The Coquitlam Express will be the first BC Hockey League (BCHL) team to host a Pride night at its game Jan. 27 against the Cowichan Valley Capitals.
Express general manager Tali Campbell says events at the city’s public library last Saturday (Jan. 14), when protesters tried to disrupt a drag queen story time, bolster his belief that the time is right to show hockey can create a welcoming and inclusive environment for all players and spectators.
It's not an easy task, he added.
Campbell’s tease of Tuesday's (Jan. 17) announcement on his personal social media account was greeted with several derisive and scornful messages like: "What does this have to do with hockey?"
Another labelled him a "pervert."
But, Campbell said, bringing Pride to the rink is very much about changing hockey and its entrenched "old boys" culture that values machismo and rewards aggression.
"It's hard, tough and you can't have feelings, until we have voices changing it," he said.
Giving opportunity for those voices to rise up is especially important at the junior hockey level when many young players are still forging their identities and may be struggling with some aspects.
In 2021, Luke Prokop of the Calgary Hitmen became the first player in the Canadian Hockey League (a tier above the BCHL) to come out publicly. So far, he remains the only one to make such a declaration.
Campbell said getting to a time when players can be comfortable with who they are and accepted by their peers and fans is a momentous task.
"We're decades behind in this sport," he said. "It's a big mountain to climb but someone has to start."
That start begins in the dressing room.
Since taking the helm for the Express, Campbell has brought in a mental health advisor to facilitate players' discussion about their well-being.
Correcting the language that’s used in the sport and eliminating some of the “silliness” that goes on is also starting to gain momentum at both the junior and minor hockey levels.
Campbell said things like homophobic slurs and hazing rituals that have been the dark underbelly of hockey culture for so long, “lead to people being uncomfortable.”
Changing that culture requires a strict adherence to consequences, whether a player who’s stepped over the line is a bench warmer or star scorer.
"Everyone is going to be treated the same," Campbell said.
Similarly for spectators.
Campbell said for an organization to be truly welcoming and inclusive, the lessons of acceptance have to extend beyond the boards.
Staff, volunteers, billet families and spectators must also carry the mantle — and be prepared to pay a price if they don't.
"We have a duty as a community organization to be that voice for change."
Whether holding a special night and providing Pride tape for players to wrap around their sticks can be a catalyst is still unknown, Campbell said.
"We have to bulldoze those boundaries," he said. "This will be another step to make players feel comfortable, feel they can come out and talk about it."
The Express’ Pride night at the Poirier Sport and Leisure Complex is Friday, Jan. 27, at 7 p.m.