“THERE WASN’T ANYTHING TO HIDE ANYMORE”

In January, Zach Sullivan made history with a single tweet, becoming the first active pro hockey player to come out as bisexual. He describes what led to that moment and the importance of the hockey community’s response.

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Sportsnet

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“Hey, everybody! The following story is about a guy we doctors say has ‘the English disease’. He says he is bisexual. That’s just silly South London code for fag that thinks bisexual sounds less offensive or dangerous to the British sporting public. I think his problem is he took up the wrong sport. Maybe if he took up golf, he wouldn’t be so fond of cock.”

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Five months ago, Zach Sullivan tapped a button and altered hockey history.

The tap sent out a tweet to the 25-year-old defenceman’s followers, though it soon reverberated throughout the wider hockey world — beyond Manchester, where his team, the Storm, plays in the shadow of football behemoths; beyond the Elite Ice Hockey League, England’s best; beyond the usual conversation about equality in the sport.

Sullivan is the first active professional ice hockey player to come out as bisexual. But while his initiation into the club of those who’ve helped push the sport forward was noteworthy in itself, so too was the game’s reply.

Standing in the locker room with his team post-game the night before he posted the tweet, Sullivan told his teammates he planned to come out publicly. They answered with applause. After he hit ‘send’ the next morning, his team announced their pride in their No. 21, led by the club’s captain. And when he finally took the ice for the first time after the life-altering announcement, Sullivan was met with a standing ovation from the Mancunian faithful. For a sport seemingly entrenched in traditionalism, seemingly hesitant to embrace individuality in a way that keeps many in the game silent, Sullivan’s experience offers a glimpse of what it looks like when the hockey world simply leans into embracing and supporting its own.

 

This is his story, in his words.

 

Let’s go back to the beginning. What are your earliest memories of playing hockey?
Well, I actually started by playing roller hockey first — my brother played in the local gym. I was too hyperactive for my parents to control me, so I played every sport that they could think of, and then ice hockey just happened to be the one that stuck. My first memory is actually not a very good first memory — I was practising as a 10-year-old and I managed to knee my own chin and chipped my bottom three teeth. So, not the best first memory, but that’s the one I’ve got.

What did the path to the pro level in England look like?
I started in the southeast, in Kent [playing with the Invicta Dynamos] — me, my brother and my younger sister, we all played at the same time. When I turned 13, I had an England trial and didn’t make the team. I moved to Swindon, which is in the southwest, and just started playing as much as I could — I think I was on the ice five times a week. Ice hockey basically turned into my life. From there, I started playing senior hockey back in Invicta when I was 16. I was fortunate enough to have coaches all the way through that believed in me, so eventually I stepped up to the EPL, which was the second league in the UK, and six years ago now, I stepped up to the Elite League, which is the professional league. I moved all the way up to Glasgow, which is about an eight-hour drive from where I’m from. Moved away from my family for the first time. And just kind of went from there.

What’s the hockey culture like in England?
It’s a very close-knit community. If something happens, negative or positive, the whole community comes together and tries to fix it. I mean, I think everyone knows everyone, especially the senior professional guys. It’s a fun culture, getting to play with some of the ex-NHLers that come over, hearing their stories about the NHL — for us, that’s only ever a dream. So, it’s pretty cool to be able to talk to guys that come over and have lived out our dreams, won Stanley Cups and played in the NHL. It’s always a fun atmosphere, a positive atmosphere.

How closely did you follow the NHL growing up? Who was your go-to player?
It’s a bit of a strange one because I’m a D-man now — when I was younger I was a forward, and I absolutely adored Jarome Iginla, I thought he was the best player ever. I think I cried for two or three days when Calgary lost in the Stanley Cup Final to Tampa Bay.

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You made the decision to come out as bisexual via social media in January. Tell me about the process you went through to come to that moment, to get to a place where you were comfortable opening up like that.
I kind of knew for nine years, probably longer. And it actually all came to a head when I’d watched the Aaron Hernandez documentary on Netflix with my housemates around November last season. He had similar issues, and he obviously snapped. I kind of related to the struggle that he was going through. It was getting to the point where this issue was affecting my game. I think we played against Nottingham Panthers and we lost 4–0 and I was minus-4. I just kind of sat down and spoke to myself. I was kind of like, ‘I need to confront this, and I need to accept this.’

