It was beyond our wildest expectations and such an amazing experience to see all the players flood onto the ice with Pride Tape.
Kris Wells, iSMSS faculty director
29
February
2016
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20:00
America/Tegucigalpa

Pride Tape a ‘badge of support’ for LGBTQ athletes

How rainbow tape opened minds and changed hearts about homophobia in the hockey world—and beyond.

By BRYAN ALARY

Something remarkable is happening in Edmonton on this balmy Sunday afternoon in January, and it has nothing to do with the uncharacteristically warm weather.

After two and a half months away from the game with an injury, Edmonton Oilers centre Connor McDavid is back. The rookie phenom represents the team’s hope and future—perhaps the National Hockey League’s best prospect since the Great One, Wayne Gretzky (also a big deal around these parts). After enduring 10 long seasons outside the playoffs, it’s no coincidence many Oilers fans immediately took to calling the quiet teen “McJesus.”

Even before the team’s main training camp this past summer, thousands flocked to catch their first glimpse of McDavid in Oilers silks. And just when fans started to fixate on something other than losing, hope crashed early in the season—along with No. 97—when he spilled into the boards and busted his collar bone. McDavid missed 37 games recuperating from his injury; in that span, the Oilers won just 14 times.

Sunday is a blessed day: McDavid’s return. And Rexall Place is jammed to the rafters.

That’s one of the truly amazing things about Edmonton and this city’s fans: their willingness to support even the unlikeliest of underdogs. But here they are—at an annual skills competition of all things—cheering faithfully as their heroes skate onto the ice for introductions. Hall, Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins. And then comes McDavid. It’s a madhouse. Not quite Game 7, mind you, but still.

Even from the building’s highest perch, there is something unmistakably different about McDavid as he skates toward centre ice. Instead of the usual black or white hockey tape, McDavid’s hockey stick and those of his teammates are wrapped in rainbows—red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet.

The six colours of pride

“That looks sooooooo cool!” squeals a staffer at Calder Bateman Communications, the Edmonton-based firm that came up with the concept for the rainbow rolls, appropriately dubbed Pride Tape.

For the past three months (longer than McDavid’s entire NHL career at the time), a small team from Calder Bateman worked feverishly with the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services, or iSMSS, to bring Pride Tape from concept to reality. As McDavid and many of his teammates take their introductory whirl around the ice, Pride Tape is achingly close to its $54,000 goal, raised through a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. The money will pay for the first 10,000 rolls and kickstart a conversation about ending homophobia in sports.

 

Seeing the prototype product on the ice and in the mitts of the hometown Oilers—the first NHL club or team anywhere to embrace the idea—raises more than a few hairs on the back of the neck.

“It’s beyond our wildest expectations and such an amazing experience to see all the players flood onto the ice with Pride Tape,” says Kris Wells, iSMSS’s faculty director and one of Pride Tape’s co-creators. “I saw tweets from people who had tears in their eyes. It’s a historic moment, and another important step forward on the road to equality.”

In interviews before and since, Wells has called Pride Tape a “badge of support” from the hockey community to LGBTQ youth in sport. It’s part of a larger movement—of which iSMSS and the You Can Play Project are leading players—in raising awareness about inclusivity in sport, often considered the “last bastion of homophobia," Wells says.

Such a simple gesture—taping a hockey stick with rainbow pride—is having a profound impact on the hockey world, from the grassroots of minor hockey throughout Canada and the United States and to the top of the professional ranks. Since Pride Tape’s debut at Rexall Place, six other NHL clubs have expressed interest in being next to show their pride, including several from Canada. It’s a change in team culture that would have been unheard of during the Oilers’ glory days, or even 10 years ago in a league where no player has ever come out as openly gay.

 

Much of the progress can be attributed to the life and legacy of Brendan Burke, son of longtime NHL executive Brian Burke. The younger Burke played hockey throughout his youth, but quit in his senior year of high school, weary of the constant use of homophobic language in the locker room.

Brendan would come out as gay to his family during his freshman year at Miami University in Ohio, where he was a student manager of his school’s hockey team, the RedHawks. He came out publicly a few years later, first to his team and coaches, and later through an interview with ESPN. When Brendan appeared on TSN with his father, he offered himself as an example for others, on and off the ice. His message was simple: You can play. You do belong.

“I’ve been supported so strongly by my family and by Miami’s hockey team, and I think it’s important that my story is told to people, because there are a lot of gay athletes out there and gay people working in pro sports that deserve to know that there are safe environments where people are supportive of you, regardless of your sexual orientation,” Brendan said.

The elder Burke—known for his gruff, no-nonsense persona in the media and for constructing bruising NHL teams with plenty of “beef” and “truculence”—showed unwavering support. The unconditional love of a father for his son.

“It doesn’t change anything in my mind, and it never will,” Brian said.

