hockey that he says either pushed out or forced gay athletes to quit.

It’s something Dr. Kristopher Wells, who specializes in sexual minority studies at the University of Alberta and is the co-founder of Pride Tape, says is all too real within the game.

“It’s not surprising that there are no current or retired players who’ve come out as gay in the National Hockey League,” he says. “In fact it’s one of the only professional sports still not to have a player come out who’s active or from the past.”

Wells points to the hyper-masculinized culture of team — and in particular, male team — sports, like hockey, which creates an environment where individuals don’t feel comfortable coming out.

“And I’ve been told by players that a lot of it is because careers are short and hockey is a tight-knit family and people don’t want to cause a distraction,” he adds.

However, Wells believes that is a half-truth. He highlights work the league, as well as athletes like Nilsson, Andrew Ference, Braden Holtby and others have done as open allies of the LGBTQ community.

It’s 2018, and there still has never been an out player in the NHL

While he admits there’s no single answer as to why there aren’t any out NHL players, Wells says part of the issue stems from and can be changed at the minor league level.

“[With the] kinds of culture the coaches are creating for young players so that they do feel encouraged to continue to participate in the sport. As Anders and others have said, a lot of these young, gay male athletes self-select and they drop out of organized team sports because of homophobia.”

He adds these athletes never get a chance to make it to the professional leagues. “And that’s the sad cost of homophobia.”

However, he says the league and players are on the right track to build a more inclusive culture, by being tougher on casual homophobia in games or off the ice, and advocacy.

“Marching in Pride parades, using Pride tape during Hockey is For Everyone month — all of these small steps will eventually pave the way where an athlete’s going to feel supported. We’re probably going to see it be a young player who’s never been in the closet to begin with as the person who’s the first to play in the National Hockey League as a gay male because it’s never been an issue for the team or it’s never been an issue for their teammates. And it’ll just continue as they move up the ranks.”

Wells hopes that will happen soon. He also believes the fact that there aren’t even any retired players who have come out shows just how dominant homophobia is within society and professional sports.

“There are no out players, currently, but there certainly are gay players playing in the National Hockey League. The issue is they don’t want to be public about their sexual orientation — and that should be their choice.”

He adds no one should be pressured to come out, and explains some may not want to be the first person to do so and face the scruitiny that usually goes with being the first to knock down a barrier.

Wells says it’ll take a special person to break that barrier; once that person does come out, others will follow.

“It’s only a matter of time.”