Bayne Pettinger has always been immersed in the world of hockey.
Born in Victoria, into a family with deep roots in the sport, Pettinger embarked on a career with the National Hockey League (NHL) at 21.
Then, after working for the NHL as an operations manager, he became a hockey agent in 2019.
Despite his professional success, however, the 36-year-old says he feared he couldn’t be accepted as a gay man in the sport.
“There was always this fear that I couldn’t live my true life — to be accepted as a gay man — and also be a successful young executive in the game. It was a conundrum that kept me in the closet for a long time,” he wrote in a commentary for Hockey Canada.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Pettinger returned to Victoria, where he said he found time for introspection and had candid conversations with friends and family about publicly coming out as gay.
With their support, Pettinger decided to come out to The Athletic, a sports news portal, in November 2020.
All of us at Hockey Canada are tremendously proud of <a href=”https://twitter.com/baynep?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@baynep</a> and of the hockey community for the wonderful support they have shown him. We hope Bayne’s courage to share his story inspires others to know that they too will always have a home at the rink.
He has since received abundant support from hockey fans and become an advocate for LGBTQ+ representation in sports.
But a recent incident left him disheartened, he says.
Last month, the NHL’s board of governors decided to prohibit special jerseys during pre-game warmups on themed nights in the upcoming season. The decision came after a few players refused to wear rainbow-coloured Pride jerseys in the previous season.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said he suggested discontinuing the use of special warmup jerseys because the focus on certain players declining to participate was overshadowing the essence of the themed nights.
“That’s just become more of a distraction from really the essence of what the purpose of these nights are,” Bettman said.
“We’re keeping the focus on the game. And on these specialty nights, we’re going to be focused on the cause.”
During an interview with host Jason D’Souza on CBC’s All Points West, Pettinger shared his thoughts on Bettman’s comment, coming out, and the future of inclusivity in hockey.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How are you feeling about the direction of inclusivity through what we’ve seen around the banning of Pride and warmup jerseys for social causes?
I didn’t like Bettman’s words that it’s a distraction, because five players in the NHL out of 700 decided not to wear a Pride jersey have that majority vote, when it’s really the opposite.
It’s not really asking the players what’s right and wrong, and we have ostracized a few of the players for religious beliefs. Everyone has their belief. I’m fine with that. I’m not looking to preach or convert.
But if for one night for a 15-minute warmup that raises for charity hundreds of thousands of dollars, then that’s where I take issue with it.
For the league to call it a distraction, 99 per cent of the players in the league don’t see it that way and actually embrace it, so I think the league kind of jumped the gun.
What do you think that says about a league like the NHL, when you have what is visibly a very small minority of players dictating huge social policy issues?
I still stay positive about it — we are still going to do Pride nights, there are a lot of teams I’ve talked to that are still gonna do the jerseys but just not wear them in warmup.
Pushing fans away to say, you’re not welcome here on one night of 82 games, gives the wrong message to fans. Banning the jerseys and calling it a distraction is sending the wrong message in my eyes.
All Points West15:36Victoria NHL agent Bayne Pettinger shares his perspective on the prejudice against Pride in the NHL
The NHL has always had this stereotype of being an old boys club, not being able to grow. How damaging is this from an economic standpoint for the league?
Hockey has a way to go on the cultural side, but I don’t want it to be that block.
We talk about growing the game to have a more diverse fan base, and I just have a tough time agreeing that the decision to ban warmup jerseys is a step-forward direction for inclusivity and sending the right message for a non-hockey fan.
We can’t even for 15 minutes have a celebration of our differences, which is really what it is.
You are the first openly gay NHL agent, and I know you work with many players, but you’re also friends with many players in this league. What have you been hearing over the course of the last few weeks and months?
They’re a bit disheartened by it because they enjoy those [Pride] nights.
They’re average people putting these hockey players on this pedestal. They’re average people who are diverse and inclusive, have sons and daughters, and want to live in a world where there’s no hate or discrimination. They’re not pleased about it, but we just gotta keep pushing.
If I were still in the closet like I was three years ago and seeing that the league banned jerseys, you’d sink a bit deeper in your chair.
Just keeping focused on the positive, because we can go down that rabbit hole of five players of 700 … that’s not a majority.
Can you take us back three years ago to what that was like for you on a personal level, given the role you play in a huge league like the NHL, to come out?
I had a massive fear that I couldn’t be successful in hockey and be gay, because I didn’t see anyone before me doing that.
Brendan Burke was obviously a role model of mine. I never got the chance to meet him before he passed away shortly after he came out, but I remember watching that SportsCentre interview with James Duthie when he came out at age 21.
I said, wow! that’s someone like me. I can be an executive in hockey because he trailblazed it.
I was a young agent in Toronto and how I really started it was floating it around to some of my friends. They said, let’s break down these barriers, and they gave me strength.
My biggest fear was that I couldn’t work in hockey and be successful and be gay, but in fact it’s been quite the opposite. For people that think they have to choose between living their truth and playing a sport, no one should ever have to do that.
We talked about diversity in Canada, and we should have queer seats at tables of boards of directors. If a certain percentage of the population is queer, we need to have those seats at the table of Hockey Canada.
Everyone always asked me when we were going to see the first gay NHL player. Well, Luke Prokop, who’s a buddy of mine, came out six months after I did — he saw my story, so he’s like, oh, I saw an agent come out right now. He has young players reaching out to him saying, “Hey man, that’s so cool! You’re signed to the Nashville Predators.”
It’s humanization and breaking those barriers down so that a young kid can say, I can do this. There’s an agent and a player that are gay and thriving in hockey, so why can’t I?
I thought I had to be living my truth, and in fact it’s been the best decision I’ve ever ever done.
Are you concerned these recent steps by the NHL might be those same concerns you had three to four years ago in the minds of those who were thinking maybe they can come out of my locker room, and now perhaps don’t feel like they’re welcome to?
We’re not going to look at a Pride jersey ban as “our work’s done here.” We’re going to keep pushing for diversity and inclusion, because that’s the way society is going.
If we want the best players, best executives and best media members available, it’s not a great business move to be pushing members of the queer community away from the game.
We need to welcome everyone to the game. We need to tap into what Canada really is, which is diversity. If we’re excluding that, that just doesn’t make sense on a business model.
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