As president of the Chicago Gay Hockey Association, Andrew Sobotka often has to explain that his group is not just for gay hockey players but for "everyone."
"We don't limit the ability to participate in our organization based on sexual orientation, based on skill level or any other barriers," Sobotka said.
Sobotka will have a good chance to communicate that message to hockey fans on Saturday night when the Blackhawks, in conjunction with an NHL campaign, host "Hockey is for Everyone" night at the United Center during the Hawks' game against the Oilers.
The design of the campaign is to highlight and encourage diversity across hockey and as part of the campaign, the Hawks will wear "pride tape" on their sticks during warmups in support of the LGBTQ community. The Hawks also will have tables on the concourse of the United Center from various LGBTQ organizations such as the You Can Play Project, the Center on Halsted and the CGHA, which has 70 players, Sobotka said. It's an important night for someone like Sobotka, who can communicate his group's purpose to fans who might not understand its mission.
"Everyone is welcome to play with us and once we explain that to people it makes a little more sense to them," Sobotka said. "We're a safe place for gay athletes and it is gay athletes and allies that play in our organization. … We're here to let anyone who's gay or gay friendly play in a space that's … safe for people who want to learn the sport."
Having nights like Saturday's is the NHL's attempt to shed the stereotype that you have to fit a certain mold of person to play hockey — namely that you have to be a white straight man.
Along those lines, the Hawks also will be host to a screening of "Soul on Ice: Past, Present and Future" at the Harper Theater in Hyde Park on March 2. Former Hawk Jamal Mayers and the film's director and writer Kwame Damon Mason will have a discussion for students. The film tells the story of the contributions of black players throughout hockey's history.
And each NHL team also has had one player step up to be its LGBTQ ambassador, who acts as "a leader in the locker room and in the community on diversity, equality and inclusion," according to an NHL release.
"We want anyone to have that opportunity and not feel nervous or whatever it may be to join the team or be in that locker room," Hawks ambassador Trevor van Riemsdyk said. "You want them to feel they can be part of the team no matter what. You want to stress that inclusion that anyone is welcome here. We'll take anyone as a teammate and it's important that we stress that."
Van Riemsdyk said he had a similar role in college at New Hampshire and said LGBTQ rights mean a lot to him and his brother James, who is the ambassador for the Maple Leafs.
"It's an important cause to a lot of guys who want to have that atmosphere around here that's very welcoming," van Riemsdyk said. "It's something I'm aware of but I think a lot of the guys are too. They don't want to let anything like that slip by us. … It's just important to take little steps and I think it goes a long way."
That's the hope for Brian Hull, the vice president of the CGHA, who said nights like Saturday can go a long way toward making the NHL a more inclusive sport.
"I think the biggest misconception people have about gay hockey players is that we don't exist," Hull said. "… I can't wait for the day that we have a handful of out and proud gay hockey players in the NHL."
Coming back up: The Blackhawks recalled two of the four players they sent down to Rockford before the team's extended — centers Nick Schmaltz and Tanner Kero. Defenseman Gustav Forsling and winger Vincent Hinostroza will remain with the IceHogs for now.
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