Pride games research heartening for ice hockey's Zach Sullivan after homophobia incident

Pride games research heartening for ice hockey's Zach Sullivan after homophobia incident

"It was on the penalty kill. The phrase he used was 'nice hit, f****t'," says Sullivan. The match was an Elite League encounter in December last year.

With Sullivan outraged but managing to keep his emotions in check, the officials approached. "Fortunately, I knew both of the refs on the game quite well. They came over and asked which player it was, and what he'd said. I told them and added, 'look, if he says that again, I'm going to go for him'.

"My defence partner was the toughest player in the league, so it wasn't just a case of me. The game would probably have spiralled out of control very quickly. Both refs said they'd put it in their report."

The incident occurred midway through last season, which was Sullivan's first with the Storm and his sixth in the Elite League. At the time, as 2019 was drawing to a close, he had begun to share a truth with close friends and family - that he is bisexual.

"I'd always been able to separate my 'real life' from my hockey life," he explains. "Hockey had always been a release. But I realised around November time that I couldn't do that any more. My private life was affecting how I was playing.

"I remember texting my best friend and saying, 'I need to talk to you.' I ended up telling him over text. It sounds like a cliché but it just felt like a weight had lifted off my shoulders."

For any sportsman contemplating being more open about his sexuality within a team sport, hearing a slur such as the one directed at Sullivan during a match would understandably bring concerns. Despite that, the Storm defenceman felt the incident was unrepresentative of the sport in the UK; it was the first time he'd been verbally abused in that way while out on the ice in the league.

The player responsible, who was from the US, couldn't have known that Sullivan was at that time contemplating coming out in ice hockey. "It wasn't a personal attack but still unacceptable," he says. He hoped the refs' reports would lead to action.

"We were training on the Friday before the weekend, and two of my team-mates were doing the photoshoot with the Pride shirts," recalls Sullivan. "I skated over to our kit manager and said, 'where's mine? I'm getting in the picture!' I forced my way in because I knew what I was going to do by that point."

The next day, post-match, he told his coach and team-mates that he is bi and that he would be sharing the personal news on social media, thus making him one of very few out male players in ice hockey, and in professional men's team sports worldwide.

When he posted to Twitter and Instagram on the Sunday, the response from all quarters was overwhelmingly supportive - thousands of people congratulated him on social media, and Sullivan was inundated with messages of goodwill, and media requests for interviews.

Seven months on, Sullivan acknowledges how the experience has changed him. He's more confident, and more comfortable with that part of himself. Talking to the media about being bi still feels "a bit weird", however. "I'm quite private, but I'm getting better at figuring out what I want to say, and saying it when I want to say it. If I'd just come out and then said nothing afterwards, I think that would have been a little bit irresponsible."

He feels the hockey community has fully embraced him. "Since I came out, guys I've never played with have come up to me and said, 'really proud of you for what you've done' and things like that. The reactions have only been positive, and it's really exciting and fun to be part of a bigger message."

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