I messaged my best friend, Josh Grieveson, in Glasgow and told him. His response was, ‘Yeah, I know.’ Which was a bit of a shock. But once he kind of went ‘Yeah, I don’t care, it doesn’t bother me,’ all the doubts and worries left. It was, ‘Okay well, he’s known for this long, he’s still been my best friend, so he obviously doesn’t care.’ After that, I was kind of comfortable — I started seeing someone in December, and slowly started telling my teammates, my teammates were really supportive. And then, yeah, it came to January. The Elite League had announced they were doing their first league-wide Pride Weekend — a few of the teams had done their own individual ones, but this was the first league-wide event. All the fans were behind it, all the players were behind it.

On the Wednesday before, I messaged Josh again. I was like, ‘I think I’m going to tweet.’ He helped me out with the wording quite a lot. I wanted to make it clear and concise, so there were no doubts. And then I tweeted.

What do you remember about that moment of pressing ‘send’?
I actually wrote it the day before. We played in Sheffield on the Saturday, and I told my teammates after the game that I was going to tweet on Sunday. When we got back, I couldn’t really sleep so I actually wrote the tweet then, because otherwise I knew I’d chicken out and I wouldn’t send it. I wrote it the night before, it was saved in my drafts, and all I had to do was press ‘send.’ I just remember waking up at 10 and pressing the button. Cam Critchlow, one of my other roommates, walked [into the room soon after]. He was like, ‘How you feeling?’ I went, ‘I feel like I need a hug.’ So, he gave me a big hug, and that was kind of that.

It was very daunting — like I said, I had no idea what the reaction would be. I didn’t know whether it would be positive or negative. It could’ve even just been ignored completely. It was definitely quite scary to put that out there, being the first in the UK. I think it was definitely a risk. But I’d weighed it up in my head that it wasn’t for myself, it wasn’t for my own fame or publicity, it was just, when I was 16, if there had been someone publicly out, it would’ve made my journey a lot easier. If me being out in the public eye can help someone else going through the same thing, and make them feel more comfortable or confident, then that’s the only aim for what I’ve been doing. It’s not about me, it’s about other people going through the same thing.

It’s kind of gone viral now — it’s definitely not the response I was expecting, but I think it’s a really positive response. Hockey’s kind of branded with a stigma that it’s not been very accepting, that it’s an old boys’ club. I think the response to my announcement has kind of shown that that’s not the case — it’s not true at all. There were players coming up to me that I’d never met personally, saying, ‘I’m really proud of you for what you’ve done’ after games. So, it was quite a shock.

How did the experience of telling your teammates go? Who was the first you told?
The first guy I told was a player called Tyson Fawcett. We hung out every day, we’d go to the gym together every day, we lived together as well. I was driving him to the airport to meet his family, they were flying over, and I just kind of said to him, ‘I’ve got a date on Tuesday.’ And he went, ‘Oh, who with? Where did you meet her — did you meet her off Tinder? Did you meet her off Instagram?’ I was like, ‘Um, I met him off Instagram.’ He’s like, ‘Him? Oh. Okay, cool.’ So, he was the first teammate I told, and his response was kind of like, ‘Okay, cool — doesn’t bother me.’

I think the big thing about this kind of news is, especially for myself, I’d worked up what I thought the responses would be. And I worked up in my head that they were all going to be negative. It made me more scared to kind of speak my truth, to come out publicly. And the responses from my teammates were just, ‘Yeah, okay, doesn’t bother me.’ My two other housemates were like, ‘Yep. Cool. As long as you’re happy, we’re happy.’ That was kind of the response throughout my whole team — I think I was very fortunate to have such an open-minded team. They were just happy that I was happy.

Tell me about the night you told the whole team in the locker room after that game against Sheffield, before you sent out your tweet.
My housemates knew I was going to tweet on Sunday — I’d kind of been talking to them about it, whether I should do it. I spoke to my two coaches before the game, they were really supportive about it. I think they knew, because I’d been dating a guy for about two months by then, so I think everyone on the team kind of knew, they were just waiting for me to say something — which again, I think, shows the teammates that I had. They were waiting for me to say something rather than calling me out on it.

We’d just lost [4-2], but it was one of our best games of the season. We felt we were really unlucky not to win — Sheffield fans might feel differently about that, but that was our feeling in the dressing room after. All day, I was kind of thinking I wanted to tell my team, and I was thinking, ‘Should I tell them before, should I tell them after?’ We analyzed the game after as a team, and then I just kind of stood up and said, ‘Look it’s nothing about hockey, but I’m going to tweet tomorrow, and I’m going to come out as bisexual. And I didn’t want you guys to hear through Twitter, I wanted you to hear through me.’ They kind of applauded me, everyone came over and gave me a hug and a fist bump. It was great. Because it just completely took away all that fear — my main fear was that I’d lose the respect and the camaraderie with my teammates. I didn’t want to be kind of left in my own little circle by myself. Their response to that was just unbelievable. It was perfect. And even going a step further — when I came in on the Sunday after I tweeted, my Twitter and my Instagram had blown up quite a bit, I just walked in the dressing room, a couple guys gave me a pat on the back, and then it was just, ‘Right, okay, time to play a game.’ That was the perfect response for me — I hadn’t changed and they didn’t treat me any differently. I was still the same person and still the same teammate, which was just the perfect reaction.

