This is a story about love and betrayal.
Andrea Barone was barely 18 months old when he first set out on the ice, his tiny legs shaking and pushing behind a chair along the cold surface. If, in Montreal, hockey is religion, then this was baptism by ritual, every morning practice, every unsteady drag of his skates drawing him closer to the game he was falling for.
“We never had to wake him up in the morning,” Barone’s mother, Beba, said. “If the practice was at 7, he’d be up dressed and ready to go. He just fell in love.”
Barone is 28 now, many years removed from those innocent skates under the eye of his father, Remo. Late last summer, during an interview at a Toronto coffeehouse, he was upset.
Barone is sure of two things about himself: He is a hockey man, and he is a gay man. In the sport he has devoted his life to, this has proved an untenable intersection.
In February, the NHL sponsored “Hockey Is for Everyone” events at games throughout the league — to foster more inclusive communities in the sport, it said. Players used rainbow-coloured tape on their sticks, and teams hosted pride nights.
And yet, for some time now, Barone has been trying to decide if hockey is still for him.
In high school, as his excellence as a player faded, Barone became a referee. It was his way to stay in the sport, and he has been promoted through the professional ranks, reaching the ECHL, two levels below the NHL. Barone believes a call-up to the American Hockey League is coming soon, and from there, if all he has worked for goes as planned, he could reach the NHL in a few years.
No man, working in any capacity, is known to be openly gay at hockey’s highest level. More than that, at a time when players from the NBA, the NFL and Major League Baseball have come out after retirement, the same cannot be said for any man formerly associated with the NHL.
Barone has been trying, often in vain, to correct a culture that for decades has made little attempt to conceal its regular use of anti-gay language.
The insults came from coaches, who would roll their eyes when warned against the use of homophobic slurs on the ice. Or they came from players, who used the barbs as a way to emasculate or demean the opponents across from them.
For years, Barone handled the pointed words, the casual insensitivity that said to him that he and people like him were not welcome. It was, in some way, the price of living in this world as a gay man.
He tolerated it until last spring, when an ECHL coach, whose team had blown a third-period lead in a playoff game, charged at him. In front of three other referees, Barone said, the coach used a graphic, expletive-laced anti-gay slur.
Barone, known to the league and its personnel to be gay, was furious. Then he was hurt. The episode was witnessed by several people and was reported immediately to the league, but the coach was only fined, Barone said, and then was allowed behind the bench for his next game. (The ECHL declined to answer questions about the episode, and Barone asked that the coach’s name not be used.)
The way the league handled the case told Barone he had an unsolvable problem: He loved hockey, but hockey would never love him back.
Weeks after the attack, the referee sat down to write.
“For the last ten years, I have been in an abusive relationship,” he typed. “But I’ve finally ended it. Scarred, heartbroken, bruised.
“I am walking away.”
‘I Was the One Who Had to Change’
Barone can close his eyes and still see the enraged coach and how his lips shaped when he fired those awful words. It was last April, in an arena outside Salt Lake City.
He isn’t sure if the coach said what he did because Barone dates men, but the coach’s intent did not quite seem to matter. He had used the language and used it publicly. It wounded Barone that the coach was only fined for his behavior.
Barone had learned to bury his feelings. Months earlier, while he was refereeing a game in Alaska, an ECHL player directed an anti-gay slur at another player on the ice. This was no uncommon gesture, though when Barone asked the player’s coach to take care of the situation, the coach dismissed him. “Oh, come on, Dre,” the coach said, according to Barone. “Don’t make this about you.”
Barone, upset, could only skate away. But in Utah, in the minutes before the next game of the series, Barone still could not shake things. He allowed himself to revel for a moment in the allure of vengeance.
When the puck dropped, Barone thought about ejecting the coach immediately. “If the league’s not going to suspend you,” he said to himself, “I will.” (Through his team, the coach did not respond to requests for comment.)
In the end, Barone knew it was the wrong thing for a referee to do. Such a reaction would have distracted from the message, and it could have made the story about Barone. It was never supposed to be about him.
Once his ECHL season concluded, Barone retreated into a darkness. Defeat took hold of him. Over breakfast in Toronto one morning, Beba observed that her son, usually so outgoing and vibrant, had changed. “He was so quiet,” she said. “He was so pensive.”
Not long after, Barone opened his laptop on the couch.
“I never understood why people stay in abusive relationships for so long, but now I do,” he wrote. “Simply because it took me ten years to realise that it was indeed an abusive relationship.
“First I hoped for change, it never came. Then I worked for change, it never happened. Finally I forced for change, but I was the one who had to change.”
Gay Men in Hockey: A Short History
There are few men in hockey who seem to embody the sport quite like Brian Burke, whose famous gruffness toward a prying scrum of reporters as an executive roughly equaled his playing style as a college and minor league scrapper in the 1970s.
He has spent nearly all his life in hockey, but Burke, 62, president of the Calgary Flames, has come to represent something else to the game.
In 2009, when Burke was president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, his son Brendan revealed himself to be gay. Though Brendan, then 20, held no position with the league, he immediately became something rare: an openly gay man with proximity to the NHL.
Burke threw an arm around his son, and the father became a champion of gay rights in sports, marching forward by Brendan’s side until the moment unimaginable grief found him. On Feb. 5, 2010, just three months after he came out, Brendan was killed in a car accident along a snowy Indiana highway.
Before his death, Brendan confided something to his father. As a teenager, Brendan played varsity hockey for his high school in Massachusetts, but later quit to join a town team instead.