A few months later, Brendan spun out on an icy highway in Indiana, dying in a car crash. He was 21.

In the short time between his media appearances and tragic death, Brendan’s message resonated across the sports landscape and, most importantly, with his family. Older brother Patrick went on to co-found the You Can Play Project, dedicated to challenging homophobic locker-room cultures and ensuring all athletes—regardless of sexual orientation—are entitled to equality, respect and safety. Brian is on the organization's board, often lending his celebrity and extensive connections in hockey and other major pro sports.

“That’s what has given the You Can Play Project so much strength—the fact that this isn’t coming from outside the hockey world, this is coming from inside the hockey world,” says Wells, who has met Brian a few times and marched with him in Toronto’s Pride Parade. “When a person like Brian Burke speaks, the hockey world listens.”

You Can Play at the U of A

The U of A and iSMSS first partnered with You Can Play in 2014 to establish the first post-doctoral fellowship to advance research into the impact of homophobia in sport. A year later, both organizations teamed up with the U of A Golden Bears and Pandas, local leaders and athletes to produce a video with the message that everyone is valued and that you, too, can play. One of the video’s biggest stars was then-Oilers captain Andrew Ference.

Wells first met Ference not long after the former Boston Bruin signed with the Oilers as a free agent in the summer of 2013. The Sherwood Park native hadn’t just signed on to lead his hometown team on the ice; he planned to be an example in the community, too. Ference tweeted at Wells; not long afterward, they met for lunch and talked about You Can Play and possible ways to support the LGBTQ community in Edmonton. They marched together at Edmonton’s Pride Parade in 2014, along with campers and volunteers from iSMSS’s Camp fYrefly, an outdoor retreat for LGBTQ youth.

“He didn’t want the focus and attention to all be on him, so he said, ‘Teach me. If I’m going to do this, I want to be prepared and want to do it for the right reasons,’” Wells says. “That’s rare. How often does that come along in one’s life? When you have a connection and a friendship, you’re learning from each other.”

Pride Tape represents their latest team-up, with Ference signing on to be the campaign’s biggest—and initially only—NHL ally to brandish the rainbow tape. His team was soon to follow his lead.

“This conversation wouldn’t have been had when I started to play hockey, especially when you go into a room and tell guys to put rainbow tape on a stick. It would have been a totally different conversation,” he says. “It speaks to the progress that’s been made, how amazing You Can Play has done at kind of bringing guys around to the conversation—and making it a conversation—making guys think about inclusion in a locker room.”

Remarkably, around the same time the Oilers were gearing up for the regular season, Pride Tape was barely a concept on the drawing board—one of three possible campaigns to promote hockey and human rights. It was far from certain the idea would resonate with the masses, but if it worked, Pride Tape would allow iSMSS to tackle the issue, not just among pros, but among athletes at all levels of play who may be struggling to find acceptance within themselves, let alone in a locker room.

In a 2015 survey of nearly 10,000 international athletes, 80 per cent said they had witnessed or experienced homophobia in sport. Nearly half of gay men (48 per cent) and a third of gay women (32 per cent) hid their sexuality in youth sport out of fear of rejection from teammates.

“Many LGBTQ youth don’t feel safe participating in sporting environments so they forgo those opportunities, even though they might be very passionate about pursuing them. We want to really focus and say, ‘You’re welcome and we support you, with this simple gesture,’” Wells says.

Communicating that message sounds simple enough. But it’s not like you can go out and buy a few cases of rainbow tape at Hockey Life or Canadian Tire. So Wells dug into his network of contacts in the community, starting with his friends at Calder Bateman. “We wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without relationship building,” he explains.

Wells first worked with the firm in 2004 when he needed a logo design for Camp fYrefly. Operating on a limited budget, Wells’ friend, a graphic designer, volunteered to take on the project. Since that time, the relationship between iSMSS and Calder Bateman has blossomed out of mutual respect and dedication to a problem.

From NoHomophobes.com to Pride Tape

iSMSS and Calder Bateman captured the world’s attention in the fall of 2012 with the launch of NoHomophobes.com, a website that raises awareness about the shocking prevalence of casual homophobia on social media by tracking, in real time, slurs such as “faggot,” “dyke,” “that’s so gay” and “no homo” shared on Twitter. Since its launch, the site has been visited 8.6 million times and led to dozens of media stories—the kind of “knowledge translation” most academics could only dream about.

Since the campaign, NoHomophobes.com has been used by You Can Play as a training tool for professional athletes to talk about the impact of casual homophobia and how locker-room language can breed a hostile, negative climate for LGBTQ players.

In light of its success and the wellspring of support for LGBTQ athletes at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the sporting world seemed like a natural followup to NoHomophobes.com. And being in Edmonton, there was never any question about starting with hockey, says Jeff McLean, Calder Bateman’s creative director. The creative team purposefully avoided a concept like a rainbow sweater or altered gear, which would require buy-in from an entire team or approval from the league.

