Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Kudos to NHL and players for battling homophobia

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Barely three months after ending a caustic labour dispute that discredited both sides, the National Hockey League and its players have found unity through integrity. They've signed a landmark deal that doesn't concern salary caps, revenue shares, arbitration or free agency. It's about advancing human rights.

The NHL and the National Hockey League Players' Association entered into a formal partnership recently with the You Can Play Project, an organization dedicated to ending homophobia on playing fields and in locker rooms in every sport. Hockey's commitment has rightly been called historic.

The NHL is the first major North American professional sports league to officially partner with a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group on this scale.

The new agreement will provide education and training for teams and players on combating homophobia. You Can Play will conduct seminars on equality at the NHL's rookie symposium, and the project will be integrated into the sport's health program so that any player in need of counselling can confidentially seek it out. The message will go out to fans and the media, too, through high-profile public service announcements.

But the biggest impact of this partnership will likely stem from the simple fact that it exists. Few sports, if any, have a "tough guy" tradition that runs deeper than hockey's with its drop-the-gloves, play-through-the-pain, rock 'em, sock 'em ethos epitomized by the rants of Don Cherry. For this sport, beyond others, to emerge as a leading voice against homophobia speaks volumes about the justice of its cause and the importance of standing up for fairness.

It's no accident hockey is in the forefront. Patrick Burke, a scout with the Philadelphia Flyers, launched You Can Play a year ago in honour of his younger brother, Brendan, who was killed in a car crash in 2010 after he came out to his family. Their father, Brian Burke, former general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, has also been an outspoken advocate of equality.

Hockey teams and players were early supporters of the You Can Play message and now that has blossomed into a formal agreement. It seems only a matter of time before other leagues come aboard and LGBT athletes in all sports find more freedom to compete without hiding their orientation.

The timing for this is propitious with gay marriage, already established in Canada, becoming increasingly accepted in the United States. Accomplished gays and lesbians have come out in the entertainment world, in the U.S. military and in politics. And in another nod to the fight for rights in the sports world, 42, the inspiring story of Jackie Robinson, the first black player in major league baseball, has just opened on cinema screens.

The realm of big league professional sports seems poised for another breakthrough. You Can Play can claim a fair share of the credit for leading the way, along with the NHL and its union. It's one more reason for Canadians to take justifiable pride in our national game.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 22, 2013 A11

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