Kurtis Gabriel made headlines when he wore pride tape on the shaft of his stick during the New Jersey Devils’ Pride Night in 2019. He had no idea, at the time, the kind of response he was going to get, and at that time, it wasn’t something he was ready for.
“I had my best game I’ve ever had,” Gabriel said. “I scored the game-winning goal; it was broadcast on Hockey Night in Canada. My phone was blowing up for scoring and playing well, but also for the tape of my stick. It was a lot, it was overwhelming. Wasn’t ready for it, absolutely not.”
Gabriel’s first introduction into the queer community came when he found out that a friend of his then-girlfriend was being financially cut off by her family for coming out and wanting to be in a relationship with another woman. It was something that Gabriel had never experienced in his life before.
“I just couldn’t wrap my head around my mother doing that to me by who I loved, unsupporting me,” he said. “That was pretty eye-opening. It was an organic progression from there.”
After Gabriel scored the game-winning goal that night, Brock McGillis, the first openly gay men’s professional hockey player, reached out to him and asked what he was going to do next. That’s what led Gabriel to spend the next year educating himself on the issues and wanting to show up for the community.
It led him back to McGillis when a friend of his had questions that Gabriel couldn’t answer. McGillis was able to see the complete difference in him and how much he had grown since their first conversation. Gabriel is brutally honest about his growth and how he feels about the recent developments in the NHL.
According to Gabriel, the players who have shown themselves for who they are are more than welcome to speak about what they believe. But it’s even more important to condemn it and hold people accountable for what their words and actions create. After that, we can move on to highlight the good that is going on.
“I just think hiding behind religious beliefs, saying you support everyone and then not supporting everyone is just the epitome of hypocrisy and cherry-picking of reality and I can’t stand it,” he said.
The Alphabet Sports Collective began as an idea by McGillis and others in early 2022. The organization is a “queer-led non-profit organization focused on creating a safer environment for people of all sexual identities and all expressions of gender in hockey.” McGillis has long played a role in the LGBTQ+ community, as the first former professional hockey player to come out back in November 2016.
The Alphabet Sports Collective board of directors features numerous names that are well-known around the hockey community, including Gabriel. During that second phone call between McGillis and Gabriel, the pair had a conversation about doing more, and it wasn’t something that took Gabriel by surprise.
“It seemed like a very natural thing, so it wasn’t like a shock,” Gabriel said. “It was like ‘Oh, it sounds exactly like what you’re gonna want to do.’ The pandemic slowed stuff down, but I do feel like good things take time. And I think he’s really taken an approach that we gotta do things the right way.”
There has been plenty of support as many NHL players joined Alphabet Sports Collective at their launch event in mid-March. Current NHL ambassadors include Morgan Rielly (Toronto Maple Leafs), Scott Laughton (Philadelphia Flyers), Tyson Barrie (Edmonton Oilers), and media members Pierre LeBrun and Gord Miller. Other players in attendance included Toronto Maple Leafs forwards Ryan O’Reilly and Alex Kerfoot as well.
Even having some of the younger players around the league advocating for something like this brings a lot of hope to where things can go from here. But simply having the support of these players and media is important to growing the game at a time when it is needed most.
“I think it just speaks volumes to what kind of people we have on board with this thing, and that we believe are on board with our mission and are on board with making change and using their platforms,” said Gabriel. “It’s really, really exciting and that’s just the beginning.”
It goes to the three pillars of Alphabet Sports Collective and what they stand for: community building, education, and mobilization. The organization is trying to bring the LGBTQ+ community together, make them feel good about themselves, and get them seats at the table.
“I think there’s always been queer people around the game of hockey and I think it’s time for organizations like ours just to bring everyone together and get everyone on the same page and move forward,” Gabriel said. “We’re way stronger when we’re together and we can start to hold, hopefully, leagues accountable with the growing momentum of a united front.”
Gabriel surprisingly retired from the game of hockey in September 2022. He admitted in a separate interview that his left wrist had been giving him trouble since he severely broke it at 15. Eventually, after he had his right wrist tendon sliced as well, it became too much with his fighting and stickhandling.
It all came to a head when he was barely able to touch his stick this past off-season. It became more work for a player that already had to work twice as hard to make it, but it is a decision he is at peace with.
Now Gabriel spends his time continuing to advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, and other communities as well. Gabriel believes in being educated on more than just one issue. There can be a sole focus that a person has, but it is helpful to have that education on other issues as well.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be the LGBTQ+ community, it can be something a person has a passion for, and that is the most important aspect of it all.
For Gabriel, it all comes down to one thing in the end, the takeaway he wants people to hear. There need to be allies who are willing to bridge the gap between both sides, because we all want one thing when it comes down to it.
“I think there’s only one truth and that’s unconditional love and compassion. That’s what I want people to focus on out there. That’s what should be bringing us all together.”