Lightning Radio Waves: You Can Play

by Brandon Kisker   //   Portfolio, Tampa Bay Lightning, Writing  //  No Comments

This piece is something that I am very proud of as it’s a collective research piece about the You Can Play Project, a movement to improve tolerance and respect in the locker room.  I interviewed and spoke with a number of people about the movement and everyone agreed that the hockey culture needed to change to make locker room’s safer for everyone regardless of background.  I interviewed Senators Captain Daniel Alfredsson, 60-goal scorer Steven Stamkos, Islanders star Matt Moulson, former Miami (OH) Redhawk (played for the team while Brendan Burke was the manager of the team) Ryan Jones, and co-founder of the You Can Play Project and brother of the late Brendan, Patrick Burke.


Written, produced, and researched by Brandon Kisker.

All sports go through changes, and not just in the rulebook or with X’s and O’s on a whiteboard. While sports often influence culture, culture often returns the favor with movements like the You Can Play Project. In just a few months, the project initiated by Patrick Burke, brother of the late Brendan Burke and son of Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, has created waves throughout the world of hockey. Players, coaches, and even broadcasters have committed to spreading the word that no matter what your sexual orientation is, if you can play… you can play. Lightning Radio’s Brandon Kisker has spoken with several NHL stars behind this project, including Lightning forward Steven Stamkos. To hear Brandon’s interview the players , or to view videos of the players’ messages, simply click on the links below within our story.

Hockey culture is a very interesting thing.  We are our own community.  We have our own ways to do and say different things.  It doesn’t matter what you do for a living, whether you work 9-to-5 or you play professionally, hockey’s culture is ingrained in our brains, and you never lose that.

Much like people are proud of their cultural background, so are we. But there comes a time when that culture needs change, and for hockey that time is now.  The You Can Play Project is making everyone question how players treat their teammates, and really makes you think about whether you are making the locker room a safe place for teammates of all backgrounds. “If you’re different or unlike someone else you can still play,” says Daniel Alfredsson, Captain of the Ottawa Senators. “And if it be race, or sexuality, or whatever it might be, we’re all allowed to play and should be able to play, and should feel like we’re part of a group or a team.”

If you haven’t heard, the You Can Play Project is an initiative to make everyone– regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, and in particular, sexuality, feel like they can play the game.  Founded by Brian Kitts, Glenn Witman, and Patrick Burke, the movements’ tag line is “Gay athletes. Straight allies. Teaming up for respect.”

“Hockey’s going to follow the culture in a sense,” began Edmonton’s Ryan Jones, “and gays and lesbians are becoming more acceptable in culture and it’s going to happen in hockey.  It’s just a matter of time.”

Chirping on the ice and amongst the boys and girls in the locker room is just as much a part of hockey as stick handling and passing.  It starts at a young age and as you get older and your vocabulary expands, we may use hurtful words that shouldn’t be used.   How many of us have used a homophobic slur without meaning for it to be insulting someone who is gay?  Patrick Burke calls this casual homophobia. “What we try and let people know, that for an athlete who is gay, there is no other way for them to take those words.  “You can try and say that I use ‘gay’ to mean uncool, and you might genuinely mean that, but for the athletes that struggle with [their sexuality], there is no other way for them to take that.”

Burke went on to explain that we don’t allow people to use racial slurs on and off the ice. So what makes homophobic slurs different?  How can our community eliminate their use in the locker room and on the ice? Tom Garavaglia, the Lightning’s Community Hockey Coordinator, believes the time to get the message out is at a young age– not when kids are struggling with issues in their teenage years or later. “It starts in youth hockey and there’s really no place for it. Kids have accepted those words as not being hateful, but that’s what they are, hateful.  They don’t realize how damaging these words can be and don’t always understand that youth hockey is a place to develop the fundamentals of the game, and most importantly have fun.”

