While the hockey world awaits its first openly gay player, an ECHL ref has opened the door
He heard it after a game in the spring, those three letters, harmless on their own but toxic when pieced together.
It was April 5, 2016, at the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena in Independence, Missouri. Andrea (pronounced “Awn-DRAY-uh”) Barone, a referee in the ECHL, had just called a game between the Missouri Mavericks and Tulsa Oilers. Following a 4-1 Oilers win, tempers flared. After the final horn, the two teams began to jaw at one another. Tensions ran high, and then an Oilers player shouted it.
Barone had heard this before, plenty of times. The 27-year-old has been refereeing hockey since he was 14, first as a part-time job growing up in Montreal and later, professionally, in leagues in western Canada and across the United States. He knew hockey culture. He knew words like this were bandied about it as if they upset no one. He knew most of the players he’d officiated in rinks from British Columbia to North Carolina meant nothing by them, but he also knew the sport allowed such casual bigotry to go largely unpunished.
Barone has a soft voice, a reasonable tone. He is not prone to argument. And so with this level head, on that spring evening in Missouri, he calmly approached the offending player near the dressing room after the game. Whenever he hears a homophobic slur used on the ice, Barone’s preferred method of address is to wait for a subtle moment, during a timeout or an intermission, to pull the player or coach aside and quietly tell them the language is inappropriate. “Hey,” he will caution. “You can’t call guys anything homophobic. Whether it’s fag or gay or queer, don’t make it homophobic, and don’t make it racist.”
Most times, Barone said, guys are immediately apologetic, however in Independence he met some pushback. “What’s the big deal?” the Oilers player protested following Barone’s instruction. “I don’t get it.”
Barone took a breath. “Well, I’m gay,” he replied. “I take offense to that.”
The player’s face dropped. He had no idea Barone was a rare breed in hockey, the only known openly gay man in the sport’s pro ranks, at any level and in any capacity. He had no idea Barone had staked for himself a lofty and important goal he is on track to achieving: becoming the first openly gay referee, and thus the first openly gay man, in the NHL.
He heard them in the atrium, the bullets whizzing by, the eruption of the shooter’s rifle. It was Sept. 13, 2006, at Dawson College in Montreal, the site of one of Canada’s most infamous mass shootings.
Andrea Barone was there.
Barone was raised in Quebec, a jock in a family that cared little about sports. He worked out, and he played hockey. When he wasn’t on the ice playing, he refereed. So immersed in the customs of the sport, he knew them backward and forward.
He attended Dawson to study social science, and on that day he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. From about 25 feet away, Barone laid eyes on the shooter, who entered the school and opened fire. Barone dropped to the floor, chaos igniting around him. He crawled to a place where it was safe to stand, then rose to run. But then he saw her: 18-year-old Anastasia De Sousa, the lone casualty of the attack, face down on the ground, being tended to by a police officer.
Barone slowed. “I didn’t see her face,” he said. “I just knew it was a girl. A cop was kneeling next to her, taking her pulse. There was just blood pouring out of her abdomen, a pool of blood around her.” As Barone lingered near the dying woman, the officer screamed at him to run, to get out, to find safety and find it fast.
That day, Barone escaped the shooter’s rampage, but the killer stayed with him for many years after. The trauma was so great, it was more than six months until Barone says he was “functional” again, longer still – up to four years, by his gauge – until he had finally emerged from the fog of the attack. “Those are the lost years,” he said.
It was during this dark time Barone realized he was gay. Raised in rinks and arenas, Barone observed a youth hockey culture so relaxed in its homophobia that he never once questioned his own sexuality. “It was very isolating,” he said. “It wasn’t a friendly environment to be around. That in itself kind of never let me even think of the idea I might be gay. It wasn’t like I knew I was gay and hid it. It was, I legitimately had no idea I was gay.”
Coming out was the next step. But how? Barone had since moved across Canada, to Vancouver, and though his family and friends were supportive people, he worried over the right way to tell them. In the fall of 2011, he decided to flood them with phone calls, one after another, giving the news to each of them in rapid succession and praying it would go well.
