Justin Rogers told his family and best friends he was gay nine years ago. That was the last time the NHL trainer addressed his sexuality, until he told Seattle Kraken general manager Ron Francis earlier this year.
Now Rogers, an assistant athletic trainer for the upstart NHL franchise, is coming out to the world. He penned an open letter to his younger self that was published Friday on the Kraken’s website. It opens as follows:
Dear younger JR,
Becoming the best you will take time and understanding.
That knot in your stomach – the one that makes you feel confused, isolated, lost in the world –invisible to everyone but you? It will slowly loosen. You don’t even understand the knot, but with time you will learn things about yourself and fulfill dreams so many others like you feel they cannot.
In a corresponding interview with ESPN, Rogers said he knew for years he was gay, but it took him a long time to grasp what that meant. He finally came out to his family with a letter on Christmas Day 2014. (We’re noticing a theme here!)
It was only two years earlier when Rogers, who was working as a trainer for Penn State men’s hockey and men’s golf programs, came to realize he could be gay and work in sports.
“That’s when I started realizing, ‘I am like those people. I can associate with those people and I can also be in this sports world at the same time,'” he said. “It was almost like both worlds were meshing at a fast rate together.”
Congratulations and thank you to Justin for sharing his story. His ‘Letter to His Younger Self’ is well worth reading. Another brave member of the LGBTQ+ community making the hockey world a better place. https://t.co/jzCzFT7j22— Brian Burke (@Burkie2020) November 3, 2023
Believed to be the first out gay support staff member on an NHL bench, Rogers says an interaction with a Penn State athlete was one of his turning points. The freshman scored a goal, and when he skated back to the bench, asked him if he was gay.
The question startled the then-closeted trainer. But after the game, Rogers spoke to the player, who told him he was accepting.
“The first athlete you ever come out to at Penn State will be a young Russian player who right after scoring a goal, skates to the bench, turns around and asks if you are gay,” Rogers writes in his letter. “You will be in such complete shock; you will ask him to repeat the question. He will rephrase it asking if you like Skittles and the rainbow. You will confirm you do but that he should go play the game!
“After the game, the player will call you over to his locker to let you know he is cool with Skittles and the rainbow, a subtle way of showing his acceptance.”
One of the themes in Rogers’ letter is the amount of support he’s enjoyed in hockey locker rooms. He describes scenes in which players huddle around TVs to watch segments about LGBTQ+ stories, and then return to their rehab routines.
Rogers cites one Kraken player who came back from the All-Star break raving about a queer artist he watched perform at a drag show.
The Kraken, who joined the NHL at the start of the 2021-22 season, are one of the most inclusive franchises in sports. They partnered with Seattle University to create an MBA program meant to diversify sports leadership, and became the first team in NHL history to feature an all-Black broadcast team. The Kraken are also partners with the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, making it the first time that an Indigenous tribe is featured on an NHL jersey.
With that in mind, Rogers knew Francis would be accepting. Still, the moment he came out at work was a little nerve-wrecking.
“I don’t think it matters how many times you come out to somebody, there’s always a level of nerves,” he said. “You don’t know how someone is going to react.”
When Rogers told Francis, he pledged the Kraken would back him in every way possible. The team’s players are living up to that promise.
Reigning Calder Trophy winner Matty Beniers, goaltender Philipp Grubauer and alternate captain Jordan Eberle are quoted extensively in the ESPN piece.
“I think the most respect you can give a person is that you treat them the exact same way as everyone else. That’s how we all feel here,” said Eberle.
Beniers, who attended a Boston-area high school with many out LGBTQ+ students, said Rogers’ sexuality is no big deal.
“I think that was just completely normalized,” Beniers said. “You didn’t bat an eye, it didn’t change anything. I had lots of classmates who were different sexualities. For me, it was normalized then. I didn’t really think about it at all, and in this situation, it was the same thing with JR.”
The overwhelmingly positive response to Rogers’ coming out stands in stark contrast to the NHL’s self-inflicted Pride controversy. A smattering of players refused to wear rainbow warmup sweaters last season; and as a result, the NHL banned speciality jerseys and accessories, such as Pride tape.
The misguided decision spurned widespread outrage. One player, Arizona Coyotes player Travis Dermott, defied the league and wrapped his stick in Pride tape, anyway.
The NHL reversed its policy shortly thereafter.
Rogers says the Pride Night fiascos didn’t bother him too much, because he knows about the true level of acceptance around the league.
“I hope now we are able to flip the spotlight from the jerseys to doing the true behind-the-scenes work that hopefully teams are doing,” he said.
Still, the Pride debacle shows the NHL is still far away from being a truly inclusive space. Rogers writes about hearing homophobic slurs in the locker room, and some uncomfortable conversations surrounding LGBTQ+ rights.
There has never been an out gay player in the NHL, either.
Rogers recognizes his status as a white, cis-man provides him with privilege.
“As a white, straight-passing man, you will realize you have a privilege you can use to stick up for those more marginalized than you,” he writes.
Now that he’s publicly out, Rogers hopes he can inspire other LGBTQ+ people in hockey to live their truth.
“Justin, you will live authentically and in doing so you will change and even save lives. I promise you any struggles or moments of doubt you ever have will be worth it because of each story that you hear and impact you have,” he writes.
The NHL league office may have tried to obfuscate the rainbow earlier this year. But brave people like Rogers are ensuring those efforts will never succeed.