By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - The National Hockey League (NHL) has been preparing for years for the first gay player to come out in public and that groundwork may be about to pay off after the NBA's Jason Collins opened the door to a new era.
Collins, a veteran basketball player, stepped into the national spotlight on Monday when became the first male athlete in a major U.S. professional league to publicly reveal he is gay. That is expected to be the first of many similar announcements in the coming months in major sports leagues.
The deputy commissioner of the NHL, composed of U.S. and Canadian teams, said he was not personally aware of any gay players in the league but made it clear the NHL is treating any coming out as a high priority.
"Certainly this is something that is very important to the National Hockey League, it has been and I think our partnership with 'You Can Play' is demonstrative of that," Bill Daly told a Toronto radio station on Monday. "I applaud (Collins) and my guess is you are going to see more of that going forward."
The NHL says it is committed to becoming not only North America's but the world's most inclusive professional sports league.
While it has dragged its feet on several issues, such as anti-doping and drug-testing, the NHL has sought to take the lead in fighting discrimination on the ice and in the stands, particularly when it comes to a player's sexuality.
As far back as 2005, the NHL and NHL Players Association (NHLPA) included article 7.2 in their collective bargaining agreement that says member clubs cannot discriminate against a player because of his sexual orientation.
More recently the NHL and NHLPA entered into a formal partnership with the You Can Play Project, an advocacy organization that fights homophobia in sports.
"We have always prided ourselves in being inclusive," said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman when announcing the deal on April 11. "We believe diversity is strength and this is another step forward with respect to an important portion of the population and no matter what your national origin, what your color, what's your sexual beliefs and practices, we want you to feel comfortable being part of the NHL family.
"We don't want any segment of society to feel alienated from the game be the subject of slurs to feel uncomfortable whether as a fan or in the locker room."
The gay issue is one that hits close to home for the NHL.
The You Can Play Project was founded just over a year ago by Philadelphia Flyers scout Patrick Burke, son of former-Toronto Maple Leafs and 2010 U.S. Olympic hockey team general manager Brian Burke, after his brother Brendan, an openly gay student athlete, was killed in a car accident.
You Can Play is not only committed to changing the locker room culture within the NHL but also educating fans and media to better prepare a welcoming environment for any player, from junior to professional, who decides they want to reveal their sexuality.
Last year the NHL and You Can Play, with the help from 60 players, developed a series of public service videos asking for tolerance and understanding from the fans.
You Can Play representatives will also appear at the league's rookie orientation program to educate incoming players about the NHL's inclusiveness policy.
"When an NHL player comes out, we will rely on You Can Play's expertise in this area in addition the myriad support systems that already were part of our structure and the NHLPA's to help that player in any way we can," NHL spokesman John Dellapina told Reuters in an email. "Our view is that we would do as much or as little as any player needs or wants. "
The NHL is also being helped by initiatives at the grassroots level.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have reached out to the gay community offering support and assistance to the Toronto Gay Hockey Association, which claims to be the world's largest gay hockey league with over 10 teams and 150 members.
Craig Brownstein, the Washington based vice-president of media relations for Edelman, the huge public relations firm, turned his passion for Washington Capitals into a popular blog Puck Buddys blog ("for boys who like boys who like hockey").
The blog, developed with the help of Brownstein's longtime partner, gives a voice to gay NHL fans.
"We kind of write about the game from the gay perspective," Brownstein told Reuters, and gave credit to the NHL and the NHLPA for their partnership with You Can Play.
"Proud that it was my sport was the first one to take the step in doing this."
(Reporting by Steve Keating; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)