Over the weekend, the U.K.’s Elite Ice Hockey League, in partnership with You Can Play, held its first official Pride weekend.
Support for the weekend was league-wide, with each individual team selecting a local LGBT+ charity to work with, and has seen heavy promotion across social channels and in national and local news in the lead-up to the games.
Initiatives for Pride weekend ranged from the usage of Pride tape, specially designed Pride jerseys, raffles to win the shirt off the back of a player, as well as auctions for the game-worn Pride jerseys, Pride merchandise for sale, and proceeds from the 50/50 raffle going to directly to LGBT+ organizations.
That prolific support from the Elite League and its teams proved to be more than just lip-service, when Manchester Storm defenseman Zach Sullivan chose to come out as bisexual on Sunday, making him the first player in the Elite League to do so.
— Zach Sullivan (@ZachSully11) January 26, 2020
“With this being the first ever EIHL #PrideWeekend I feel now is the best time to speak about what I have known for many years,” Sullivan wrote on his Twitter, accompanied with a photograph of himself flanked by teammates Cam Critchlow and Jared Aulin wearing the Manchester Storm Pride jersey. “I have battled with mental health problems over this issue and with the support, understanding and acceptance from my family, friends and teammates, I finally feel read to say; I’m bisexual. I have never been more proud to wear a jersey before, especially one that celebrates all gender identities and sexualities.”
Response to Sullivan’s statement was swift and overwhelmingly positive. It spanned from fans and players of the Manchester Storm, to fans and players of other Elite League teams, as well as outside of the sphere of the league itself.
We decided to use the @officialEIHL pride weekend as a platform to educate Willow on the #LGBTQ+ community and the importance of all it stands for. Following on from @ZachSully11 recent tweet, she wanted to make something in support of his bravery and honesty. #loveislove pic.twitter.com/IMWjOQOOXF
— Nicola Carter (@Stormforcewills) January 26, 2020
We are all extremely proud of you, Zach! You’re a role model for so many people, young and old, in the sporting world. Someone knowing they can be themselves is a true testament to everything our club and sport stand for.#WeAreStorm | #Manchester | #Pride https://t.co/x4UuWXzo7M
— Manchester Storm (@Mcr_Storm) January 26, 2020
This is why we do the work we do – to make people confident enough to live outwardly as themselves🌈✨
— Pride Cymru (@PrideCymru) January 26, 2020
“I’m not doing this in the hope of any publicity. I’ve always been a very private guy, but I realize that I have a unique opportunity to do some good,” Sullivan said to his team, in a further statement. “If I can be open and honest about my sexuality, then hopefully that will give other hockey players around the country the same confidence to do the same.”
When Sullivan took to the ice for the ceremonial face-off at Manchester’s game later on Sunday, fans in attendance gave him a standing ovation.
“I was interested to see the fan reaction to Zach Sullivan after he came out the morning of the game. I’m part of a team fan group on Facebook and everything there had been positive and supportive but it’s hard to tell what the larger reaction was going to be like. I was not disappointed,” Hilary Keane, a Manchester Storm and EIHL fan who attended the game, told RMNB. “When they called his name and number as he stepped onto the ice for warmups the cheer was noticeably louder than it was for any other player. Then, when he was called to do the ceremonial puck drop the entire building cheered and got on their feet for him. Honestly, I found the entire thing a little overwhelming so I have no idea what it must have been like for him.”
Then, during intermissions, the Altrincham Ice Dome also played music by LGBT+ artists, a small but powerful gesture that furthered the support.
“During every intermission they were playing songs by queer artists or recognizable queer anthems. I wasn’t paying attention the whole time but I definitely heard Born this Way by Lady Gaga, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, George Michael, [and] Ghengis Khan by Miike Snow, which has a beautiful gay love story as the music video,” Keane said. “Honestly as much as a hockey game can feel like actual Pride this game did.”
— Hils 🇬🇧🏳️🌈🏒 (@hils_k) January 26, 2020
Staff at the rink were also decked out in rainbow gear, including stickers and capes. “This clearly wasn’t just an obligation to them they looked genuinely happy to be part of this,” Keane said.”
Manchester ended up winning their Pride game with a 3-0 shutout over the Dundee Stars. The Storm’s goalie, Matt Ginn, was named Man of the Match. “He didn’t even start to skate over for the photo op, he went straight over to Zach Sullivan and insisted be in the photo as well,” Keane said. “As soon as the photo ops were done the entire team surrounded Sullivan and they were all wrapping him in hugs with huge smiles on their faces.”
“This may have been a league-wide Pride event but for this player and his team it was very personal and you could tell they were all in it 100% I have honestly never been more proud to be a Manchester Storm fan, pun intended.”
— EIHL (@officialEIHL) January 26, 2020
As a member of the LGBT+ community, and a hockey fan, it’s hard to quantify just what the kind of prolific support and genuine outreach that the Elite League has done over the last week alone has meant. It is more than anything I’ve ever seen done by a professional hockey league, and it has openly fostered an atmosphere that is warm, accepting, and uncompromising on shouting down homophobia. It has no place on the Elite League’s ice, locker rooms, or in its stands.
That is powerful. And showcases that the league has taken some genuine and incredible strides towards inclusivity since 2017, when Sheffield Steelers rink announcer David Simms said of two male fans who kissed on the Steelers kiss cam, “that’s disgusting, get them out.”
If you can shoot, you can shoot
If you can coach, you can coach
If you can cheer, you can cheer
If you can play, you can play! pic.twitter.com/dayswtOfjq
— EIHL (@officialEIHL) January 24, 2020
While these aren’t the first games being played in the Elite League to support Pride — the Cardiff Devils independently hosted their first Pride game in November 2017, and again in 2018, during LGBT History Month — the league-wide message has only strengthened the cause.
The impact of which can be seen no further than trans amateur hockey player Jay Forster calling the moment “pivotal.” And, if you have a moment, take the time to read Forster’s words to Sky Sports senior reporter Jon Holmes, which broke down exactly why the EIHL’s Pride weekend matters so much.
And while some of the NHL’s Pride night initiatives are slowly improving, I can only hope that they look at the EIHL’s support as the blueprint for their future endeavors.
Headline photo: Manchester Storm
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