Matt Moulson, the Islanders’ leading goal-scorer this season, thinks like Garavaglia, but takes it a step further by saying it comes down to role models. “[Tolerance of others] comes from role models in their life, coaches and parents as well.  If [kids] can crack down on [removing slurs from their vocabulary] at a young age, then I’m sure we’ll all be better off and really help this project go along.” And a role model who is gaining more young fans following his 60-goal performance, Steven Stamkos is on board as well. “As a kid you look up to NHL players,” Stamkos says. “So we’re role models for everyone, and if you can act the proper way, a lot of kids and junior players are going to follow.”

Think of the 12 year old who idolizes guys like Moulson or Stamkos.  They shoot like him, tape their stick like him, and celebrate like him.  They make a conscious choice to emulate these NHL stars on the ice.  What if it wasn’t just that 12-year-old looking up to Stamkos’s on-ice performance, but also his intangibles and his beliefs?  Burke believes this will happen.  As kids look up to players like Stamkos, and others involved in the You Can Play project, they will imitate both their high performance on the ice as well as their attitudes off it, thus making a safer locker room for everybody at every level.

“Hopefully with this program it will make that transition a lot easier for whoever, or if they ever do, comes out to the public that they’re gay,” added Stamkos.  “It shouldn’t be that big of a deal and hopefully [the You Can Play Project] can help make it a lot easier transition.”

Stamkos went on to explain that casual homophobia has been eliminated from on-ice use as well as in the locker room but that he believes that you only realize the effect it has on people, as you get older.  Well it’s time to share this experience and wisdom with the youth in our community to assure a safe place for all kids of all backgrounds.

“We do a lot of work with gay athletes and everyone of them talked about having to hear [casual homophobia] from their teammates,” says Burke, “thinking that their teammates wouldn’t accept them and thinking they have to hide things from their teammates, and that effects people, both on and off the ice.”

Take 19 year-old Scott Heggart’s  story for example.  Heggart explained in his You Can Play video that he came to grips with his sexuality at around age 13, and worried if his teammates would accept him.  He worried that he’d be forced off of his hockey team, and if he could take the bullying at school. Because of this, he had thoughts of harming himself. “For me to be able to sit in front of the television, or go online and watch as my heroes looked into a camera and said it was ok; that it’s fine. That they’d treat me the way they’d treat anyone else,” Heggart explains.  “I can honestly say that I would have had a much easier time accepting myself.”

“Scott’s a role model for everyone, gay or straight,” declares Burke.  “What he went through as a young gay athlete, as a young gay person, is far too typical.  Scott didn’t have the role model in the NHL letting him know that people like him can do this, which made him feel isolated and alone, and make him feel like he couldn’t live out his dreams.  That’s a horrible thing, to be 13 and feel like your dreams can’t come true.”

That is why our culture needs change.  Nobody should ever feel like his or her dreams can’t come true. If you have the talent, are a good teammate, and put forth the work, you should be accepted with open arms regardless of your background.  It’s up to coaches and parents to spread this message to their kids… but how can we communicate this message to the next generation?

“The biggest thing that anybody who works with kids will say is that you have to have a dialog about it,” answers Burke.  “Maybe it’s as simple as sitting down with your kids and watching some of these You Can Play videos or reading up on it.  I know it’s not always easy, I know it’s not always fun, I know it can be tough and a little bit awkward to talk to kids about these things, but if you can talk to them about it or [suggest watching the] video that Steven Stamkos did, or the video that Zdeno Chara did, and [let them] realize that [they] may have gay teammates [and that they] should think about what [they] say, and how [they] act.  Parents who are willing to do that will see great returns on that investment.”

Hockey is all about standing up for your teammates, and playing a small role inthe bigger picture.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a shot like Steven Stamkos, can quarterback a powerplay like Brian Campbell, or muck it out like Brian Boyle, we can all get behind this movement. If you can play, then you can play!

You can watch all of the You Can Play videos on their website  or their Youtube Channel  as well as sign up for their newsletter.  If you are a captain of a team, at any level, sign the Captain’s Challenge pledge  or simply follow the project on Facebook or Twitter. If you are an athlete that is struggling with your sexuality, remember, there are people just like you out there.  If you need help or want to talk with someone, take a look at the You Can Play resources page.

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