Hockey is for Everyone

By Gail Lethbridge | fall 2017

Cheryl MacDonald is on a mission: to fight homophobia in Canada’s most popular sport. “Hockey is for everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, religion,” says the Saint Mary's University Arts graduate from 2010, who was also president of her graduating class. But her number one focus right now is to make hockey a more inclusive sport for LGBTQ athletes.

She’s taken on a big job.

There are no openly gay players in the NHL and very few players who are “out” in other hockey leagues. Attitudes towards homosexuality remain a mixed bag. “On one hand, this is the most open generation to homosexuality ever, but the sport itself is still not accepting of homosexuality.”

In her job as postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, MacDonald studies attitudes towards homosexuality in boys and men’s hockey. She is also part of the You Can Play Project (www.youcanplayproject.org), a non-profit initiative that promotes inclusion for LGBTQ athletes, coaches, and fans in all sports.

MacDonald developed an interest in hockey attitudes while studying at Saint Mary’s, and it’s where she completed an honours thesis in hazing and violence in male hockey. Her research showed that many hockey players participated in these rituals even if they didn’t want to, and attributed that to the peer pressure on teams, which often define themselves as family.

In her doctoral research, MacDonald focused her attention on attitudes towards homosexuality in male hockey players, aged 15-18, playing Major Midget AAA level. Attitudes are divided, she says. Some of her subjects believe hockey should be open to gay players and coaches. Others do not believe a gay person should play hockey. Her research indicates that the attitudes of boys in this age-group reflect those of their fathers and families.

Understanding the attitudes towards homosexuality in the NHL is difficult because the league and its player association rarely, if ever, allows access for research purposes. MacDonald says that gay NHL hockey players do exist but they remain under the radar. “Other players know who they are and coaches know too, but no one wants to come out and talk about it because there would be so much media attention and pressure on that player. They don’t want their careers to end if they come out.”

Does she think we will ever see a gay player come out in the NHL?

“Here’s what I think is going to happen. I think there are going to be players come out at the lower levels and they will make their way up to the professional ranks.”

There is progress being made, says MacDonald. On February 14, she participated in the press conference for the Edmonton Oilers launch of the “Hockey is for Everyone,” an NHL project that aims to drive positive social change and foster more inclusive communities, regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status.

“There is a lot of positive momentum and visibility happening. Awareness is being raised,” she says. “But there are still many people we aren’t reaching when we have these events. We need to find them. I’m hopeful we’re on the right track.”

On the right track, indeed, and taking a huge step toward inclusion in Canada’s most loved sport.

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