So this was it, huh? This was how it was gonna go; how it would all play out. It wouldn’t be ideal by any means, but if this is what had to happen, then he supposed it would do. He wasn’t happy. They knew he wasn’t happy, but they obviously didn’t care. They wouldn’t risk anything for him and it definitely showed. He was… okay with that. He wouldn’t lie to himself or to anyone else; not anymore. He’s proud of himself, of who he’s become, and who he’s helping. He loves giving people the ease they need to smile and laugh. He knew after this, it would never be the same. No one would ever look at him the same. No one would talk to him the same way. It hurt to think about, but he’d move on. He’d have to in order to stay alive.
His heart was heavy in his chest. He gave picture perfect smiles and laughed at the right times. He answered questions, made his own comments, and kept up with the media. They were persistent, curious. They wanted to know what’s going on and why now? The last one he couldn’t answer. He stared blankly at the cameras, unable to form words. He didn’t know why. He couldn’t explain it. He’d been so content with everything until this point. Why did it change? Why did he decide to do this? He gulped, beginning to frown.
“It was time, I guess. I want… to openly love someone and maybe marry them some day. Most people do, but I guess it’s been different for me.”
It was all he could say before the PR team was ushering the media out of the locker room. If anything, he didn’t feel better or relieved. The weight of the world felt like it was on his shoulders and he couldn’t do a damned thing about it. He was silent, sitting back against his stall. His hands rubbed unconsciously at his eyes. There was no one else in the locker room and for that, he was grateful. The silence gave him a chance to completely let go in his mind. Everything seemed like it was just… too much, but not enough. His skin ached to be touched. He needed human contact, but he couldn’t go to anyone. Not anymore. He couldn’t let himself be vulnerable to these people. He couldn’t trust that they wouldn’t turn on him.
Realistically, he knew the risks. He’d gone over them himself day after day. He knew this would change everything, knew it’d possibly end his career. He wasn’t scared, though. He couldn’t afford to be scared. He’d accepted himself a long time ago; It was time everyone else did, too. There was so much he wanted to say, but knew he couldn’t. He couldn’t express his insane amount of fear and stress to the media or to the team. He couldn’t give them an inch. They’d drag him through the dirt and mud for it all. He knew this, accepted this, expected this. He just wanted to be… He wanted to live and prosper and play hockey. That’s it. That’s all he wanted.
One of the younger women of the team’s PR poked her head back in, a sad smile on her face.
“Hey, don’t… don’t go on Twitter for awhile, yeah? Just… let things cool down for a few days. If you… need to see someone, please let us know and we’ll get you the help you need.”
It was thoughtful and considerate. He couldn’t help the sad sigh that left him, though. This wasn’t what any team in the league was prepared for. No one was ready for anything of the sort, but sometimes, things needed to happen before there was any change. It was hard and daunting. He knew this wasn’t what any PR team was used to. He gave the woman a small smile of gratitude and stood up. He wanted to be… anywhere but in the locker room at that point. He packed his stuff back up and was out of the doors before anyone could catch him.
Time seemed to go agonizingly slow after that day. No one was getting over his whole fiasco, which wasn’t really a “fiasco” in his opinion, but whatever management wanted to call it… The team wasn’t distant or even pushing him out. It surprised him. If anything, they were actually pulling him closer to them and getting up into his space more than usual. There was soft affection from each of his teammates at every practice and every game after that day. It was a lot to process. They all just seemed genuinely worried and continued to randomly show up at his house during off days with booze and whatever type of food they decided to pick up that day.
It felt nice, though. His team actually caring and making an effort to be considerate. They were all good guys for the most part. Some were a little misguided, but it was all in good fun. They were young and dumb and still learning how to get through life properly. But not everyone could get a pass like that. There were grown ass men across this league who had no consideration for others nor did they… care, it seemed. They’ve gotten away with some horrible shit and everyone seems to move on and look away, but he couldn’t. He’d never been able to look at people the same after some of the shit. He’d never been so disappointed to see the shit continue on, but was he surprised? No. If they were going to let players get away with rape and domestic violence, then they could totally handle having an openly gay player. Or maybe not, ya know? Depending on the old white man with the higher ups, his case is probably worse than anything other players have done.
Nothing would ever be said publicly nor would anyone admit it. He knew that there were players out there that wanted to see him fall. They wanted him out of the league, out of hockey, and it showed. His team had his back, though. They defended him, supported him, and continuously gave him a reason to keep going and keep playing. It felt surreal. It really was them against the world, or at least that’s what it felt like. He knew it wouldn’t last forever, though. He consciously kept things under wraps in order to be on the safe side. He wasn’t going to pretend to be anything that he already knew he wasn’t, though. No one understood and he couldn’t bring himself to help them understand.
