Over the years the sporting world has had its share of dark secrets, its share of controversy, its share of scandal.
The athletes within that world often feel compelled to uphold the unwritten code at any cost to protect the integrity of the game they love, even if that means living a lie.
Living a lie, to protect a their deepest secret. Living a lie in silence. Living a lie to protect their sexual orientation.
Has the sporting world failed these athletes?
Has the makeup of team sports and the unwritten code alienated some of its finest athletes?
If so how can the sporting world, especially the game of hockey help these athletes feel accepted and not alone?
Former professional hockey player Brock McGillis lived that lie, you could say he excelled at it,
McGillis knows first hand the traumatizing effects of living that lie and the reason why some still do.
Brock McGillis’ like many other kids who grew up in hockey crazed central Canada dreamed of one day skating on NHL ice.
The dream was within reach, everything pointed to the NHL Draft and a career at hockey’s highest level.
From a young age McGillis was accustomed to shouldering the load between the pipes, but the pressure of keeping his secret and living a lie became unbearable in his teenage years.
“I was playing in Sault St Marie, and we got back in about 2 or 3am, I drove around the city until about 7 that morning crying, I was trying to figure out where I would kill myself.”
The young up and coming goaltender had enough, he was tired of living a secret life.
The vivid memory of that night and others during his playing days, while he was with the Windsor Spitfires were some of McGillis’ darkest times.
Nowhere to turn, no one to trust, Brock McGillis like many others internalized everything, living the double life to protect his secret.
“No one recognized, what I was struggling with, I hid it well.”
“I was a womanizer, I was a hyper masculine hockey bro who played the part exceptionally well.”
From a young age McGillis also struggled with anxiety disorder and depression.
“I had seen people for that so I could always play it off when things were bad as if it was solely the anxiety.”
“I was able to mask it,” admitted McGillis.
McGillis’ secret life was leading down a self-destructive path.
“My family always had my back,” the former pro netminder said proudly.
“They were always supportive and got me the best help they could, and I was very privileged in that regard, that I had an incredible family and support system at home.”
That’s certainly not the case in a lot of young people’s lives.
Hiding their secret from family and friends takes a massive toll on their mental health something McGillis experienced every day while closeted.
“The biggest thing was I could hide it, I didn’t want to tell them because they were so involved in hockey,” McGillis said of his family.
McGillis’ father had coached at the AAA and junior ranks for over three decades and also scouted in the Ontario Hockey League during that time.
McGillis’ brother was a 1st round pick in the OHL and played professionally.
“I knew they would be totally inclusive, but I feared that if they knew that I was gay they would be more sensitive to issues in locker rooms, and stand up to it and in that process accidentally out me,” confessed McGillis.
Many young people confide in their closest friends because the secret becomes all consuming.
They need to share their secret. They want to share their secret. They need someone to understand. They need someone to trust. They need to know that someone understands what they are going through. They need an ally, they need a teammate.
Coming forward and telling someone takes incredible courage, however it becomes a double edge sword.
The fear of being outed after sharing their true self weighs heavily on the athletes psyche.
“The fear of being outed and the fear of being exposed is scary,” stressed McGillis.
“It’s why people hide, it’s why they refuse to tell anyone, it’s why they kill themselves.”
One could only imagine the nightmarish lonely existence these young athletes must feel.
Take elite level hockey for instance, it’s all about the team, following the code, showing toughness and conforming to all the games unwritten norms.
The athlete must feel stranded, isolated from everyone.
Brock McGillis is on a mission. There’s no other way to describe it. McGillis is modern day crusader when it comes to this area in the game of hockey. McGillis has gone coast to coast for the cause since he came out.
The thirty-five year old advocate offers up two exception pieces of advice for young athletes experiencing the internal struggle and conflict of revealing their true self.
“If you come out, be aware that everyone wants immediate acceptance, but you didn’t accept yourself for a long time, so be patient with people, give them their space to allow them to process because its new to them,” explained McGillis.
“For some people whether due to religious beliefs or different things, it’s something they are uncomfortable with initially, but by coming out you have just humanized it.”
“They love you and care about you, so not always, but a lot of the time they will come around eventually,” added McGillis.
“You don’t need acceptance from anyone else, only you can accept you in life. Whether you’re gay, straight, a person of colour, causation, only you can accept you.” “To give someone that power over you, isn’t ok, it’s crazy.”
