Changing the conformist culture of hockey, one team at a time

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A collection of teammates spend their fall and winter days waging war together on the ice, taking buses, sharing hotel rooms, and living every waking minute together. It sounds like a tight-knit group, doesn’t it? And yet, within an hour, they realize how much they don’t know each other. Brock McGillis helps the Saint John Sea Dogs come closer than they’ve ever been.

The exercise, designed to break down the barriers of conformism in junior hockey, begins rather timidly. When asked to share their interests outside of hockey and partying, players dip their toes in the water with responses like “lacrosse” and “camping”. Eventually, however, a player comes up with: “the story”. He reveals that before going to bed each night, he scrolls through his phone, reading historical events that interest him. This crumbles the foundation stone of the dam.

Then coach Gordie Dwyer intervenes: “I used to sing in a band. Jon Bon Jovi once shot me on stage during a show.

This prompts another player to reveal, “I play the piano. “

As Sea Dogs general manager Trevor Georgie recalls, at the end of this hour-long session last August, the team realized that they had enough musical talent between players and service. hockey operations competition. ”A real bomb for a group of players who felt they knew each other pretty well an hour earlier.

That’s the effect McGillis has on people. A former OHL goaltender who in 2016 became the first openly gay professional male hockey player, he has retired and devotes his busy schedule to motivational speeches and working tirelessly to fight. hockey’s problem with inclusiveness. In his mind, the Major Junior is a crucial target for bringing about change because of his influence in two directions: Young players admire the Major Junior’s children, and Major Juniors advance many players to the pro ranks. If they have conformist, racist, sexist or homophobic values ​​in their life it can be dangerous as they spend so much time together, subscribing to the same way of life, essentially spreading the conformist culture within a large group.

That’s why McGillis is making a concerted effort to speak with the teams and try to shatter the idea that integration is so important. The conformist culture is everywhere, even to the idea that you can embarrass a rookie just by giving him a warm-up ride on his own. He promotes the concept that ‘standing out is bad’ and, if someone who plays the piano or enjoys history is seen as an outsider, imagine how a person from the LGBTQ + community can feel in an environment of hockey? By teaching young athletes that it’s okay to be individuals with diverse interests, McGillis hopes to ignite a spark that fosters inclusion, although it doesn’t always come easily.

“I try to get them to think of things that they really like, and that’s the hardest part for me and probably the hardest part for them, because it’s uncomfortable,” McGillis said. . “They’ve been told not to think about things probably their whole life. What was the expression – ‘You can do two things successfully, between hockey, school and a girlfriend. Can you only have two things and do them successfully? It’s that same mentality that you (can’t) enjoy other things, you have to focus only on hockey, and I’m trying to show them, no you can be a human and enjoy other things. while remaining a great hockey player. “

So how are McGillis sessions generally going, like the one he had with the Sea Dogs? He likes to start with an on-ice component. If players see him playing the game and quickly understand that he can do it at a high level, he earns their respect and helps crush any stereotypes that a gay man can’t be a great athlete. Once that comfort is established, the escape component begins. That’s when he’ll talk to a compliance team and ask them to provide surprising information about their non-hockey interests.

“It’s amazing in a one hour workshop with our players, and our coaching staff, our coaching staff and myself, we spend all this time together and we learn so much in this hour with Brock. “said Georgie. “He was able to facilitate that. That’s what I love about Brock. It’s his story and getting comfortable and sharing experiences, and that comes with his experiences. He really understands you, understands everyone, thinks, thinks and speaks with themselves. It was really effective. “

In addition to the breakout sessions on compliance, McGillis discusses culture change with teams, embedding the idea of ​​inclusion and individuality in social and family contexts as, like him, the current generation of children can become leaders. It’s an idea that, in Georgie’s mind, seems more feasible than ever. In assessing his own team, he sees a Gen Z demographic more tolerant and educated than any that came before him.

“These young men are really interested in social issues and care about things, care about sustainability and are curious about social issues,” Georgie said. “They are aware of the various challenges that, for example, First Nations hockey players face. They are interested in and follow women’s hockey. This generation is actually really curious and really inclusive and a really open-minded generation. “

The way Georgie sees it, social media makes it difficult for the junior player population, creates pressure for some uniform existence, creates a fear of being judged, and it can still put even modern thinkers on the line. path to compliance. That’s why he took it upon himself to bring McGillis to Saint John. “I absolutely think the players are ready for this, and it’s up to us as leaders and management to give them those opportunities and experiences,” said Georgie.

The good news: Programs like McGillis are helping. He also worked with the Erie Otters and Saginaw Spirit this season, with the NCAA division at Boston University. I then have on the record. The bad news: not all teams have as progressive management as these teams. Georgie, for example, is a CEO particularly well equipped to understand the importance of inclusiveness. He does not come from a “conventional” hockey background. Her father was born in Iraq. Georgie became interested in hockey because her grandmother, who is deaf, loved it because it didn’t require her and was a hobby she could share with her grandson. Georgie also has a family member in the LGBTQ + community. He’s understandably sympathetic to McGillis’ cause, and the Sea Dogs asked McGillis to speak with their players as early as 2018.

Looking at the whole junior and amateur landscape, though: it’s not always so inviting to talk about LGBTQ + inclusivity just yet. McGillis encounters many more closed than open doors in his quest.

“I really appreciate the teams that invite me – that’s important,” said McGillis. “But I’m begging, begging the OHL for four years to do this and make it a compulsory program like they have done with so many others. Unfortunately, they didn’t. I stopped pleading. I felt like disturbing and it didn’t accomplish anything. I hope they will come back, because it is necessary but, until they engage in this conversation, I cannot plead them, but I will work with individual teams that see value and other groups … Frankly, I hope the CHL will reach out, especially given that they have one player out (Luke Prokop). I hope this will be the catalyst for a conversation with the CHL. I get exhausted from the leagues and teams diving into pride nights. I told them all: ‘It’s performative.’ Sorry, but it is. Studies have shown that it doesn’t move the needle and impact locker rooms or anything. ”

Earlier this year, the Ontario Hockey Federation, which oversees all of the province’s major hockey leagues, suddenly withdrew from a deal whereby McGillis would train every team in the OFF leagues through modules. created with the help of seasoned academics. This season he had an NHL team ready to help him teach GTHL teams inclusiveness, but he was told “there wasn’t a room big enough to give a conference.” So he’s still reduced to making piecemeal, team-by-team changes, despite getting tangible results from the teams that let him in.

“I’m just sick of people asking me questions about the evolution of hockey culture when I have been working there for five years and working with people who have worked there for a longer time,” he said. -he declares. “We have solutions. There is a way to change that. Changing it would be nice, because they hurt children by doing nothing. Because there are kids (in the CHL) – Luke Prokop isn’t the only kid in this league to be gay, and it’s not safe for them. I know a coach from one of the leagues who went to his team a few years ago and said, ‘I don’t want shit here. If you’re gay, get the hell out of it.’ I was told about two players from one of the major junior leagues who went into their teams and tried to get out, and they were told, “If you go out you are cut. They both stopped the hockey.

“Luke is an anomaly, he’s not the norm, and we have to get him so that more kids will feel comfortable in the space. If they think the space is safe and comfortable, they’ve got their heads in the sand, so to speak, because it’s not. “

Not yet. But McGillis will do everything in its power to change that. What he needs is a chance.


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