A collection of teammates spend their fall and winter days going to war together on ice, ride buses, share hotel rooms and experience every waking minute together. Sounds like a closely knit group, right? And yet, in the span of one hour, they realize just how much they don’t know about each other. Brock McGillis helps the Saint John Sea Dogs grow closer than they've ever been.
The exercise, designed to break the barriers of conformity in junior hockey, starts out tentatively enough. When asked to share what interests they have outside hockey and partying, players dip toes in the water with answers like “lacrosse” and “camping.” Eventually, though, one player offers: “history.” He reveals that, before bed each night, he scrolls through his phone reading about historical events that interest him. That crumbles the first stone from the dam.
Then coach Gordie Dwyer chimes in: “I used to sing in a band. Jon Bon Jovi once pulled me onstage during a show.”
That prompts another player to reveal: “I play the piano.”
As Sea Dogs GM Trevor Georgie recalls it, by the end of that one-hour session this past August, the team realized they had enough musical talent between the players and the hockey operations department that they “could’ve entered a battle of the bands competition.” Quite the bombshell for a group of players that felt they knew each other pretty well just an hour earlier.
That’s the effect McGillis has on people. A former OHL goaltender who, in 2016, became the first openly gay professional men’s hockey player, he has retired from playing and devotes his packed schedule to motivational speaking and working tirelessly to combat hockey’s problem with inclusivity. In his mind, major junior is a crucial target for bringing about change because of its influence in two directions: younger players look up to kids from major junior, and the major-junior kids graduate many players to the pro ranks. If they have conformist, racist, sexist or homophobic values baked into their lives, it can be dangerous because they spend so much time together, subscribing to the same lifestyle, essentially spreading the conformist culture among a large group.
That’s why McGillis makes a concerted effort to speak with teams and try to shatter the idea that fitting in is so important. The conformist culture is everywhere, right down to the idea that you can embarrass a rookie simply by making him skate a warmup lap by himself. It promotes the concept that “standing out is bad,” and, if someone who plays piano or likes history is viewed as an outsider, imagine how ostracized someone from the LGBTQ+ community can feel in a hockey environment? By teaching young athletes that it’s OK to be individuals with varied interests, McGillis hopes to light a spark that promotes inclusivity, even if it doesn’t always come easily.
“I’m trying to push them to think about things that they actually enjoy, and that’s the toughest part for me and probably the toughest part for them, because it’s uncomfortable,” McGillis said. “They’ve been told not to think about things probably their whole lives. What was the expression – ‘You can do two things successfully, between hockey, school and a girlfriend. You can only have two things and do them successfully?” It’s that same mentality that you (can’t) enjoy other things, you have to focus solely on hockey, and I’m trying to show them, no, you can be a human being and enjoy other things and still be a great hockey player.”
So how do McGillis’ sessions, like the one he had with the Sea Dogs, typically play out? He likes to start with an on-ice component. If the players see him playing the game and understand quickly that he can do it at a high level, he earns their respect and helps squash any stereotype that a gay man can’t be a great athlete. Once that comfort is established, the breakout component begins. That’s when he’ll speak to a team about conformity and have them volunteer surprising tidbits about their non-hockey interests.
“It’s amazing in a one-hour workshop with our players, and our coaching staff, training staff and myself, we spend all this time together, and we learn so much in that one hour together with Brock,” Georgie said. “He was able to facilitate that. It’s what I love about Brock. It’s his story and getting comfortable and sharing experiences, and that comes with his experiences. He really gets you, gets everyone, thinking and reflecting and talking with themselves. It was really effective.”
On top of the conformity breakout sessions, McGillis talks to teams about shifting the culture, taking the idea of inclusivity and individuality into social and family settings because, just as he is, the current generation of kids can become leaders. It’s an idea that, in Georgie’s mind, feels more attainable than ever. Assessing his own team, he sees a Gen-Z demographic more accepting and educated than any preceding it.
“These young men really do have interest in social issues and care about things, care about sustainability and are curious of the social issues,” Georgie said. “They are aware of the various challenges that, for instance, First Nations hockey players face. They are interested in and follow women’s hockey. This generation is actually really curious and really inclusive and a really open-minded generation.”
The way Georgie sees it, social media makes things difficult for the junior-aged player population, creates pressure for a certain uniform existence, creates a fear of being judged, and that can still put even modern thinkers on the path to conformity. That’s why he took it upon himself to bring McGillis to Saint John. “I absolutely think the players are ready for it, and it’s up to us as leaders and management to give them those opportunities and experiences,” Georgie said.
The good news: programs like McGillis’ are helping. He’s worked with the Erie Otters and Saginaw Spirit this season, too, with Boston University of NCAA Div. I next on the docket. The bad news: not every team has management as progressive as those teams do. Georgie, for instance, is a GM uniquely equipped to understand the importance of inclusivity. He doesn’t come from a “conventional” hockey background. His father was born in Iraq. Georgie became interested in hockey because his grandmother, who is deaf, enjoyed it since it didn’t require sound and was a pastime she could share with her grandson. Georgie also has a family member in the LGBTQ+ community. He’s naturally sympathetic to McGillis’ cause, and the Sea Dogs had McGillis come speak with their players as far back as 2018.
Looking at the entire junior and amateur landscape, however: it’s not always so inviting to discussions about LGBTQ+ inclusivity just yet. McGillis encounters far more closed doors than open ones in his quest.
“I really do appreciate the teams that bring me in – it matters,” McGillis said. “But I’ve been begging, pleading with the OHL for four years to do this and make it a mandatory program like they’ve done with so many others. Unfortunately, they haven’t. I’ve stopped pleading. I felt like I was a bother and it wasn’t accomplishing anything. I hope they circle back, because it’s needed but, until they engage that conversation, I can’t plead with them, but I will work with individual teams that see the value and other groups…Frankly, I hope the CHL reaches out, especially considering they do have an out player (Luke Prokop). I’m hoping it’ll be the catalyst to a conversation with the CHL. I’m becoming exhausted with leagues and teams dipping a toe in with Pride nights. I’ve told them all, ‘This is performative.’ Sorry, but it is. Studies have shown that it doesn’t move the needle or impact the locker room or anything.”
Earlier this year, the Ontario Hockey Federation, which oversees all major hockey leagues in the province, suddenly pulled out of a deal in which McGillis would educate every team in the OHF’s leagues via modules created with the help of accomplished academics. This season, he had an NHL team ready to assist him in teaching inclusivity to GTHL teams but was told, “there wasn’t a venue large enough to give a talk.” So he’s still reduced to bringing about change on a piecemeal, team-by-team basis despite the fact he’s getting tangible results from the teams that let him in.
“I’m just tired of being asked questions about shifting hockey culture when I’ve been working at it for five years and work with people who have been at it longer,” he said. “We have solutions. There’s a way to shift this. Shifting it would be nice, because they’re actually hurting kids by not doing stuff. Because there’s kids (in the CHL) – Luke Prokop isn’t the only kid in that league that’s gay, and it isn’t safe for them. I know of a coach in one of the leagues who went to his team a few years ago and said, 'I don’t want any f------ here. If you’re gay, get the f--- out.' I’ve been told of two players in one of the major-junior leagues who went to their teams and tried to come out, and they were told, 'If you come out, you’re cut.' They both quit hockey.
"Luke’s an anomaly, he’s not the norm, and we need to get it so that more kids feel comfortable in the space. If they think that the space is safe and comfortable, their heads are in the sand, so to speak, because it’s not.”
Not yet. But McGillis will do everything in his power to change that. What he needs is a chance.