“He told me long after high school that it was because homophobic language made him uncomfortable,” Burke said.
It has fallen on Burke, more than anyone else in hockey, to clean up a culture in the sport that made Brendan feel so unwelcome. Through Hockey Is For Everyone and You Can Play, an NHL-backed initiative founded in 2012 by Burke’s elder son, Patrick, the league has made strides. Burke said Flames players had approached him unsolicited, reporting that if there were ever any gay players on the team, they would be greeted warmly.
Of the first openly gay man to play in the NHL, whoever he should be and whenever he should arrive, Burke said, “I think he’s going to find that the road isn’t as rocky as he thinks it’s going to be.”
In the five years since Jason Collins became the first openly gay man to play in the NBA, and Michael Sam followed as the first openly gay man to be drafted by an NFL team, professional leagues have been trying to ensure sports are a place where all feel welcome.
But in a culture where anti-gay slurs have for decades been used casually as verbal digs, progress has been rocky. In 2011, Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers was fined $100,000 for muttering an anti-gay slur toward a referee. In 2015, Rajon Rondo of the Sacramento Kings was suspended one game for yelling the same word at referee Bill Kennedy, who later revealed he was gay. A year later, Andrew Shaw of the Chicago Blackhawks was suspended for a playoff game for using the slur. Baseball players, including Toronto Blue Jays centre fielder Kevin Pillar, have also been suspended in recent years for using homophobic language.
The Shaw suspension was a landmark measure by the NHL. But a year later, when Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf was caught during the post-season angrily calling an official the same slur used against Barone, Getzlaf was only fined and allowed to play his next game.
The league declined repeated requests to receive questions for this article, or to comment further on the Getzlaf episode. But to many in the gay community, the decision undid much of the evolution the league had made with Shaw’s punishment.
In the history of pro hockey, there are known to be very few gay male players. One is Peter Karlsson, a Swedish defenseman. In 1995, he died after being stabbed 60 times, the killer reportedly sickened by Karlsson’s sexuality.
Another is Brock McGillis, a Canadian junior goalie who later competed professionally in Europe. When McGillis was a player, he kept himself closeted and dated women. He felt so unwanted as a gay man in hockey that he began to drink away the pain.
“I hated myself,” he said. “Most days, I woke up wanting to die, and I went to bed wanting to die.”
Sean Avery, a 10-season pro who retired in 2012, said he had never even heard the term LGBT growing up in Pickering, Ont. But as a Los Angeles King with a home in West Hollywood, and later as a New York Ranger living in Chelsea, he made gay friends. In 2011, Avery announced his support for same-sex marriage. “Misguided” was how Todd Reynolds, a prominent NHL agent, described Avery’s position on Twitter.
“Legal or not,” Reynolds continued, same-sex marriage “will always be wrong.”
Avery is not gay, though while he was in the NHL, he said, players and fans would yell anti-gay slurs at him.
“But I’m also straight, so that certainly doesn’t hurt,” he said. “But if I had a gay teammate, which I’m pretty sure I did at some point — God, I can’t imagine what he was feeling like.
“He was probably thinking, ‘Thank God they think it’s him.’”
‘You Can’t Stop Now’
Barone has lived no easy life. On Sept. 13, 2006, he stared down a gunman at Dawson College in Montreal, lucky to escape the most notorious school shooting in Canada’s history.
What followed were years of crippling depression, a result of the carnage he saw but also of his own demons, his fight to acknowledge and accept his sexuality.
“You feel like a zombie,” he said of his darkest times. “You’re in the black. You can’t see or be seen.”
What he had was hockey. And yet he was finding that even his lone sanctuary was shutting him out.
It’s why he speaks up. Later this year, Barone plans to join GLAAD, the advocacy group for LGBTQ people, to talk of how critical inclusion is in sports. He has even founded his own outreach campaign, #NeverAlone. He may never be treated equally in hockey, but at least he can fight to ensure that anti-gay language is considered unacceptable.
Over late spring and summer, Barone took many months to decide his future. The letter he wrote after the Utah episode was titled “Goodbye Hockey,” so sure was he then that the sport had won, that he would wilt away to find another life.
But he began to grasp that there is so much more to do if he sticks to this dream, so much more to achieve if he can earn his place as the first openly gay man in the NHL. A friend put it to Barone this way: “You can’t stop now. It’s like if you had a lottery ticket, and you had five of the six numbers right before they draw the last number. And you want to throw out the ticket.”
Barone returned to the ECHL, a place where he has carved a reputation as a fine and fair official. Colin Chaulk, coach of the Brampton Beast, told of a time Barone made a tough call to end a tense shootout and could be found in the coach’s office immediately after, scouring the tape to see if he had made the correct ruling.
“It just shows that he cares,” Chaulk said. “Only two or three guys have ever done that in my years of coaching.”
During one game he worked this season, Barone came upon the coach who had attacked him. He had been curious if the coach might apologize, or if there might be any acknowledgment of what had happened the previous spring. Barone had such low expectations that he almost had to laugh in resignation when nothing was said. “This,” he lamented, “is the world I live in.”
What Barone can control is his time on the ice, where he has continued to hone his craft, study and improve. The AHL feels so close, and from there, who knows? Hockey’s biggest stage may one day call.
But this is a story about love and betrayal.
Andrea Barone will carry on in what he believes to be an abusive relationship, not knowing quite how to leave. In his heart he holds a sad truth: Hockey is most likely not done hurting him.