Is the NHL getting any closer to seeing an openly gay player?

A former Finnish Liiga player recently came out of the closet and from his story, it sounds like there is still work to be done. But the NHL has been very positive when it comes to inclusivity in recent years, so perhaps the time is near.
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It’s one of those fascinating questions that I find myself pondering every once in awhile and thanks to a former Finnish Liiga winger, it’s on my mind again: when will there be an openly gay NHL player? Hockey has done a lot of advocacy for inclusiveness in recent years, with Washington’s Braden Holtby and former GM Brian Burke being two of the bigger names to support the cause. And yet, of the four major North American sports, NHL hockey is the only one that hasn’t claimed an openly gay player to date.

Recently, former Espoo Blues forward Janne Puhakka publicly came out of the closet at age 24. In his remarks to Finnish media, Puhakka said that his roster spot was not secure enough for him to come out as an active player and that he often had to laugh off homophobic jokes made by teammates who didn’t know his true self.

Naturally, Puhakka believes the hockey world would be better if everyone on a team felt comfortable enough to be themselves, but clearly we’re not there yet: mathematically speaking, there must be gay NHLers who are still in the closet and in fact there are, according to insiders I have spoken with.

A couple of years ago, I asked one of those insiders why an NHLer has not come out yet and his answer was interesting: hockey is such a team-first game, that players don’t want to overshadow the collective with individual news. Even big news like this is seen as a “distraction” by the players.

Which is unfortunate, but I am in no position to tell someone how to live their life, especially in such heated cultural times. Certainly an openly gay NHLer would open a lot of doors in the sport because visibility is so important to inclusivity (and more hockey players means a healthier sport, especially at the grassroots level). Thanks to the work of folks like former OHLer Brock McGillis, junior hockey players are learning about the impact of homophobia in the dressing room (and society in general) and the next generation may actually hold the answer to my original question.

My pet theory? The first openly gay NHLer will be someone who comes out while they are still in junior, then gets drafted and earns their way onto an NHL roster. It would be great if a current player came out tomorrow, but that team-first attitude is still very prominent in pro circles.

When I look at younger generations however, I see an openness and a resolve that could change that. I’m from Generation X and while our attitudes were much more progressive than the Boomers before us, the younger generations of today don’t see the same barriers that existed 20 years ago: they are who they are and don’t wait in line for permission to be open about it.

Now, sports are much different than society at large and perhaps that makes a difference. Jock culture may be getting more progressive, but it’s a long hill to climb for a group that, traditionally, have been the main tormentors of anyone even slightly different from the status quo. For me, I would think that hockey culture would dictate that a teammate is like family and that he should always be protected – but I’ve also privately talked to players who said they would be iffy about showering in front of a gay teammate.

Eventually, it’s going to happen – society isn’t going to go backwards and I can guarantee the NHL itself will be incredibly supportive when a player comes out. Will it be in five days or five years? That’s the question and I do not have the answer.

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