One of the goals of the You Can Play Project is to create an atmosphere of inclusion for all athletes in sports -- gay or straight. And part of doing that is the complete elimination of certain terms players might thoughtlessly throw around a locker room if they don’t know any better.
Tommy Wingels had a roommate who occasionally did that. While attending Miami (Ohio), Wingels was a close friend of Brendan Burke, the inspiration for You Can Play, and he is one of two NHL players on the advisory board.
He had a couple conversations with his roommate about his use of insensitive slang. Did he really mean what he was saying? Did he know how hurtful it could be to a gay athlete or team employee in the room?
"He saw that this meant something to me," Wingels said Thursday night following his Sharks' shootout win over Detroit.
And the teammate stopped. Not only did he stop using the words -- he took on the cause. A small but remarkable sign of just how eager the tight-knit world of hockey is to further the cause inspired by Brendan Burke, whose story about coming out was told so eloquently by John Buccigross just a few short months before Burke's tragic death in a 2010 car accident.
Wingels has seen the transformation first-hand. He sees it in the texts from this former roommate and teammate who is now spreading the message to his own hockey dressing rooms.
"I get texts from him all the time, saying, 'I talked to guys on my team about it,'" Wingels said. "When he tells me he’s actively speaking about it on his team, I think that shows how it spreads."
So does the announcement that became public on Thursday. The NHL and the NHLPA formalized a partnership with the You Can Play Project in a commitment that all sides hopes makes the NHL "the most inclusive professional sports league in the world."
These are two sides that couldn’t agree on a thing just a few months ago, but that’s how powerful this issue has become in hockey, a testament to the hard work by founder Burke. With the partnership comes more education and training for teams, players, media and fans along with public service announcements. It also means more resources and personnel available to each team, if desired.
It’s a remarkable step forward in the vision Burke set forth when he started You Can Play, and it’s paving the way for an NHL player to comfortably come out without fear. It's something that might happen sooner than later.
"It's tough to put a date on it. I see it happening in the near future," Wingels said.
Wingels knew Burke well at Miami. He was impressed with how coolly he handled the wave of attention he received when his story became public, how well-spoken he was on interviews with TSN and CBC.
And a breakthrough like Thursday’s announcement is just a little more personal for a guy such as Wingels, one of the first to cut a check to You Can Play.
"If [Brendan] were here, he’d be pushing for this and be the lead spokesman," Wingels said. "His courage to come out as he did in the hockey world and say, 'This is what it is, I don’t care what people think.' This is truly the best way to honor him."