The You Can Play campaign began five years ago, after a 2010 car accident that took the life of 21-year-old Brendan Burke, the youngest son of current Calgary Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke. Just months prior, Brendan came out to the hockey world as a gay man while he was the manager of the hockey team at Miami University in Ohio.
The NHL and its players have partnered with You Can Play since April 2013 on activities fighting homophobia in sports, along with removing stereotypes related to gender, ethnicity and disabilities.
To further the cause, each NHL club has an LGBTQ ambassador, who is responsible for attending events and responding to media questions or issues.
J.J. Hebert, Senior Director of Hockey Communications with the Edmonton Oilers, asked Matt Hendricks if he’d be interested in representing the Oilers as the YCP Ambassador this season.
“Being a big Andrew Ference fan and what he stands for I jumped at the opportunity,” says Hendricks. “It gave me a chance to follow in his footsteps and reach out further into the great YEG community.”
In a sport long dominated by having a macho attitude laced with negative stereotypes towards the LGBTQ community, it’s obvious that the culture is changing.
“Our team is full of great people that have the same feelings towards YCP as I do,” he says. “We are all extremely happy to be a part of it and what it stands for.”
Brian Kitts is one of the original founder and current president of You Can Play and explains that the program began out of a love they had for sports and the negative treatment many of their brothers, friends and teammates received on and off to playing surface.
“You Can Play literally came together after a bunch of beers in a bar in Denver,” he says. “We all had good contacts in sports and thought we could probably find several pro athletes to say they didn’t like the stereotype of all athletes being homophobic.”
The underestimated that number. They now have hundreds.
The act of standing in front of a camera and saying the words ‘gay athlete’ sends a message that simple equality is important to someone. It takes place at an individual level – when Braden Holtby (Washington Capitals), puts a You Can Play logo on his goalie mask and then auctions it off, it sends a message. When the NHL has a spokesman for You Can Play from every team in the league – it sends a first-of-its-kind message in sports. When the CFL puts a You Can Play logo on every team’s shirt it’s important. And, when the NFL has its players come with You Can Play to talk with homeless LGBTQ youth, it lets those kids know they’re important and it opens up some minds at the player level.
“At the most basic level, we’re most successful when we talk about people as contributors to a team – heart, talent and commitment matter, not race, religion or who someone loves,” says Kitts. “The language we use to put other people down, sometimes without meaning it, kills a good team and athletes know it.”
Former NFL player Wade Davis is currently the Executive Director for Professional Sports Outreach and knows first hand the challenges facing gay athletes. He describes a players role in the community as a role model as they have a platform to affect social change.
“[It’s important] for an athlete to use their platform to vocally come out and support the LGBTQ community and YCP is critical to LGBTQ youth who don’t feel like they are seen, valued and/or included,” he says.
Guys like Hendricks are the key to changing minds about what makes a great athlete and it has nothing to do with sexual orientation or gender identity.
“As I’m sure all parents feel, we want to help our kids to achieve their dreams,” says Hendricks. “I’m a true believer that for people to be successful in this world they need to be comfortable in their own skin. It’s important for me to show my children that no matter what color, ethnicity, or gender you are or what religion you follow, everyone is important and deserves opportunity to shine. After all, they are our future. “