There was no frustration, really. It was just a lot of silent pain and suffering. Being on the ice helped him immensely. His mind cleared with every step he took while out there. He felt free and much more alive. That was his normal. He’d always have hockey to fall into when everything else became too much. There hadn’t been a lot for him to ask of his team or their organization. He’d just wanted the support. He’d just wanted to keep himself and every other gay kid out there the hope that they needed. This was all he ever could’ve wanted. Nothing else really mattered to him. He just wanted people to know they belong, they matter, they’re cared about. His next step gave him the ability to truly show that.
Bye week had approached much quicker than he’d anticipated, but he was grateful. He stood quietly in the corner of the shelter, hands shoved in his pockets. There were so many teenagers, all looking so lost and just trying their best to get by. He didn’t like seeing that. He hated being so useless in this situation. He was able to speak with them, though. A small smile on his face as he looked at all the faces in the group. This shelter housed LGBT+ Teenagers that had been released from their birth families under various circumstances. His heart ached for these kids. He was so glad to be as privileged as he was. Helping people has always been the biggest dream behind all the hockey. People deserved to be able to live, not just survive.
That was his whole thought process. People deserved the support, acceptance, and love that others got. It shouldn’t matter what differences there were between individuals. People weren’t inherently bad. It was a learned behavior and everyone knew it; They just refused to accept it. Ignorance isn't bliss when it came to causing people harm and allowing people to suffer. There really wasn’t any way he could let it be known, though. He was just one man. He was just a hockey player. He couldn’t bring change by himself and he knew this. He wished the circumstances were different. He wished that there was more he could do on his own. And there was, but something kept holding him back. He couldn’t publicly say what he wanted. He couldn’t stare down a camera and act like he was educated on a lot of this stuff. He wasn’t really that knowledgeable, but that didn’t matter, did it? He could see the importance of it all, could see that so many were struggling and no one was helping them.
So he did what he could. He gave back to the community, created safe places for individuals that were lacking one. He gave what he could and helped with what he could. His heart was full of love for those that continued to help out and those that were brought so close to the edge by receiving the help. His teammates came around as well. They gave him something to lean on when he felt so close to falling apart. For awhile, things felt like they were okay. It felt like people were finally getting it. It felt amazing. This wouldn’t be the death of him. He’d be able to overcome everything from this. It would not kill him, nor would it end him. He was alright and he would be alright.
At least, he wanted so badly to believe that last part. Some players were never as charming as anyone thought they’d be. This was definitely true when the team stopped in Anaheim for a game. The Ducks were never their biggest rivals nor did they really ever consider them to be rivals. They just… existed. That night seemed to change everything for him. There was so much going on. He couldn’t even fucking breathe anymore. His whole body felt tingly. It all happened so suddenly. The hit was dirty; It’d had to have been. Even if it wasn’t, it fucking hurt. He thought he was staring, eyes open, but all he could see was darkness. He could hear the yelling of his teammates, screaming of the crowd. It was as if everything had suddenly began to go in slow motion. Hands caressed his neck and head ever so gently. He couldn’t see. He couldn’t breathe. His own hand wouldn’t even move. A cough rumbled through his chest and suddenly light was flooding into his face. It was so bright that it hurt. Blood rushed down his cheeks and suddenly he was shifted onto his side.
“Stay with us, bud. We’re gonna get you help. You just gotta stay with me.”
That voice. He knew that voice. He’d heard it several times. But who… who was he? What the hell was going on? There was no way he could even speak. He felt himself convulse again, body shuddering harshly. His eyes squeezed shut at the pain. And he swore his heart was going to burst out of his chest. But it all just… stopped. He was left motionless as the paramedics hauled him off to the ambulance. He didn’t think he was breathing anymore. His heart was… oddly slow. Things felt so sluggish.
Maybe this was it? Maybe this really would be what killed him. The ignorance that was so deeply rooted in sports would grab ahold another victim. They say You Can Play. They say Hockey is for Everyone. But when the time comes, are they really willing to believe the things they advocate for? Would they really be willing to defend and support those they advocate for? There would be so many questions. So much time and influence going into these things. The Russians wouldn’t be able to go home if they openly supported anything to do with You Can Play. Some guys weren’t even comfortable with the thought of a gay man in the league. There would be so much to consider. Would it be worth it if it meant losing everything else?
And maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was. People would always have their differences, but that shouldn’t matter when it came to be decent and respectful. Maybe this was all just one big clusterfuck of a situation. Maybe the world really would finally end. Maybe, maybe, maybe… There was always a “maybe” or an “if” or a “but.” There always would be when it came to fear and ignorance and whatever else people found themselves going through. No matter how much research, how much time and effort, how much thought, went into it, there would always be some form of questioning. The wonder and predicting never truly ended until after, but even then the other outcomes always haunt in the back of the mind. That was what made it all so clear to him. That was what allowed him to understand the need for changes. He wasn’t as big or popular, but the sheer will and determination he held inside him would make it all worth it. Seeing community members represented would make it all worth it.
He hadn’t moved in two days. His heart was slow and steady. They placed him under constant supervision to make sure that he would be saved and or comforted if need be. There wasn’t a lot anyone could do. He’d been saved somehow, but now it was a waiting game. They’d see if he would eventually wake up or if hope was lost. The fire that lived within him didn’t go out when people chirped him with their disgusting words. It didn’t flicker when they called him names. It didn’t shudder when they tried to get to him. His fire stood strong and continued to burn. He continued to live. That was what he was told to do. Continue living and thriving, they said. You’re much stronger than you believe, they said.
His absence left the league slightly off. His team wasn’t… in it. He was the missing piece they needed. He’d given them hope and love and care. He’d given them so much and expected nothing in return. His team was hyper aware of what they were missing at all times. It was surreal to not have him in the locker room or on the ice. The gaps of where he’d normally be left empty and sad feeling within the team. They’d do what they could. They’d fight hard for the rest of the season. They’d do it for him, for his family, and for each other.
A hand gripped his, squeezing gently. The soft murmurs of prayer were the only noises heard besides the beeping of the machines.
“You’ve started something so… incredible for people all over the hockey community. You’d be so proud of how much the team has raised in honor of you and your family. We’re doing what we can because we know you can’t be here to do it yourself. Every single day, we notice the gap of you not being there and it hurts. It hurts so much. But I know you wouldn’t want us to continue this way. We try to play as hard and as best as we can, but we miss you. I miss you.”
A soft tear drop slides down his forearm. There’s a slight shift in the atmosphere. Another voice spoke softly.
“You can let go now, bud. You don’t have to hold on if you don’t want to. You don’t have to suffer anymore. You don’t have to give anymore. You’ve done so much and never expected anything in return. You’ve given everyone enough of you that it caused you so much pain. You can let go now.”
The broken sobbing filled the room, but was quickly gone as they left the room. There was a lot to unpack there. So much hurt and pain and suffering to be shown. Was his time really up? Had he truly done enough? He didn’t think so. He couldn’t have. There was still so much left for him to do. He still had so much love to spread and hockey to play. He couldn’t give up now. He couldn’t let his flame die out. But what could he do? What could he possibly still do? There was so much to say, so much to do, but not enough time, never enough time.
And that was… correct. That was what he needed, what he could do. Make time. Make sure everyone knew that there was time. There was enough room for everyone. There was… enough. They’d be okay. They’d have the access and ability they needed. They’d get to live and smile and laugh. They’d get to be themselves. And that would be enough. He would be enough. They would be enough.
He woke disoriented and with no recollection of what had happened. They cried for him. They cared for him. They loved him. This would not, could not, be the end of him. His determination and courage kept the flame ablaze. Nothing anyone said or did could put it out. They did not control him. They did not have power over him. This flame, this life, was his. He was sat up, hugged tightly into several chests. The cries of sheer joy were quiet, but he heard them loudly. They were why he wanted to continue. He’d woken up, gotten back, for them. They needed him and everyone could see it. He was their rock, their safety net, their everything.
They monitored him for a few more days before deeming him healthy enough to leave. His body was exhausted and he couldn’t bring himself to smile at his roommate, but it was going to be okay. He was going to be able to get back out on the ice again. He would play again. It’s all he had ever wanted, all he really wanted even now. No one could take this away from him. No homophobic asshole could shut him down. No bigotry would get to him because he was proud and out and loved.
The league was, of course, a mess. His family was fighting for him. His team was fighting for him. His organization was fighting for him. Hell, most hockey players across Europe and North America were fighting for him. It was 2019. It was time for things to get better. It was time for the league to move forward. The bigotry and racism needed to end. The NHL needed to recognize the issues and work towards fixing them. The abusers, the rapists, the racists; They all got to walk free. So why couldn’t he? Why couldn’t any gay man? Because in a society that deems same sex love to be more offensive than rape, domestic violence, and rape, it was all what they were taught. It was the mindset they were forced into the moment they could understand. But him? He was 23 years old. He was the difference. He was a good fucking player and no one could deny that. He had the passion and the skills and drive to be something better, greater. He was the change that needed to happen. It all started with him, for real, this time. They could say what they wanted. They could claim to be supportive and accepting, but facing the actual situation proved otherwise.
