Matt Hendricks of the Washington Capitals supports ‘You Can Play’ equality project

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post - “Parents need to be aware of how to teach their kids the proper way to talk in a locker room,” said Capitals player Matt Hendricks, above.

Matt Hendricks grew up in hockey locker rooms. He has spent his entire adult life in them. He knows the parlance of these places, at times inspirational and uplifting, at others sophomoric and crass, at still others offensive and hurtful.

Monday afternoon, when Hendricks stepped off the ice at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex following an informal preseason workout, he headed into what is now his home locker room with the Washington Capitals. It is, he believes, a welcoming place. He is taking steps to help all locker rooms, from youth leagues to the NHL, become that way.

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“I think words are thrown around that people don’t necessarily understand the meanings of them, or the ramifications — what they could potentially do to someone’s feelings,” Hendricks said. “Looking back to when I was a younger player, before I got into the professional ranks, the slurs and the terminology that’s used in the locker rooms at a younger age isn’t necessarily out there to be malicious, but it definitely could be.”

The Capitals will announce Tuesday that Hendricks and the franchise are supporting a project called “You Can Play,” which endeavors to foster equality, respect and safety for all athletes, regardless of sexual orientation. The move by Hendricks and the Capitals follows local support for the movement by D.C. United and the George Washington University athletic department, and it comes not only during an election season when gay rights issues are on the ballot in four states, but also in a month when a pair of NFL players have come out vociferously in support of gay marriage rights.

Hendricks has recorded a public service announcement, one that follows several filmed by other NHL players since the project launched in March. That was just a month after the 2010 death, in a car accident, of Brendan Burke, the 21-year-old son of Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke — a mentor and friend of Capitals General Manager George McPhee.

Brendan Burke was a manager on the hockey team at Miami (Ohio) University. He was gay. Brendan’s brother, Patrick, helped found You Can Play in the month after his brother’s death, in part because he felt his brother had spoken out courageously about his own sexuality in an environment that hasn’t traditionally welcomed such talk.

The day the first PSA aired, during a national broadcast of a game between the New York Rangers and the Boston Bruins, 30 NHL players had lent their support. Now, that number has doubled, and it appears to grow every day.

“The exciting thing for us has been the players and the schools and the teams that now are calling us,” Patrick Burke, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, said by telephone Monday. “It started out with us having to recruit players. . . . We almost don’t even have to recruit anymore.”

Hendricks’s wife of four years, Kim, initially suggested Hendricks use his position as a professional athlete to help. Last November, Kim gave birth to twins — a son, Gunnar, and a daughter, Lennon. The couple has since spent time since discussing how they want to raise their children.

“It struck a spot in my heart that we want equality throughout all sporting arenas, regardless of whether it be hockey or football or baseball,” Hendricks said. “We think that everyone being equal — regardless, whether it be on the playing field or in the parking lot here, or anywhere — is a real big topic that we talk about in rearing our kids. . . . Parents need to be aware of how to teach their kids the proper way to talk in a locker room.”

Both D.C. United and GW came to support the project through a natural progression. Each had participated in the “It Gets Better” project, an initiative aimed at gay and lesbian teenagers who may have been bullied. When GW Athletic Director Patrick Nero approached his student leadership about You Can Play, they backed the idea immediately.

“Our students felt like, given the diversity of where we are, it was important to take the lead,” Nero said. Eighteen athletes from 10 sports, including men’s basketball, filmed a PSA in support of the group. They are now joined by groups from Duke, the University of Denver, Princeton and Connecticut, among others.

D.C. United was the first Major League Soccer franchise to support You Can Play, but that move continued a tradition of getting some of the franchise’s most prominent figures — from former star Clyde Simms to current star Chris Pontius to former player and current Coach Ben Olsen — involved in the issue of equality regardless of sexual orientation. This Saturday night at RFK Stadium, United will hold its latest “Night Out,” a tailgate and game experience aimed at the gay and lesbian community.

“It’s in our DNA that D.C. United be a rallying point for people of all ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, and in this case sexual preference,” said Doug Hicks, United’s senior vice president for marketing and communications. “. . . We’re D.C. United by no accident.”

After Hendricks stuck up his hand to get the Capitals involved, team owner Ted Leonsis — who also owns the NBA’s Wizards and WNBA’s Mystics — followed to put the franchise’s name behind it.

“I’ve always believed that a sports team holds a mirror up to the community it serves,” Leonsis said Monday. “And just from a service-in-your-community standpoint, we have a very diverse community. So I try to always break things down into: Is it the right thing to do? And then: Is it the right thing for the business? And the answer to this was both. . . . We want hockey to be for everyone.”

Though hockey players still lead the way in participating in the program, Patrick Burke said he has met with officials from the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball. “Things are promising there,” he said. Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, in an emotional essay on Deadspin.com, lent his support to the gay marriage movement. Kluwe followed Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who has spoken in favor of gay marriage rights for several years.

Burke said You Can Play is focused not on marriage rights, but on athletes and the culture of sports. That is what Hendricks knows. He said he would not hesitate to raise the issues with his Capitals teammates. It is, he said, not because of personal experience with a gay teammate or opponent.

“I would assume I probably have played with or against someone,” he said. “I’m not sure. But I think it’s important that those players are able to speak freely about it. We’re moving on. We’re evolving as a society. I think it’s an important thing for sports, because sports should be a part of everyone’s lives, regardless of sexual orientation.”

 
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