Friday, 2 March 2018

You Can Play by Shandi Pace

"If you can play, You Can Play.” At the beginning of March the National Hockey League’s wraps up its Hockey is for Everyone month. The NHL is one of the most accepting professional leagues stating that they, “believe all hockey programs – from professionals to youth organizations – should provide a safe, positive and inclusive environment for players and families regardless of race, colour, religion, national origin, gender, disability, sexual orientation and socio-economic status.”

The NHL has a list of representatives they have been working with to guarantee inclusivity to anyone watching or playing the game of hockey. They include:
  • Diversity ambassador Willie O’Ree – The first black person to play in the NHL.
  • Josh Pauls – Captain of the U.S. National Sled team who will be competing at the 2018 Paralympics this month.
  • Harrison Browne – The first openly transgender person in professional hockey.
  • Fred Sasakamoose – The NHL’s first Canadian indigenous player.
  • A player ambassador from each NHL team.

Partnered with the NHL and Hockey is for Everyone is the You Can Play Project. The You Can Play Project was created so that any athlete, coach or fan that brings heart to their sports arena is given an equal opportunity to play, regardless of their sexuality and gender identity.

The NHL’s Patrick Burke founded You Can Play in 2012, after his brother Brendan came out as gay in 2009 as the manager of the Miami (Ohio) University hockey team. He died months later in a car accident.

Brian Kitts took over as president of the You Can Play Project a year ago and has wanted to build Patrick and Brendan Burke’s memorable legacies. “You Can Play is non-profit organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ athletes and straight allies in sports. We specifically work for LGBTQ+ issues in sports, leaving other issues like employment and marriage equality to other organizations with that focus,” said Kitts.

Each NHL team hosted multiple pride nights and has a player ambassador that will serve as the go-to person on their team to talk about LGBTQ+ issues. This is the first time any professional league has had one designated player on each team who will be an LGBTQ+ ambassador.

"The true testament of the NHL and NHLPA is seen through Hockey is for Everyone month, especially when it comes to You Can Play – the fact that all 30 clubs have an ambassador, is such a moment of solidarity," said Jillian Svensson, vice president of operations and development for You Can Play.

The sports world is one of the only places where slurs are used, ‘casual homophobia’ and discrimination towards those who are different still exists. The goal for You Can Play is to promote respect for all athletes.

"We love sports, but hated the way sports treated our gay brothers, our LGBTQ+ friends or ourselves. We thought if we could start a discussion that focused attention on a player's ability – regardless of sexual orientation – we could change the culture of sports,” said Kitts.

The You Can Play Project recently celebrated its sixth anniversary. According to Kitts, the biggest change in those six years has been the willingness of leagues and athletes to get involved. In that timeframe they have united with several large partners including the NHL, CFL and MLS.

"The NHL, CFL and MLS, CWHL and COC have been such amazing partners, for many different reasons, but the visibility they offer to ‘normalizing’ inclusion at the most elite level of sport is truly amazing,” said Tyvon Greene, co-chair of the Canadian Eastern Region Advisory Board for You Can Play.

According to Greene, inclusion doesn’t just start and stop with major sports partners. It begins with how the community is receiving the message. The first step in supporting a cause is to educate and spread the word.

"Read up on You Can Play's work and on the issues surrounding LGBTQ+ inclusion in sport. From there, there are so many different ways to help out: make a video, run a You Can Play night, tell a few friends, and make a donation,” said Greene.

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