Zach Sullivan on coming out in ice hockey and his Manchester Storm team-mates' support

Zach Sullivan on coming out in ice hockey and his Manchester Storm team-mates' support

"With this being the first ever EIHL #PrideWeekend I feel now is the best time to speak about what I have known for many years," wrote Zach in the screengrabbed note.

"I have battled with mental health problems over this issue and with the support, understanding and acceptance from my family, friends and team-mates, I finally feel ready to say; I'm bisexual."

He also posted a picture of himself with Storm team-mates Cam Critchlow and Jared Aulin, the trio wearing hockey jerseys with a Pride rainbow design - the same shirts they would wear later that day against the Stars.

He added: "I have never been more proud to wear a jersey before, especially one that celebrates all gender identities and sexualities."

The social media posts quickly went viral on both platforms, with an outpouring of support from hockey fans across the globe, and fans of other sports who recognised the significance of Zach sharing his truth - both for him as a person and for the wider LGBT+ community.

When we chat later, I ask Zach how he prepared for that moment of hitting 'Share'.

"I spoke to two of my best friends from my previous club, Glasgow Clan - Josh Grieveson and Craig Peacock," he explains.

"I told them what I was planning and their response was 'that's awesome!' I also spoke to Tyson [Fawcett, forward for the Storm] and that was about it.

"Then it got to the Saturday before Pride Night, when we were playing Sheffield Steelers. I was like 'I can't not tell my team-mates'. I spoke to my coaches before the game too and they were both really supportive. Unfortunately, we lost to the Steelers but I stood up after the game and said 'I just want to say something, it's nothing to do with hockey, but I'm gonna [come out] tomorrow.'"

The team gave him a standing ovation in the locker room after his announcement.

He says his decision to coincide his coming out with the Elite League's first Pride Weekend - and the Storm's third Pride Night - was spur of the moment. It's been somewhat of a whirlwind few months for the young defenceman, who told me he only really came to terms with his sexuality in November, two months before tweeting about it on that Sunday morning. So why now?

"I think it was that I had finally gotten to a place where I was comfortable," says Zach. "I kind of looked back over my journey and I saw times where I wasn't comfortable, times when I needed a role model.

"I thought that if I could say this now - that I'm comfortable and confident in myself - then hopefully it would reach the right people and they'd get the confidence too, not just to come out but to be comfortable in themselves."

That's the message Zach has been sending repeatedly. He's been making sure it's understood that he's doing this for a reason - the people that need to hear it. He's not coming out publicly for himself, he's coming out for the kids that need to hear what he needed to hear when he was a teenager.

As someone whose coming out journey was inspired by someone else, Zach's message spoke to me. If it hadn't been for Harrison Browne, then of the NWHL's Buffalo Beauts, and his decision to tell the world he's trans, then maybe I would still be in the closet, playing women's hockey and dreaming about what might have been. Zach is for young gay and bi kids what Browne was for me, and that's how he wanted it.

It took Zach nine years to come out to himself, and he knows that other people might take three years, or six, or 18. It doesn't matter. Everyone's journey is different, he says, and he's not here to tell people that they need to come out. There's a recent trend in some sections of the media encouraging closeted athletes to come out for the dubiously called 'good of the sport', and Zach says it's unrealistic for someone to do that.

"I was lucky enough to have friends and family that I knew would support me no matter what. And I know some people aren't lucky enough to have that. You've got to take your own time with things, and that's how it is."

It's hard to imagine a more ideal coming out, even though Zach dislikes the term. According to Zach, things went 'back to normal' within a couple of hours of the tweet. He turned up at the rink to prep for the game, and it was business as usual. "That was kind of the perfect response. I'm not looking for any preferential treatment or any different behaviour from the guys. It's just, 'OK, cool, let's get on with it, we're playing hockey now.'"

In my experience, the hockey community is unlike any other. It's a culture built on affectionate headbutts, butt pats, and punches. Hockey players frequently engage in friendly 'chirping', a form of heckling that's often a sign of being part of a team. It's often called a brotherhood, and players will fight like brothers, but will be the first ones to stand up and defend one another. One notable 'chirp' from my own coming out was one of my then team-mates, now a forward for the NIHL 2 Deeside Dragons, telling me that I still needed to remember to close my five-hole (for the uninitiated, that's the space between the goaltender's legs).

"They've been a bit wary about what they can say so far," Zach tells me. "I said to them, 'I don't care, I know it's from a good place'. Tyson chirped me today so it's all back to normal in that regard."

I asked Jared Aulin, who was in the picture Zach posted to Twitter and Instagram, whether he had seen much difference in his team-mate since then.

"He smiles more," says Jared. "He's kind of a new person, in the sense that he was always a good guy before, right, but now he looks so much more comfortable and happy and I think he doesn't feel like he's isolated anymore.

"It's infectious. I smile when I see him right away because I know he's happy."

Jared adds that the Storm made a concentrated effort to treat Zach exactly the same, though there have been some small changes. "We threw 'It's Raining Men' up on the speakers after Pride Night, so yeah, we were chirping him pretty good!"

Without his Storm family around him, Zach may not have come out at all. He talks at length about how supportive the team has been, and how hard they've worked to make sure he knows that they accept him, especially Tyson, who is one of his housemates and his closest pal on the team.

Tyson makes sure to still 'razz him' and is careful to not treat Zach any differently. He mentions how happy he is for his friend, and happy that Sullivan trusted him and the rest of the team enough to share his truth.

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