“We wanted something where an individual could show their support. The tape was a perfect match for that because it’s something they do on a daily basis in practice and for games, and it’s something all players can identify with and all players can use,” McLean says. “It doesn’t have to be from the NHL down; it can be from the grassroots up.”

The grassroots started with Ference, who immediately took to the concept and offered his services as the campaign’s all-star spokesperson. But the veteran of 16 NHL seasons and more than 900 games also provided invaluable input, emphasizing that any tape that’s going to win over NHLers has to be of professional quality. Not everyone was likely to forgo the usual white or black tape—NHLers are notoriously superstitious—but the fact his Oilers teammates and management were open to the discussion at all shows the league has made huge strides, Ference says.

“For Edmonton to lead the way, right from the top of the organization down to the players, makes me extremely proud to be an Edmontonian,” he says. “It’s not something you have to go into the dressing room and twist guys’ arms. Basically, you just bring it up and everybody’s on board. That speaks volumes to hockey players being open to having good teammates.”

For Ference, Pride Tape has personal significance. Growing up in Sherwood Park, his childhood friend, Brody Polinsky, quit Pee-Wee hockey and later struggled to find inner acceptance as a cisgender gay male. Polinsky suffered from “inner homophobia” that spawned a cycle of guilt, shame and self-abuse from which he wouldn’t break free until entering a 12-step program.

With the benefit of hindsight, Ference wishes he could have done more to help his friend find acceptance in the locker room and around his own friends.

“It’s just something you look back at your own childhood and you wish you could have been there for a friend who went through incredibly difficult times for a number of years and for one simple reason: he couldn’t be himself.”

Thirteen rainbows in every roll

With a concept and spokesperson in place, the Calder Bateman team focused on the logistics of producing the rainbow tape. Given the irregular shape of a curved hockey-stick blade and the need for a continuous pattern—13 rainbows in every roll of tape—the challenge proved surprisingly complex, McLean says.

The Calder Bateman offices at times resembled kids’ craft time, with coloured pencils and markers strewn about as staffers produced mockups that would get tested by wrapping them around hockey sticks. They also bought up most of the city’s stock of blue, violet, orange, yellow, red and green hockey tape, using roll after roll to practise their taping techniques and create Pride Tape mockups for promotional photos and a commercial shoot.

“We have some people now that know the ins and outs of how to tape a stick,” McLean laughs.

Once they found a manufacturer capable of producing the product—another challenge—the team decide that crowdfunding would be the ideal way to start the conversation. Global TV agreed to produce a 15-second Pride Tape commercial starring Ference and put it on the air for free, as did all major TV networks across Canada, and soon billboard and poster advertising companies came aboard.

When Pride Tape made its world debut at a Dec. 16 media launch inside Clare Drake Arena at the U of A, the campaign drew plenty of local interest. But the timing, designed to coincide with the World Junior Hockey Championships between Christmas and New Year's when many Canadians’ wallets are already empty, did not exactly lend itself to a sustained financial windfall. McLean admits he and many on his team were glued to their phones, monitoring the Kickstarter page and every pledge as it rolled in.

“We were nervous for sure, but it’s been a real learning experience. We have some colleagues and friends that have been successful on Kickstarter and they’ve helped—talked us off the ledges some days,” he says.

Buzz generated through traditional and social media and endorsements from inside the NHL gradually helped build momentum. Retired Oiler and current Los Angeles Kings goalie coach Bill Ranford, a childhood friend of McLean’s, joined former players Corey Hirsch and the Vancouver Canucks Alumni Association to lend their support on social media and by donating rewards for campaign supporters.

Not surprisingly, Brian Burke, now president of hockey operations with the Calgary Flames, was among the first to jump on board through social media and a national op-ed column and, later, financially. He calls Pride Tape "genius" and says it would have touched Brendan and made him smile.

“It's a cheap and easy way to express support to this community. You can express your support in any rink in Canada and the U.S.,” he says. “The guy who thought this up is a genius.”

Oilers wrapped up with pride

By mid-January, the campaign had been featured prominently on Hockey Night in CanadaUSA Today and Upworthy, resulting in an uptick in pledges. The Pride Tape team started conversations with Oilers executives, who had expressed interest in becoming the first NHL club to show their support. Minutes before the start of the skills competition, Ference, whose season on the ice had already ended due to a hip injury, once again showed his leadership by saying it wasn’t just a matter of if an NHL player comes out as openly gay, but when. And that's OK.

“It’s the right thing to do, to accept people for who they are,” he says. “That’s basically how guys talk about it in the room. They don’t care—if you’re a good guy, a good teammate and you’re working hard, of course, it’s no problem.”

