When Dre Barone takes the ice next Wednesday in Laval, it may be a small step for him but it’s a leap for hockey culture. Barone will be the first openly gay male official in an AHL game.
In fact, he’s the only openly gay male hockey participant in a pro league. For now anyway.
For Barone, Wednesday’s game between the Laval Rocket and the Manitoba Moose marks both a comeback and a step up. After hundreds of games in the ECHL and the Southern Professional Hockey League, he feels he’s now ready for the American Hockey League.
“The ECHL is still a one-ref league, the highest pro level league not to have gone to the two-ref system. Fitness is not a problem and since I live in Canada, I’ve been able to find places to skate. I was also at the NHL Officiating Combine in August so I feel prepared,” Barone says.
Maybe if you’ve had to manage an ECHL game by yourself, you feel ready for anything, and having a partner on the ice makes officiating a little easier. If it’s ever easy.
Barone came out publicly in 2015 when he penned an article for Outsports.com, but even before that, his family and colleagues in the leagues knew about his sexual orientation. How? Barone told them.
“If the subject of a girlfriend came up, I always said I was gay. My approach back then was to truly own it, and when you say it casually, it’s disarming. The hush hush disappears. I’ve made some good friends along the way, and we joked around. It was totally normal, and the linesmen and refs had my back. Even going after the games, everybody was supportive,” he says.
“Some nights, if the linesman wasn’t local, I’d share a room with the linesman, and it wasn’t strange at all. If you own it, there’s nothing to attack and I think a lot of the guys on the ice respected me for that, too,” Barone adds.
After the article was published, Barone got about a thousand messages. There were emails, posts on social media, and others, and every single one was positive. While there have been a couple of incidents where Barone has been the target of homophobic slurs, hockey people have shown to be supportive of Barone.
And yet, hockey culture as a whole doesn’t make it easy for LGBTQ people, or any minorities, for that matter, to flourish.
“They don’t realize the hurdles these people have to jump to get even close to the door, let alone through,” Barone says.
The ones who do persevere and manage to find a way to the top are the exception. They’ve had to suppress their identities, and conform to the majority’s wishes. Not everyone has the energy to do that.
Barone thinks the first gay NHL player will be one who’s already out before he makes the league, like the Nashville Predators’ prospect Luke Prokop.
But now Barone’s focus is on The Game. It’s been a while since he was in action, and it’s a new league and a two-ref system, so he feels some pre-game jitters.
“There’s a little pressure. All my friends are coming to Laval, and my family’s going to be there,” he adds with a smile.
And they all hope the refs won’t be the story after the game.
Even when one of them is the first openly gay male official in the AHL.