“We are all equal, no one is greater than anyone else, no one has more authority than anyone else in every day life.”
“You don’t need their acceptance, you can only accept yourself if they choose not to associate with you then you don’t want them in your life,” said McGillis.
McGillis wants to reassure kids that do come out that there will be people come into their lives that will accept them for who they really are.
“You will find like people, people that will love you for you,” McGillis said proudly.
Truly a powerful and inspirational statement when you consider what McGillis endured for so long.
“I wish I would have come out sooner,” confessed McGillis.
“I honestly believe if I would have come out younger with the support system I had at home based off where I was ranked and everything else I could have made the NHL.”
“If I would have came out and if I wasn’t struggling for so long I probably would have or had a much better shot at it,” admitted McGillis about his reaching his dream to play in the NHL.
“It’s tough to play hockey at a high level when you are drinking daily, depressed and trying to kill yourself.”
“If you a have a good support system and I’m not trying to push people out of the closet, for me it would have alleviated a lot of burden.”
Burden, pressure and misguided guilt, all the emotions that come from hiding a secret and living a lie.
How can coaches, parents and fellow teammates recognize when athletes are struggling?
What role do they play in creating a totally inclusive and progressive sporting culture?
Empowering the Next Generation
From his experiences in the game and now speaking and empowering people across North America, Brock McGillis recognizes kids that are struggling exhibit common characteristics.
McGillis believes they tend to isolate, are more reserved perhaps due to the fear they face or the fact that they are being bullied or trying to process and deal with everything that’s going on in their lives.
McGillis’ quick check in when talking with major junior players, students, school staff and even the corporate world is very simplistic, but yet powerful.
“What’s going on”? “Are you ok”?
“There’s a reason why kids go from being outgoing smiling kids to nothing at all,” McGillis said.
“Admitting that truth and then seeking the support and help you need to overcome your obstacle and struggle and being able to realize that they can share that free of judgment and ridicule.”
That’s exactly where McGillis would like to see all the athletes get to a place in their lives.
“We all have struggles, no one is immune to it.”
McGillis’ message to young people in today’s society is clear and concise.
“Normal is a fallacy.”
“It doesn’t exist, it’s an illusion, everyone is different we are all a bunch of weirdos.”
“It’s beautiful,” McGillis said.
“It’s beautiful when we recognize that and when we live by the idea that we all are weirdos and encourage more people to be weirdos and embrace that they are different.”
McGillis believes the game of hockey has its foundation in conformity.
“If you don’t conform to the norm, it leads to a lot of oppression and struggle, not just LGBTQ+, but that spreads here in Canada because hockey plays such an important influence in our culture, so it spreads into schools and mainstream society which is then passed on generationally from adults to their children, which continues the cycle,” explained McGillis.
So how can the sporting world, coaches, team personnel and fellow athletes break that cycle?
McGillis has a unique way of breaking that potential cycle when sharing his story with teams.
“I have them share something they wouldn’t usually share with a teammate, something that they would find embarrassing to tell them.”
“It’s powerful,” McGillis said.
“Kids will share.”
McGillis recalls one OHL ‘tough guy’ telling his teammates that he enjoyed writing poetry while another player told the group that he loved animals and want to be a zoologist if they didn’t make it to the NHL, thirty seconds later another teammate chimed in saying that they loved watching documentaries on animals.
Clearly not your usual hockey dressing room banter!
“These are teammates; kids that spend day in day out together,” stressed McGillis.
These kinds of topics and speaking points would never come up in locker rooms based solely on the conformity to the norms of the game.
“They talk about girls, they about clothes, they talk about music, partying and the game,” McGillis said of the “normal” banter in hockey dressing rooms across this country.
So how difficult is it for hockey players to talk about other issues other than the norm?
Dr. Cheryl MacDonald has spent the last decade trying to answer that question and more with her ground-breaking research in the area of masculinity in the game of hockey.
“One thing I did notice from the teenagers to the former pros was how uncomfortable and how much trouble they had saying the word gay or homosexuality,” said MacDonald, who teaches Sport Sociology and is a Post Doctoral Scholar at the Centre for Sport and the Study of Health at St. Mary’s University.
