The world of hockey is ultra-masculine. Big egos, macho attitudes and “boys will be boys” aggression all come with the sport.
That said, when 21-year-old Aaron Ekblad, the 6’4” defenseman and alternate captain for the Florida Panthers, appeared in a Nike commercial promoting LGBT pride in June, it, of course, got people talking.
Was his appearance in the commercial some sort of mistake? Nope.
Ekblad, the National Hockey League’s 2015 rookie of the year, is one of many young athletes who not only believe in LGBT representation in professional sports, but who are becoming increasingly vocal about it. “It was a great experience,” Ekblad tells Boca, about appearing in the commercial. “On Facebook and Twitter some people congratulated me and thanked me for speaking out. I appreciated that.”
In the advertisement, which features Nike’s new BeTrue line of clothing, Ekblad dons a black shirt that says “Equality” in rainbow lettering. He appears alongside basketball player Brittney Griner, who identifies as lesbian; skateboarder Lacey Baker, who identifies as queer; and 41-year-old skateboarding legend Brian Anderson, who came out as gay last year.
BETRUE TO EQUALITY.
— Nike Los Angeles (@NikeLA) June 5, 2017
In interviews, Anderson admitted that the reason it took him several years to come out was a culmination of factors. Mainly, he felt pressured to be straight or at least hide being gay, and he was scared that a negative reaction to his true sexual orientation would harm his career.
Ekblad says that he hopes this fear of being discriminated against diminishes in the years to come, and he has a strong message to LGBT athletes who are scared of coming out.
“Don’t be afraid. You’ll be surprised by how many people are accepting,” he says, elaborating on how sports teams across the U.S., particularly hockey teams, have become friendlier in recent years—at least in official parlance—toward LGBT individuals.
Although homophobic talk still occurs in locker rooms, Ekblad believes that overall, society’s tolerance for and acceptance of LGBT people has progressed. Though Ekblad is not LGBT, he says he identifies as an ally, someone who is openly supportive of the LGBT community.
“Do I think it’s getting better? I think so. People are getting more educated and more understanding,” he says. “I would like to think the climate is getting better.”
When it comes to inclusion in sports, Ekblad’s stance is clear. He doesn’t believe that sexual orientation should be a factor when deciding whether someone is allowed, or welcomed, to compete on the ice. “If you’re good enough to play, you’re good enough to play on my team,” he says.
Ekblad’s spirit is not shared at the White House, as President Donald Trump recently rolled back an Obama-era directive that allows transgender people to serve in the military.
Since sports commentators such as Georges Laraque have reportedly said there are same-sex attracted men in, perhaps, every team in the NHL, Ekblad’s encouragement of coming out speaks to a new standard of manliness and macho attitudes in professional hockey—one where virility isn’t based on being straight, but is founded on just being yourself and allowing others to be, too.
“I hope it helps a little bit,” Ekblad says about his appearance in the Nike commercial. “I’m just trying to do my part on helping people become more accepting.”