A gay referee tries to find his place in hockey

In his heart he holds a sad truth: Hockey is most likely not done hurting him.

Andrea Barone, an openly gay referee in the ECHL, two levels below the NHL, in the locker room at the Mattamy Athletic Center in Toronto, Sept. 13, 2017.
Andrea Barone, an openly gay referee in the ECHL, two levels below the NHL, in the locker room at the Mattamy Athletic Center in Toronto, Sept. 13, 2017. –MARTA IWANEK

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.”

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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-colored 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.

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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.)

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.

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“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.

In the minutes before the next game of the series, Barone still could not shake things.

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.

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

He has spent nearly all his life in hockey, but Brian 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. 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 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.

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.

The Shaw suspension was a landmark measure by the NHL. But a year later, when Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf was caught during the postseason 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.

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.

Barone returned to the ECHL, a place where he has carved a reputation as a fine and fair official.

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. 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.”

In his heart he holds a sad truth: Hockey is most likely not done hurting him.