“Some of the ones that were trying to be polite whether they had trouble with it or not or evidently felt uncomfortable instead of saying being gay or homosexual they would say things like ‘if I was like that, if I did feel that way or if I had a teammate who, that’s what they were, they would dance around using those words,” MacDonald said.
“So for some of them it was difficult for them to talk about it, they couldn’t even bring themselves to use the proper terminology, but that was a pretty small number of them at the same time.”
“There were some that reported that their cousin were gay or that their parents had a bunch of friends that are gay or lesbian, but it was normal,” admitted MacDonald.
MacDonald’s work took her from the Midget AAA and major junior ranks all the way to the pros.
So how has the game addressed the issue of homosexuality and if so how can the game improve?
“From a public relations perspective on a broader scale the game has created awareness, so whether it’s genuine or not, you see things like the NHL having their Pride Nights and their You Can Play nights and that’s a least creating visibility and they are taking a stand and saying that we are getting involved with this movement whether we like it or not and so I think that’s improvement,” explained MacDonald.
Ten to fifteen years ago that movement didn’t exist in the game.
“Back then no one would have even talked about it, let alone making NHL merchandise with a pride flag on it,” stressed MacDonald.
“The hockey community in general has done a really great job in creating visibility and awareness, but needs to do more in terms of education to actually change attitudes.”
“If your athletes are happy with themselves with who they are they will probably perform better,” MacDonald said.
Changing attitudes, raising awareness and empowering the next generation, exactly what Brock McGillis has set out to accomplish.
Nevertheless, the proud and confident former pro hesitates when asked what it means to him personally to have helped and impacted so many lives in the game and country.
“I don’t know,” McGillis said quietly.
“Quite honestly, I never feel like I do enough.”
“I’m very hard on myself and the shift that I want to create isn’t done, so until it is I’m not satisfied.”
“I’m glad I can help people, I’m glad that I can be a resource and I’m super proud and grateful that I can support people who are struggling to get to a happy place, but it’s not over and it’s going to take years and years,” confessed McGillis.
“It’s going to take a lot of work.”
“Until we get to a point that everyone recognizes that they are weirdos and we have normalized humanity instead of you know certain groups or certain sub cultures, so people can just be themselves, I won’t feel good about, until I can get there.”
“The work isn’t done and until it is, I don’t know if I can fully answer that question,” admitted McGillis.
McGillis strongly believes the Canadian Hockey League and its players can have a massive impact.
“My goal is to get across the country and talk to all those kids,” McGillis said.
“I believe that major junior players in this country have the most social influence, they have more influence than NHL players.”
McGillis points to their accessibility and community involvement as a potential game changer for not only awareness, but acceptance.
“These kids are in the high schools, these kids are going to minor hockey practices, they train with minor hockey players, they go to parties in the communities and in a lot of communities they are the NHL.”
“They have the most social influence.”
“They are accessible to adults, they are accessible to youth and they are even looked up to by their peers.”
“I think that’s an area for the sport to target in an attempt to create awareness, and bring them on as allies.”
Two seasons ago, McGillis met with all the general managers and coaches in the OHL. The program that the former goaltender offers is currently optional for all teams.
“I would like to get to a point where it’s an annual thing for each club and whether it’s a mandatory program or something like that, I understand time restrictions and what not, but that’s kind of my ultimate goal to take it across all three leagues and have each team take part.”
What does a gay man look like? What does a gay hockey player look like?
“Throughout time people have a perception of what a gay man is,” McGillis said.
“That’s based on characters on television and stereotypes and what people mock and tease and everything else.”
“For players to see someone that has a similar build to them, to see someone who maybe a little more masculine than what they anticipated would be a gay man, is important, and that might create the shift.”
“I’m fortunate and privileged that I do present masculine and that did play pro hockey and I think for my community it only makes sense for me to go do these things.”
McGillis stresses the importance of creating and continuing the dialogue so kids that are struggling feel more comfortable sharing in a safe environment.
“A lot of kids feel like they have nowhere to go,” McGillis said.
“Everyone deserves to be happy and everyone deserves to be treated with respect.”
Some might still be living a lie, Some might be protecting a secret, Some might be wearing the mask, Some might be suicidal, Some might be thinking about coming out, Some might need someone to trust, Some might be right in front of us, but they all deserve to be happy.