By Saskia Welch
“I’m not the bi ice hockey player. I’m Zach Sullivan, I play for Manchester Storm, and I’m bisexual.”
Zach, defenceman for Manchester Storm, is 27 and he’s blinking sleep out of his eyes as he gets comfortable. He’s just woken from a nap, a nap that made him nearly an hour late to our meeting. But so what, he’s changing the world. He’s changing the future for hundreds of young people who don’t think they fit into the place they want to be – sport. More specifically, ice hockey.
Ice hockey tries to lead the way in inclusion. It’s You Can Play Pride Nights have helped celebrate LGBTQ+ identities in a sport dominated by white men – usually the least accepting group.
But the commercial reasoning behind Pride Nights has always angered Zach who describes it as “having a parade before you’ve won the cup”. He argues that a sport with only four openly LGBTQ+ male players isn’t inclusive at all. “I don’t agree with Pride Games. However, I do understand how important the Pride Games are to the community. It’s a conflict for me.”
This doesn’t mean Zach doesn’t enjoy them. “I absolutely love playing those games. I love being able to go out wearing a jersey that represents part of my identity.” Identity is a great source of pride for Zach because he’s the only male professional ice hockey player in the world who is openly bisexual.
Originally from Redhill, Zach knew he liked guys from a young age. A family holiday to New York and a trip to Broadway to see The Little Mermaid is one of his earliest memories of liking men. The man in question: Sebastian the Crab. But being able to openly be himself was a challenge.
In the end, Zach decided he didn’t want to snap. He’d watched a documentary about American football star Aaron Hernandez who had to hide his bisexuality. After too much strain on his mental health, Aaron ‘snapped’ and murdered his friend. Zach admitted: “I could kind of relate to this. Not that I was going to murder anyone! But I relate to the fact that if I let this build up much longer, then something’s going to happen.”
Zach’s father had also struggled with mental health issues. While professing how much he loves his dad, Zach confessed: “He’s a shadow of his former self, I didn’t want to end up like that. I didn’t want to snap or end up like my dad.”
Now living in Manchester and playing for Manchester Storm, his lowest moment became a catalyst after a tough game against Nottingham Panthers. “Every single goal that night was my fault. It was probably the worst game of my professional career.” Seeing his mental state affect his performance Zach was driven to the first step in his coming out journey – telling his best friend.
“I texted him: ‘I’m bisexual’. His response was: ‘Well yeah, I know’.” After panicking about whether he’d been giving off signals and that everyone knew he was bi (they didn’t), Zach calmed down enough to realise that with his best friend making him feel normal, nothing else really mattered. “He’s the person in the world that knows me best, probably better than I know myself, and he doesn’t care, so why should anyone else care?”
After coming out at Christmas to his family, the team came next. Many had noticed that his mood had changed around the rink and his game had improved. Zach said: “I wasn’t actively telling people but if people asked, I’d tell them. I got caught on a date with the guy I was seeing by one of my teammates which was quite funny. Nobody really cared. I think that’s quite lucky. I was lucky with the teammates I had that year, two years ago. They were just happy I was happy.”
In the 2019/20 season the Elite Ice Hockey League had organised the first official Pride Nights for each team. This meant that teams would have pride jerseys, pride tape, pride logos, pride everything. Zach said: “I noticed the support behind the pride weekend and all the fans were getting behind it, quite a lot of the players were.”
Zach publicly came out on January 26 2020 by releasing a statement on Twitter, hours before the first ever EIHL Pride Night which he would be playing in. Even though there was a flood of support, it wasn’t something he wanted to do. “I hate the phrase coming out. I hate it. That phrase implies that you’ve been hiding. I don’t think it’s a case of hiding anything, just coming to terms with who you actually are.”
So why did he? “I thought, if there was someone actively playing professional ice hockey who was out when I was 16 that would have made my life a hell of a lot easier.” Zach knew that he had a platform on which he could do some good, help young LGBTQ+ people, and maybe make a mark himself in the history of ice hockey, something he’s no doubt achieved.
It’s not perfect though. Zach admits: “I never blame the guys for it but obviously every now and again there’s a homophobic slur. If someone says something, I’ll look at them and be like you can’t say that, it’s homophobic. I’m unapologetically who I am. I don’t exactly care if I piss someone off.” Zach hopes by correcting small instances of homophobia like this, it will spread as his teammates go on to correct friends who use similar language.
On the ice it’s different. “If someone says something on the ice I’ll just try and hurt them, and I know I have the full backing of my coach. I’m not scared at all.”
While his relationship with Pride Nights may be complex, Zach loves to play them. To the point where, due to a recurring injury at this year’s Pride Night making him unable to walk, he forced his physio to “do whatever you need to do; I’m playing.”
“I feel like I play better just because it’s Pride Night. Even though I was injured, it was one of my best games this season! They’re obviously hugely important to me; I have the opportunity to represent who I am on the ice unabashedly, unapologetically.”
Zach concludes: “Ten years ago we wouldn’t have thought Pride Games were possible, especially in ice hockey. It’s obviously a good sign it’s happening but it shouldn’t blanket over the fact there’s still a lot of work to be done.”