What stands out to you thinking back to those first couple days after you put it out into the world, and the reactions you got from everyone in your life?
I didn’t actually tell my family I was going to tweet. I had a feeling that they would try and convince me out of it, and I felt like I would let myself be convinced out of it. So I didn’t speak to my parents until after. I can’t remember exactly what my dad texted me but he said, ‘We’re very proud of you — you’re still our little boy’ [voice breaking]. Sorry, I’m getting a bit emotional here. But yeah, my parents messaged me saying, ‘We’re really proud of you,’ which was really nice. And then I got messages from ex-teammates, phone calls from guys that live in Glasgow.

There was a little part of me that hoped it would kind of go unnoticed by the mainstream media, but when I woke up on the Monday, Ryan Finnerty, my coach, phoned me and he said, ‘Look, we’ve been asked if you can do an interview for BBC and ITV today.’ Which kind of took me by surprise, because it was so quick. I remember going to Media City in Manchester, which is where the BBC headquarters are in England. I asked Tyson to come with me for a bit of moral support because otherwise I don’t think I would’ve been able to do it. I think I did four interviews on my first day. It was definitely scary, because I’m quite a private person, and all of a sudden I’m live on BBC News. So it was a pretty drastic change.

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What response did you see from fans?
The fans were unbelievable — I mean, Manchester fans are brilliant anyway. We do a ceremonial puck drop every game — usually it’s Dallas Ehrhardt, who’s our captain. He came over to me as I was about to go out for warm ups and said, ‘How would you feel about doing the puck drop?’ He pulled me aside and said, ‘Look, all the guys want you to do it — it’s your special day and we want you to remember it.’ So I took the ceremonial puck drop. The whole arena got up and gave me a standing ovation. I’m getting emotional again — it was overwhelming, really.

We were playing Dundee that day — we were in a playoff dogfight at the time. And Matt Marquardt, the Dundee Stars captain, he said some really nice words to me at the puck drop, which really meant a lot. Especially from him, considering the magnitude of the game that we were about to play. He still found the time to say some really nice things. It was definitely overwhelming.

In the message you posted, you mentioned that on that path to being able to open up about this aspect of your identity, you went through some mental health struggles — tell me about that journey and what helped you get through that, to be able to take this step forward.
I remember when I was 14 or 15, a rumour went around about me, around ice hockey in the UK, that I was gay. Quite a few of my friends distanced themselves from me. It kind of made me feel like what I felt was wrong. I felt like it was wrong to like men as well as women. I also had a friend when I was 15, a very close friend, who passed away — I was about to tell him about it, and he was probably the only person at the time that I felt comfortable telling. He passed away, so I felt very lonely very quickly. I felt like what I felt was wrong, so I suppressed my emotions, essentially. I didn’t want anyone to find out. It was very, very lonely, and quite a dark time for me.

I’m lucky enough now to have two or three very, very close friends, I’d consider them my best friends, that just don’t care about that kind of thing. Not in a negative way — they just don’t care what people think and who people love. And as long as I’m happy, they’re happy for me. Which was a very liberating feeling, to be able to be honest, completely honest, with my friends, and their opinion of me didn’t change. They always treated me the same — they obviously had some questions, which is I think natural — but they supported me all the way through.

My dad had got made redundant from his job. He had depression, anxiety [in the wake of being let go]. I’d seen what mental health, if left unchecked, could do to people. My dad was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. I say ‘was’ because he isn’t anymore, which is heartbreaking to see, because of how much of a rock he was for me. It kind of was, ‘Okay, if I leave this unchecked, then something similar will happen to me.’ It kind of forced me to tell my best friend [Josh Grieveson] and fortunately we played Glasgow the night after, and I told my best friend that plays for them, Craig Peacock. It was liberating to have the support and the understanding from my two best friends. After that, I didn’t really care what other people thought. I didn’t lose them, and if it bothered other people, that was their problem and not mine.

