Ohio State's men's hockey team is hosting Pride Night, which is believed to be the first of its kind hosted by a Division I hockey program. Partnering with Gay Hockey Ohio and the You Can Play Project, Ohio State will be spreading a message of acceptance throughout the night when it takes on Notre Dame at 7 p.m.
"It's amazing," Douglas Massey, the president of Gay Hockey Ohio, told BSB. "I am speechless when I look at it and I see how quickly Ohio State and all these organizations came on board. To some people, it can be kind of a touchy subject and something they don't want to have to deal with. I'm very thankful all these people have come together and really worked to promote it and have that understanding."
In addition to Ohio State welcoming in a group of more than 300 people through Gay Hockey Ohio – an umbrella group that oversees diversified teams that play in the Chiller Adult Hockey League in Columbus – there will be some festivities.
From 6-7 p.m., there will be a pregame reception in the new VIP Boardroom lounge below Section 127. Before faceoff, fans will receive a video welcome from OSU president Dr. E. Gordon Gee before a video in support of the You Can Play Project featuring OSU players and head coach Mark Osiecki will be shown on the big screen. After the game, there is an on-ice skate for all fans.
The whole thing has blown up and put Ohio State's program on the map, but the idea started simply when Massey suggested setting up a group ticketing event for members of the Ohio Mayhem, Gay Hockey Ohio's CAHL team on which he plays, and contacted OSU to do so. The organization had put together similar nights with the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets in the past and looked to do the same with OSU, as the plans were made during the professional league's recent work stoppage.
"It was originally just going to be more of a social night out for our hockey team," Massey said. "It just grew from there and kind of snowballed that more people wanted to go."
The idea truly took off, though, when the ticket office got together with OSU associate athletic director Chris Schneider, the sport administrator for hockey.
"We talked about looking at doing a Pride Night but to do it bigger than just a group or bigger than just a promotional item," Schneider said. "We said, ‘Let's partner with the You Can Play Project,' and that's really the most important feature of this."
The You Can Play campaign launched last March and is an activist campaign created to combat homophobia – both overt and casual – in sports. One of its founders is Patrick Burke, a professional scout who is the son of longtime NHL executive Brian Burke and whose brother, Brendan, worked at Miami (Ohio) as a student manager until passing away in a car crash February 2010.
Brendan had attracted attention for coming out in 2009 and was an advocate of tolerance in sports, and You Can Play – which centers on the phrase "If you can play, you can play" – was later founded to keep his legacy alive. You Can Play members deliver speeches around the country about the topic, and the organization is developing a "playbook" to send to schools, athletes and fans about making sports LGBT-friendly.
"I've been very aware of the You Can Play Project with our connections with Miami and the Burkes," Schneider said. "I've really followed their website and just thought it was a great match. We talked about it as an administrative team and thought it was a great idea. Coach Osiecki was very much behind it. He shared the idea with the student-athletes on the team, and they were very much behind it. It just really took off from there."
The major connection to the You Can Play Project on gameday will be the pregame video featuring team members, which was taped last week. The organization has numerous videos on its site from professional and amateur athletes and teams, ranging from the entire Miami squad to NHLers like 2012 Stanley Cup winners Dustin Brown and Alec Martinez.
"I think the videos show a couple of things," Patrick Burke told BSB. "I think that straight athletes feel that they're not supposed to be supportive in this issue. They're raised to believe you're supposed to participate in the gay jokes in the locker room, you're supposed to make fun of the gay kid in the hallway, that type of stuff.
"Having elite athletes at the collegiate and the professional level step up and say, ‘No, that's not how we want sports culture to be,' I think it encourages the next generation of athletes to be more LGBT-friendly and more aware of the issues."
The idea to get involved was met with approval by Osiecki, who counts Brian Burke as a friend.
"We did not even bat an eye that it was something we should be involved with," Osiecki said. "Once we were able to spend the time and energy on it, it was a no-brainer. It certainly helps the sport evolve."
Team members were not pressured to be in the video – which will also feature OSU director of athletics Gene Smith – but many chose to take part.
"Guys are excited," defenseman Curtis Gedig said. "It's for a good cause. To be one of the first schools to do that kind of thing is good. Guys are obviously going to be excited."
Ohio State hopes to put even more resources into the subject going forward. Schneider said the school has invited the OSU Multicultural Center and a gay-straight allies group to the event, and athletes from other sports have expressed interest in doing an athletics department-wide video for the You Can Play Project.
"Obviously we're thrilled when any college steps up and does something like this," Patrick Burke said. "It's something special when it's one of the elite athletic universities in the country. Having Ohio State come on and say, ‘We're great at sports, but if you're an LGBT athlete who is great at sports, we're happy to have you here,' is a really nice and important step up on the outreach side of things. It's awesome to see athletes taking the ball and running with it."
It's also nice for Massey, a long-term Ohio State hockey fan who even follows the team on the road, to see the support. Gay Hockey Ohio was founded in part to give those who might be afraid to otherwise try out the sport a place to do so.
"It's coed, straight or gay, it doesn't matter," he said of the Mayhem team that currently competes on Thursday nights. "Our big mission is to provide an environment for people to come and if you're gay, if you're straight, you don't have to worry about somebody harassing you and have to worry about the homophobia that is associated with that kind of stuff.
"The big thing we've found is, especially with some of the people who have joined recently, is they've always wanted to play, but it was always that fear of, ‘OK, I have to pretend I'm straight if I want to play on this team or that team.' "
A portion of the tickets sold by Gay Hockey Ohio went to the Kaleidoscope Youth Center and Camp Sunrise, and a silent auction featuring merchandise signed by former OSU player and current Blue Jackets forward RJ Umberger at the pregame reception will benefit the You Can Play Project.
Don't Forget Your Bears
Pride Night isn't the only promotion for the weekend. Saturday night will be the annual Teddy Bear Toss, with fans encouraged to bring stuffed animals that can be donated to the Ronald McDonald House. While in the past, the bears were thrown onto the ice after OSU's first goal, the program is encouraging fans to toss them after the second period so as not to delay play. Last year, around 800 bears were donated.
Cowbells will also be given away Friday night, while beanies will be handed out Saturday night. Lastly, a pregame tailgate will be held Friday featuring Osiecki.