I can’t wait till the day when this actually isn’t a big deal and teenagers aren’t committing suicideOne of the friends he called was Andrew Dulgar, a close pal from high school. “I was completely blindsided,” Dulgar said. “I’m like, ‘That is awesome, man! Are you serious?’ ” Barone replied that he was, that he really was gay. Dulgar, still shocked, had but one message for his friend: “Lets get you a boyfriend, then!”
His family, father Remo, mother Beba and brothers Marco and Luca, who later came out as gay himself, immediately had his back, and now it was time for Barone to navigate how to come out to his sport. Years went by as Barone refereed junior hockey in B.C., not hiding his sexuality to those who wondered but not being totally open about it, either. The challenges were clear, and the questions were large. How would the hockey world treat Barone if it learned his sexuality?
Late last year, after he had moved to Nashville to work the SPHL, Barone realized his own significance in the sport. Nowhere in pro hockey, he understood, was there an openly gay man (Brendan Burke, the late son of Calgary Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke, was likely the closest person to fit the bill.) Barone had a chance to become the first, not to serve himself but to become a pioneer of sorts for others in the sport to follow.
In December, he penned an article for Outsports, detailing his own crisis in coming out, his ambition to reach the NHL as a referee, and the honest, gritty work that still needed to be done in changing a homophobic hockey culture. “As much progress that has been made,” he wrote, “the sports world is still unfamiliar territory for the LGBTQ community.”
Barone’s story did not quite join the national discussion, but it made important waves, nonetheless. It caught the eye of Stephen Walkom, the NHL’s senior vice-president and director of officiating, who learned then of Barone’s quest to reach the league. More than that, Barone received countless emails from parents and athletes, some of them openly gay and some of them closeted still. In ranks as high as the NCAA, swimmers and rowers and hockey players discussed their own stories with Barone. “The most humbling ones are, ‘I read your article. I’m going to come out now,’ ” Barone said. Those gestures floor the young referee even today.
He heard it following his coming out to the hockey world: who cares?
An innocent question, but a loaded one, too, supportive in one context and dismissive in another. Who should care about Andrea Barone’s sexual orientation? The answer is nobody and everybody, all at once.
In one sense, yes, Barone concedes, that he is gay should not matter. In a perfect world, it should not be news. It should not be something he needs to disclose. In that regard, who cares indeed?
But hockey is not a perfect world, and to close the book on the sport as if it is already as inclusive as it needs to be is small-minded. People do care about Barone – not because he is gay, but because he is trying to become the first openly gay man in a league that has none of them. “You may not care personally (that I’m gay), but people should care for the closeted athletes who have no idea what’s going on,” Barone said. “Their personal life is upside down. It gives them exposure that there are people like them in sports.”
Asking “who cares?” with a wave of the hand and an uncaring tone, Barone said, undermines the struggle of gay people trying to make it in sports. “I can’t wait till the day when this actually isn’t a big deal and teenagers aren’t committing suicide,” he said.
There is hope. Though the NHL has no known openly gay men in its most visible roles, other sports leagues do, most notably to Barone’s pursuit in MLB (longtime umpire Dale Scott came out publicly in 2014) and in the NBA (referee Bill Kennedy did the same last year.) To Barone, that the NHL cracked down so swiftly on a potential anti-gay crisis last spring, when Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw was suspended and fined for using a homophobic slur during a playoff game, showed the league is just as ready as others for the presence of an openly gay referee. “(We) believe our officials should be judged on their skill level, character and work ethic,” Walkom said. “Not on their sexual orientation.”
For now, Barone climbs the ranks. He is a rising force as a referee, promoted last year to work the ECHL, where he will call this season with hopes to reach the AHL soon. From there, the only way up is to the biggest pro hockey league there is.
One step at a time, Barone sees the sport changing, its homophobia easing, even if it has a far ride to go until it has ceased completely. Barone can only keep reaching for the NHL, sharing his story, taking comfort in the words many players have shared with him since he came out publicly last year. “Hey, man,” they will say out on the ice, in that phrasing fit just for the sport. “What you’re doing takes a lot of balls. Keep it up.”
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the Season Preview issue of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.