College hockey: Utes face off against discrimination
Caden Ottley doesn't think of himself being on the forefront of a groundbreaking movement. Doesn't consider the steps his team is taking against discrimination and homophobia drastic or landmark.
But they just might be.
Ottley, an associate captain on the University of Utah's men's hockey team, and his teammates have joined the rest of the Pac-8 Conference in alliance with the You Can Play project, united in standing up against discrimination and homophobia in the sport.
The Utah junior sees the acceptance as product of his generation.
"As you grow older, you kind of see the big picture, and those things kind of take a back seat and don't really matter to anyone," Ottley said. "I think it's part of our generation, to not look at those things as we once did. A person is a person. It's a lot like racism, which has come farther and farther as time goes by."
You Can Play was started earlier this year in memory of Brendan Burke, a college hockey player who publicly announced he was gay in 2009. Burke died in a car accident in 2010, and his father, Brian Burke, president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and brother Patrick founded the project to continue his legacy.
Players from each of the Pac-8's nine schools will appear in a video for the campaign and join a growing list of professional and collegiate athletes on board with the movement.
NHLers, Major League Soccer players and collegiate hockey, soccer and basketball players are among those who have "teamed up for respect," to advocate for tolerance in sports, especially hockey.
The campaign is the first to gain momentum in efforts to denounce publicly homophobia in sports.
"It's unfortunate that this sort of declaration is still necessary," Johnny Nguyen, executive director for the Pac-8, said in a statement. "But the teams of the Pac-8, and the conference itself, have pledged their commitment to creating a safe and inclusive environment for all athletes in the locker room, in the stands and on the ice."
Utah associate captain Colton McDonald said he was proud to see his teammates embrace the project.
"I want to see the game grow and not be hindered by anybody's prejudices," the junior said. "I don't know for sure what it will do. I hope it will help everybody in that situation to be more comfortable in the sport and in the locker room. I really hope this will help relieve that tension and burden."
Valerie Larabee, executive director of the Utah Pride Center, which serves the state's lesbian, gay, transgender and queer community, said the campaign is the latest in several steps she has witnessed since joining UPC in 2004.
"I can honestly tell you when I first got here, I thought it was going to take 20 years to get to the place we are now," Larabee said. "[You Can Play is] exactly what we need to be doing in the area of sports at all levels.
"When people are gay and they are hiding it from their teammates, it's a terrible strain on their lives. This will create a more cohesive team for any team that is able to work through these issues.
Larabee said she hopes the Pac-8's announcement will urge other teams and sports on campus to follow suit.
"I am really, really proud of Utah's hockey team for this," she said. "My challenge would be, one sport at the university doing this is a great example. I would hope the other sports that are housed there might choose to adopt the same practice on their own."
You Can Play is the latest philanthropic endeavor with which the Utes have aligned themselves. Team president and general manager AJ Boldan helped organize a breast cancer fundraiser earlier this season, with ticket proceeds donated to cancer research.
The Utes will raise money for prostate and testicular cancer and will host Salt Lake City police Chief Chris Burbank in a pregame puck-dropping ceremony Friday night.
The Utes will honor the U.S. Armed Forces and raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project on Saturday. The latter has special meaning for McDonald.
"A couple of years ago, we had a player on the team who was an active Navy SEAL," McDonald said. "So that game will mean a lot to a lot of us in the locker room."
Utes Can 'Play'
The University of Utah's men's hockey team joined its fellow Pac-8 conference teams in supporting the "You Can Play" campaign to ensure equality, respect and safety for athletes, without regard to sexual orientation.
The project, started by the family of former college hockey player Brendan Burke, has gained momentum since it began in March and lists several NHL, Major League Soccer and collegiate athletes as endorsers.
The Utes have aligned themselves with several philanthropic endeavors, including breast cancer awareness, men's health and the Wounded Warrior Project.