The Oilers’ endorsement of Pride Tape and an $8,000 donation from the Oilers Community Foundation did not just catch the notice of fans, but also the entire NHL—including the Edmonton squad’s provincial rivals. Burke says the day after the skills competition, Flames captain Mark Giordano went up to him and asked when his team would get a chance to use Pride Tape. Giordano and several teammates had previously joined Burke in pride parades in Toronto and Calgary. Their interest in making hockey more welcoming is genuine, he says.

“The players have been terrific. The guys that have joined me in Toronto and Calgary, I didn’t ask them to. These are guys that have done it of their own volition. That’s what makes it special to me.”

Pride Tape has also resonated outside sport. In Fort Saskatchewan, students at the local high school’s gay-straight alliance organized a bake sale for LGBTQ athletes, donating the proceeds to the Pride Tape Kickstarter.

Pride Tape received resounding applause inside Canada’s House of Commons when Edmonton-Centre MP Randy Boissonnault congratulated the Oilers for their leadership on the issue.

“Success in sport is about the love of your game, not who you love. In my city and in our country, every young person should feel welcome to lace up their skates with pride and get in the game,” he says.

Success in sport is about the love of your game, not about who you love. Thanks Pride Tape, Edmonton Oilers & NHL.L’amour du jeux est la base du succès sportif, pas nos préférences amoureuses. Merci Pride Tape, Edmonton Oilers & NHL.

Posted by Randy Boissonnault, MP for Edmonton Centre on Friday, February 5, 2016

Pride Tape hasn’t been without its critics, particularly the online variety. But the vitriol that rose to the surface after the Oilers skills competition just proves why Pride Tape is needed, and how far we still need to go, Wells says.

“That’s always the process of social change. It’s hard fought and not easily won but what it means is people step forward. That’s the important role that allies play, and that’s happening in the world of sport.”

When Pride Tape did surpass its $54,000 fundraising goal, it was the Burke family that pushed the campaign over the top. Brendan’s mother, Kerry Gilmore Burke, says her son would have loved to have seen such “overwhelming signs of acceptance” when he was young and playing hockey.

“It is so important for kids to see visual displays and hear positive words of encouragement, and to feel that sense of confidence that comes when you are supported,” she wrote in a statement. “To give that opportunity to other LGBT hockey players out there makes supporting Pride Tape an obvious choice for our family. We hope young athletes everywhere are inspired by the message of caring for each other and being such good teammates and people.”

Pride Tape would have made a world of difference to Amber Prue when she was growing up in hockey arenas in rural Alberta, west of Edmonton. She was about 14 years old when she began questioning her sexual orientation, but to her knowledge had never met a gay person until she started playing women’s hockey. Being gay wasn’t something anyone talked about openly in that part of the province, she says.

“On my first team, some of the women were talking about changing in front of a gay goalie and ‘I don’t want her checking me out,’ but at the time I was too naive to know what they were talking about,” she remembers.

Though she recognizes that men’s hockey has a more pronounced stigma for homophobia, Prue says it’s still an issue among women’s teams. Players’ attitudes have come a long way since she started in women’s hockey in 1994, but discrimination still exists. She recalls a few years ago watching a couple of players battle along the boards and the male official not only turning a blind eye to the illegal contact but brushing it off by saying, “Oh, she liked it. I guarantee she liked it.”

“I remember we were all just so flabbergasted by that. Who are you to assume anything? Just because it’s women’s hockey, you assume she’s gay?”

Prue, now 35 and still playing competitively with men and women, says she’s grateful that a player of Ference’s stature has dedicated so much time to breaking down barriers for LGBTQ athletes. That kind of support, from a straight professional athlete, would have been huge in her youth, she says.

“I wish Pride Tape would have come out years before,” she laughs. “Instead of being so scary—and scared about what straight players think, because gay players are always going to be accepting of you—that would have made a huge, huge difference.”

At the end of the 48-day Kickstarter, Pride Tape obliterated its campaign goal, raising more than $76,000 from backers in Canada, the United States and as far away as Hong Kong and Australia.

The additional money will help with distribution costs when doling out about half of the 10,000 rainbow rolls to campaign backers after it’s available in March. The rest will be donated to minor hockey and other teams that have expressed interest. The general public will be able to purchase the tape for $7 at pridetape.com, though Wells says talks are in the works that could also see it also land on store shelves.

Pride Tape is expected to appear in NHL arenas again in March, depending on discussions with the league. The product could also be adapted for other sports that use tape, from golf to soccer to baseball.

The conversation will continue, says Wells, who suddenly finds himself in the role of sporting goods manufacturer and academic. And he’d have it no other way.

“Projects like Pride Tape are so important because they open minds and hopefully change hearts. That’s an important role we can play at the university, to lead this kind of change,” he says. “Some people will want to force you into that traditional academic box, but we can’t get afraid to go down these pathways.”