“I will never not be proud of who I am, what I’ve been able to accomplish so far, and who I’ve been able to bring together. My sexuality has never brought me to make any rash decisions in the locker room, nor has it made me act out. I know how to control myself and I’ve never once looked at any of my teammates in a matter that may be concerning. My sexuality hasn’t ever affected my ability to play nor my ability to get along with a team. It’s a part of me, but it does not define me.”
“Given that I have said statements before, I think it is disgusting that the league continues to dismiss acts of violence and sexual assault that have been committed by players across the league. It is disgusting that you are still giving these men the time of day when you won’t even glance in a gay man’s direction who has never committed such acts or crimes as previously stated. Women are not and should not ever be treated as objects or toys. They are human beings who have the right to their own bodies. I’m not sure who gave anyone the idea that such acts against women, or anyone, were acceptable, but they never have been and never will be. So to all the women out there who deserve more than what they’re given, I stand by you. I march with you. I appreciate you. I’ve seen it going around Twitter, but the NHL not paying the Women who were at the All Star Game to play as well is awfully low of them and if anyone truly deserved that money, it would be them. They make less doing the same things as us, probably doing it better, if we’re honest. Women are not less because they are women. They are not inferior to men. And if there is anything we should all take away from this, it’s that those women that you continue to discredit are doing bigger and better things than this league has ever done. They’re progressive and loving and accepting. They’re working harder than anyone in this league and we all know it. We all know it. And if you’re wondering? It’s misogyny. Look it up.”
“NHL Player, Nathan MacKinnon, has single handedly destroyed the NHL.”
“Avalanche star, Nathan MacKinnon, Disappointed in NHL for their bigotry, hatred, and blatant racism.”
“Colorado Avalanche Star, Nathan MacKinnon, Has Voiced His Concerns, but Will the NHL Actually Listen?”
It was everywhere. Every place he turned had led him straight to where he was. He faced everything head on, blank faced and ready to fight. They suspended him for his comments. No time limit was set, but they wouldn’t let him play. His team stood by him and that’s what made it worth it. He practiced day after day, went on the roadies, but wasn’t allowed to step onto the ice with the team. He couldn’t play; They weren’t going to let him play. His organization fought hard for him. He was grateful, but he understood. They’d have to either send him down or let him go. No team would pick him up; He was highly aware of that. There wasn’t much anyone could do for him now. He had said what he need, had done what he wanted and what he knew needed to be said. The lack of respect and class that the NHL has portrayed for years was finally blowing up in their faces and it was well deserved. Fans weren’t… exactly happy with the league. Teams were being torn apart because of the players. Everything was chaos. There wasn’t enough power between them to keep moving forward.
Nathan stood at the front, a blank stare centered on the crowd before him. The reporters were merciless. So many people wanted to know how he felt for putting the NHL in this position, for causing this chaotic scene. He gave them all a small chuckle, slight smile on his lips.
“Must suck to have a bunch of rich people freaking out over the fact that they were called out and told off for all the shitty things they’ve done and continue to do. Must be sad that they’re now being seen for who they are, ya know? Poor them, I guess. Money can’t save them from being exposed and the truth, but it sure slowed down the processes and for that, I applaud them. In reality, though, I think we can all agree that abuse of any form isn’t okay. Rape isn’t okay. Racism is just… unfuckingbelievable and unacceptable at this point. It’s 2019. Own up to your shit or get called out. If you think I’m going to have pity on any of these people, you’d be very wrong.”
He left abruptly after that. He, a gay man, wouldn’t give up until things were changed for the better. This wasn’t about their fragile egos. This wasn’t about himself. This wasn’t about money or fame. This was solely about letting voices be heard. This was about letting kids, teenagers, and adults alike that hockey is for everyone. Hockey is a sport that allows people to come together and have fun. Hockey was important to everyone who participated. Players, fans, coaches, etc. were drawn to the game and that’s how it should always be. A player shouldn’t be discriminated against over their skin color, sexuality, gender, ethnicity, or anything of the sort. They can’t change those parts of them. They cannot just do away with these parts of them. They shouldn’t be ashamed of these parts of them. They shouldn’t have to fear what might happen to them because of these parts of them. The world is wide enough for everyone. The game is big enough for everyone.
Maybe he wasn’t worth it, but the people around him were. The players around him were. The women fighting tooth and nail to be recognized were. The men who were kicked off of teams and hurt by their teammates and coaches and others were. The survivors and victims were. These people that surrounded him were worth every single penny. He might be a hockey player, a gay man, a Canadian, but he was truly nothing without the people in his life. The world was, indeed, wide enough. And for that, for all the hardships and heartache, he would continue to fight until things were better, until hockey really was for everyone. And with one form of change would hopefully come more and more. That was what hope and determination could bring.