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Sunday, May. 19, 2019
Brock McGillis making his mark in hockey circles - and beyond
by Randy Pascal

Never, in a million years, could Brock McGillis have ever imagined the maelstrom that his life would become following the release of his now famous biographical short story in November of 2016.

Becoming the DE-facto face of the efforts to promote full inclusion within the context of the hockey community, and seeing that role tangent into so many wonderful opportunities to share his message, goes miles beyond the end result of a venture that was as much about self-acceptance as any inkling of creating a much larger greater good.

Truth be told, the years leading to his very public outing could have turned out so much worse for the 34 year-old Sudbury native, who was raised in the very epitome of a Canadian hockey family.

A friendship with Brendan Burke (openly gay son of long-time NHL executive Brian Burke, who perished in a car accident in 2010), some very frustrating dealings with local minor hockey associations, the 2016 mass shooting in a gay bar in Orlando and the support of his family, fully aware of his sexual orientation, all served as a prelude for the story.

“I wrote the piece, thinking maybe I would help a couple of kids, maybe I would normalize it a little bit in our sporting community, not knowing the impact it would have,” said McGillis, a year and a half and several thousand instagram followers later.

“It became far more than I could have ever imagined. I didn't anticipate doing public speaking, or becoming the face of this, but it sort of just happened.” The story went viral, with the former OHL, OUA and professional netminder finding himself suddenly a news item for “The National”, sharing the challenges of growing up gay in the hyper masculine environment that is hockey at virtually every level of the game.

Make no mistake – McGillis was not immune to the mental health battles that so often accompany the pathway of teenagers and young adults, attempting to cope with a self-awareness that runs contra to the norm, an even greater reality within the world of sports.

“I felt bad for my family,” he explained. “There was a big, bold headline in the local paper that read, “I wanted to die every day”. And then my mom has to go into a grocery store and see her child, in the front page of a newspaper, saying that. I felt awful because my parents are so supportive, so inclusive, so loving. They would support me in any way, shape or form back then, and I never gave them the opportunity to do so.”

The initial shock aside, the McGillis clan would clench tightly together, a critical foundation of strength as the eldest of two boys in the family (younger brother, Cory, was a first round draft pick of the Windsor Spitfires in 2004) began to assimilate the after-shocks of his well-intentioned public assertions regarding the homophobia that is relatively prevalent in dressing rooms across North America.

“I had people from all over the world contacting me,” said McGillis. “There is no manual to deal with this. At first, it's incredibly difficult to detach from people's struggles and not carry that burden as my burden, always. I'm getting better at it, but it's still a struggle.”

“But then you see the people you are helping, and you see the kid playing hockey, struggling with his sexuality, and dealing with mental illnesses, struggling to stay alive, and you're able to support him or her, and that makes it all worth it.”

The former goaltender turned coach and personal trainer, unexpectedly morphed to social advocate, has created quite a following. McGillis was invited to address players of each and every team in the OHL this past season. He has done countless school presentations, and lists as one of his goals a desire to visit each and every school in the country, delivering his message.

“I think I am at a point now where this is something I want to do for a living,” noted the graduate of St Charles College, who continues to operate Be a ROCK Sports Training, working primarily with aspiring young hockey players. “I always thought I was put on this earth to play hockey. And when I retired from playing and started working with athletes and coaching, I thought maybe I was meant to do this.”

“Now I realize that hockey has given me a platform. Working with these hockey players has allowed me to connect with youth, and now I can use that on a grandeur scale.” There is little doubt that the company that McGillis now keeps, at least from time to time, have the ability to open some doors.

Brendan Shanahan asked me if I would come and sit with him in his office, and we sat down for two hours and talked,” said McGillis. “He seems like that type of person that is always searching for knowledge.”

Gradually gaining a comfort level in the shoes in which he now walks, the puckstopper who spent the 2005-06 season as a member of the Den Haag Wolves in Holland, is gazing to the future with a wonderfully youthful and energetic outlook. “Working with so many kids for so many years, coaching young hockey players, has enabled me to have the ability to communicate with youth,” he said.

“I look at myself as a large child, at times. I am always learning, always evolving, learning a whole new language and how people identify with who they are. There is always something new to learn.”

And if the road he has traveled tests McGillis' ability to remain grounded, he simply returns to the home-front, where it all started. “My friends keep me in check,” he noted. “And so does my brother. He tells me that I think I'm Beyonce. It's weird.”

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