SAN JOSE, Calif. - Watch the San Jose Sharks’ Kurtis Gabriel, and you can see why in his four seasons with three different NHL teams, he’s often described as an enforcer.
That’s part of his story, but Gabriel’s also well-known for his support for gay rights.
In his one season with the New Jersey Devils, Gabriel, like his fellow teammates wrapped his hockey stick in rainbow tape on pride night, for pre-game warm-ups.
Gabriel, who is straight, was the only member of the devils who left the tape on his stick for the game and says he did so for personal reasons.
"To have someone in your life that you know unsupported by their family because of getting into a relationship with a same-sex person…that was pretty shocking to me," he said.
Gabriel’s sentiment and simple gesture didn’t go unnoticed.
"I got an avalanche of support from it and thanks for it," he said. "People felt more seen in the game and…that’s just a small baby step right…and the end of the day it’s just tape on a stick, yeah it makes people more included, but it starts conversations."
Many appreciate his ally-ship.
"His doing those things make a big difference because if you think your teammate is going to be accepting, it’s going to be a lot easier," says Jim Buzinski, co-founder of Outsports.com, a website for gay men to talk about sports. It’s grown into a site that focuses on all LGBTQ issues, as they pertain to sports.
While the athletic world has seen significant evolution since the founding of outsports, Buzinski says there’s one area in which there has still been very little change.
"There’s still never been an openly gay, NFL, MLB and NHL player, and only one in the NBA, who’s out while they’ve actually been playing," he said. "I focus on the men because women have had a much more robust ability to be out in their sport. There are a lot of WNBA players that are out including superstars. I hate to use the word fear because it sounds like they’re terrified, but it’s fear of the unknown, how everyone’s going to react. It’s the idea that straight people don’t have to come out. They’re allowed to just be themselves. To be gay, lesbian, bi, trans, you sort of have to announce it publicly. It’s a lot of pressure to put on anybody, let alone someone who’s in the spotlight, like an athlete."
As far as gay NHL players, Gabriel says, "hockey’s never had an active ‘out’ player, let alone a player that’s played at East Coast, semi-pro, AHL pro, or NHL level come out as gay. There’s many guys playing in those leagues right now to this day. There’s many that have played and are retired, and still aren’t out that are gay men, and that just shows there is a way to go."
There are signs that the major men’s pro sports are changing, however slowly.
Jason Collins came out toward the end of his 13-year NBA career. Katy Sowers, now coaching with the Kansas City Chiefs and spent four years with the 49ers, is the NFL’s first openly gay, and female coach. Michael Sam was drafted by the Rams in 2014, never played in an NFL regular-season game, and retired after one history-making game in the Canadian Football League.
"I think NFL coaches are so ‘win at all costs’ mentality that I think the vast majority of them couldn’t care less if a player was gay if they could help that person win," Buzinski said. "I know (Patriots head coach) Bill Belichick has talked about that. I think the groundwork has been laid for an athlete to be accepted. We’re waiting for that person who steps forward."