Before you made that decision to come out, it was kind of nagging at you, affecting your game. What did it feel like to return to the ice and to be free to simply play?
I was told, when I was 16 or 17, by one of my teammates that when you step on the ice, you can forget about your real life. It’s your teammates and hockey for two hours. That’s something that’s always stuck with me. Like I said, in November I realised it was affecting my game and that was when I realised that this was becoming a problem, so I kind of tackled it head on. It’s a cliché, and I’m sure everyone’s said it, but it genuinely felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders and I could just be myself around my teammates. Although there wasn’t anything to hide before, I was still worried that people would find out. Now, there was nothing for people to find out about me — it was out in the open, everything was there for people to see. It was just quite freeing to be able to be myself around my teammates. And I was definitely a lot happier after I did it. I enjoyed going to the rink more. I enjoyed hanging out with my teammates more. I think I drank a little bit less Malibu, so that’s a good thing as well. It was very freeing. There wasn’t anything to hide anymore.

It’s been a few months now — how has your life changed since January 26th?
There’s been quite a lot of interviews. But other than that I don’t think it’s changed much at all. And I think that’s a huge credit to my teammates and my family and my friends — they treat me exactly the same as before and they’re letting me know I’m not different to them at all, which is really nice of them, to make a conscious effort to do that.

I think the biggest change for me is now, all of a sudden, I’m in the spotlight all the time. But at the same time, it’s probably the first time in my life I’ve had a message I’m passionate about. If coming out of my comfort zone helps people going through the same situation, then it’s definitely worth it.

You mentioned you’re a private guy — now you’ve entered into this new space of being part of the history of the game and all the attention that comes with that. Why did you decide on that particular moment as the time to make your announcement?
I saw the response that Pride Weekend was getting leading up to it, and I sat there and thought about it. You know, we play hockey professionally for 15 years, and then we’re forgotten and a new generation comes through. And I kind of saw an opportunity to make use of my slightly raised social media platform and hopefully put a message out there that it doesn’t matter about your sexuality or your race or your religion — if you can play a sport, then you can play a sport, and that should be the only thing that matters.

It was never about my fame or publicity. If me doing this helps just one person around the world on their journey, helps them become more comfortable and a bit more confident with themselves, then as far as I’m concerned it’s mission accomplished.

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What would your message be to kids who are going through that journey?
There’re two things I think are very important. The first is, this is your journey, it’s no one else’s. If it takes you two months or 25 years to become comfortable with yourself, and confident enough to be publicly out, then that is absolutely fine. Don’t be pressured by your coaches, your friends or your teammates to come out if you’re not ready. It’s the one privilege we have with our journeys — it’s our private journey. And however long that takes, it’s absolutely fine.

The second is — I mentioned how I’ve been fortunate to have a family that are very open-minded — I think the big thing is to surround yourself with people that don’t care about this kind of thing. For reasons unknown to me, people get hung up on this kind of thing, and I think the important thing is to find people that don’t care. And I mean that in a positive way, of, ‘Okay, I don’t care that you’re bisexual or that you’re gay, I just care that you’re a good teammate and you’re a good friend.’ That’s what my teammates showed me this year — they didn’t care about my sexuality, they cared about how I treated them and how I acted as a professional and as a friend. I think that’s quite rare, not just in the world of sports but in the world in general.

I also think that if someone does have the courage and the confidence to tell you about this kind of thing, it is an honour to be included in someone’s journey, however small an impact you play. And I think the biggest advice that I can give to people who play with an LGBT person is to treat them the same as before. I know for me, my biggest fear was being treated differently and losing the respect and love of my teammates. And they showed me that that wasn’t going to happen, which made my journey a hell of a lot easier.

For those in the hockey world who might be stuck in the past, stuck in that fear of the sport opening up and celebrating the individual as opposed to the team, what would your message be to them?
As far as sport is concerned, we play a child’s game professionally. We’re incredibly lucky to be able to do that, and it’s about entertaining the fans, in my opinion. It doesn’t matter about your sexuality — if you’re good at your sport, then you will provide a higher standard of entertainment, and that’s what sport is all about.

Tom Daley [a three-time world champion and two-time Olympic bronze medallist] was an Olympic diver with Team GB, and he was openly gay when he was diving for Team GB. I can’t speak for him personally, but I feel like if he wasn’t able to be open, he wouldn’t be able to perform to as high a standard as he was able to. If sport doesn’t become inclusive for the LGBT+ community, then you could potentially lose superstars like Tom Daley. And that’s a terrible shame.

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“So remember, everybody, when you think you love hockey but start to love cock more, think golf!”

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