Because of its historical culture and codes, male team sports remain among the last frontiers in terms of coming out.
“I thought [being gay] was a deal breaker in sports,” Bayne Pettinger said.
Pettinger came up playing hockey, basketball and rugby in Victoria. He starred in both hoops and rugby at Oak Bay High School and won gold in rugby with Team B.C. at the Canada Summer Games.
The all-rounder also played for the Victoria Cougars in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League, often getting to the rink just in time in the evening after a rugby game in the afternoon.
But it is off the ice that Pettinger became most well-known in dealing with a galaxy of Canadian stars, from Sidney Crosby to Connor McDavid, in nearly 10 years as Hockey Canada’s manager of operations for men’s national teams at the Winter Olympics, IIHF world championships and world juniors.
But he had a secret, one he now wants to share to help others.
“I want to show kids in sports that it’s OK to be different,” said Pettinger.
“I want to normalize being gay so that it’s not even a story. I want to break down the stigma.
“I feel bad for those who had and have to stay in the closet. I want to show them it doesn’t always have to be trauma. There is support out there for them. I want to use my platform to help young athletes, parents and sports officials.”
The jokes and barbs, most unthinking, can still occasionally be heard in dressing rooms. It’s often almost by rote and Pettinger strongly believes most athletes don’t mean anything by it. It’s a matter of education, he said.
“I saw it and heard it as a player — directed generally — and often it was not meant to insult,” he said.
“You just need someone to point it out and correct it. And that takes that sort of talk out of the dressing room. It doesn’t have to be the elephant in the room.”
Pettinger, now interning to be an NHLPA-certified player agent with CAA Hockey in Toronto, said the response has been “overwhelmingly positive” since he came out with his story this month on sports website The Athletic.
“So many kids have reached out to me, saying now they know there is a place in hockey for them,” Pettinger, 33, said.
“Some have even said they now have the confidence to tell their teammates.”
Sometimes, all it takes is to attach a face to an issue.
“I was a six-foot-four and 250-pound athlete,” said Pettinger.
“When you personalize it like that for young athletes, it helps break down the stigma.”
Pettinger contacted hockey commentator and former NHL GM Brian Burke, whose son, Brendan Burke, was gay and an advocate for understanding before his death in an automobile accident. Brian Burke indicated to Pettinger the importance of support. Pettinger was out to his family for nearly a decade before going public this month.
“I had full support and never had any family member or friend who disowned me,” said Pettinger.
Brother Matt Pettinger won world junior silver and bronze in 1999 and 2000 with Canada and played 422 games with 123 points in the NHL for the Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning and home-province Vancouver Canucks, and is now a real estate agent in Victoria.
Another brother, Reed Pettinger, played in the B.C. Hockey League with the Cowichan Valley Capitals and Penticton Panthers, and won the silver medal with Pacific Canada in the 2002 World U-17 Hockey Challenge. He is now in the investment business in Victoria.
“We are all so proud and supportive of Bayne, and how he is raising awareness,” said dad Rick Pettinger, who added that is not an easy thing to do in the macho and aggressive culture of sports.
Bayne Pettinger grew up amid a circle of loyal friends in Victoria, which included veteran NHL defenceman Tyson Barrie. Another member of that group, Spencer Hamilton, worked with Pettinger at Hockey Canada in Calgary.
“Bayne is still just that big, lovable goof and it is not an issue for our group of good friends in Victoria,” said Hamilton, properties manager for Hockey Canada events.
“Now Bayne is educating people and creating a dialogue in the name of the game. And that, in turn, advances the game.”