Ice hockey had always been Zach Sullivan’s release – the place he could go to forget about the struggles of ‘real life’.
Yet in early 2020, he could feel that release slipping away from him and not because of anything that was happening on the ice.
Instead, the burden of keeping his bisexuality a secret was starting to weigh heavily, as the Manchester Storm defenceman – who had pulled on a Great Britain jersey for the first time the previous year – found himself distracted and his performances deteriorating.
No male professional ice hockey had ever come out publicly as bisexual before, meaning Sullivan had no template to follow and no reassuring real-life case to draw upon as proof that he would be accepted.
Yet with his livelihood and sporting career potentially on the line and a determination to ensure that any future members of the ice hockey and LGBT+ communities had an example to follow, the then-25-year-old made the courageous decision to come out publicly as bisexual on the Elite Ice Hockey League’s first-ever Pride Weekend at the end of January.
Nerves, adrenaline, trepidation understandably flowed but having been given a standing ovation by his Storm teammates when informing them in the aftermath of a game against Sheffield Steelers a day prior, Sullivan hit send on a social media post telling the world he was bisexual.
“I built it up so much and I was getting more and more scared of coming out publicly because of how I thought people would react,” explains Sullivan, who has made over 300 EIHL appearances since his debut in 2014.
“I could feel my hockey suffering and that’s always been the one place I could go and forget about real life. Hockey is a huge release for me – whenever I’ve had personal or family issues, I’ve been able to forget that on the ice.
“But I was losing the ability to just play hockey. I was constantly thinking about my sexuality.
“I had a bit of trepidation because I didn’t know what the reaction would be – whether I’d be ostracised or if it would be positive and everyone would celebrate it.
“At the same time, I thought ‘when I was 16, if there was someone who had done this, it would have made my life so much easier.’
“That pushed me over the edge to thinking that if it helps one other person in hockey to feel comfortable in themselves – not even to come out necessarily – but to feel comfortable in their own sexuality, then it’s mission accomplished as far as I’m concerned.
“When I came out, everything improved immediately – I was being completely honest with my teammates, they knew who I was completely and it helped me get back to concentrating on hockey.
“When I was on the ice, I could just focus on playing ice hockey again and it definitely made me play better.”
Sullivan experienced an immediate wave of relief – “it’s a cliché that everyone says the weight was lifted off your shoulders but it genuinely felt like that for me,” – and the reaction his announcement garnered blew him away.
Two communities that had never previously interacted – ice hockey and LGBT+ – came together to celebrate the Surrey-born star.
“Within the hockey community, the support was universal,” he adds. “The day I came out – the Nottingham fans came over to watch a game in Manchester and the amount of support from people I didn’t even know was overwhelming.
“In the UK, it’s such a small family compared to football or rugby that whenever something happens in the hockey community, everyone bands together and really supports what’s going on.
“I’m not sure why I was so scared of doing it now, knowing the response I got.” Sullivan may have been blazing a trail in ice hockey but there were some stars from other sports that he looked up to ahead of his announcement.
Wales and British & Irish Lions rugby star Gareth Thomas, who came out as gay in 2009 while still playing a similarly physical and stereotypically ‘masculine’ sport, is one pioneer he mentions, while another is a certain Team GB diver.
“I always followed Tom Daley,” says Sullivan. “He was a good example for me. He was completely honest about his sexuality from a very young age, which takes a huge amount of courage.
“I can’t speak for him but I feel like if he hadn’t done that then he might not have been able to perform as well as he has.
“I was starting to feel the same – that it was affecting my performance and it was time to be honest with myself. Then when the time was right, I could come out publicly. Tom Daley was definitely an inspiration for me.”
Sullivan admits that being a trailblazer is a crown he wears uneasily – by his own admission, he prefers to avoid the limelight and, before January, had always been keen to keep his private life exactly that.
Coming out publicly as bisexual was a decision he made for his own mental wellbeing but also because he understood that his platform as an elite sportsman offered him a unique opportunity to help spread a message of equality.
He is slowly coming to terms with the added responsibility and attention this puts upon him, even if he is still not entirely comfortable.
“To be honest, I don’t see myself as a role model – all I see myself as is an ice hockey player,” insists Sullivan. “I remember saying to someone in January that I don’t want to be known as ‘the bisexual ice hockey player’, I want to be known as me. Maybe that’s kind of selfish though.
“I have a message I’m passionate about and I think it’s the first time in my life that I’m that passionate about the message I’m carrying.
“Any opportunity to push that message forward and spread it as much as I can, I’ll 100% jump on that but it doesn’t mean I see myself as a role model.
“I’ve made mistakes when I was younger, I’ve said things I shouldn’t have, I’ve done things I shouldn’t have. By no means am I this white knight or angel that has come out of nowhere.
“I’m just trying to make it easier for other people in ice hockey – give them a pathway and an example of what the response should be like.”
Sullivan says the timing surrounding his coming out was partly inspired by both sport and society taking steps forwards in terms of LGBT+ inclusion over the past decade.
The fact the EIHL were holding a Pride Weekend even before Sullivan’s announcement is testament to the work ice hockey in the UK is doing to move towards equality but the 26-year-old acknowledges the sport can’t afford to rest on its laurels.
“Absolutely, there’s still work to do,” he adds. “A lot of male sports could take a page out of female sports and the way they treat LGBT+ inclusion.
“I know female ice hockey is extremely accepting of the LGBT+ community – male ice hockey can look for an example in that.
“I can’t speak for other sports because I don’t know them as intimately but absolutely there’s still work to do.
“I don’t think the campaign should ever stop – unfortunately there will always be inequality in the world and society and sport will always be striving towards a completely equal playing surface.”
Photo credit: Dean Woolley
Team GB believes that sport should be open to everyone. That’s why this week, we’ll be showing our support to Stonewall and their Rainbow Laces campaign.
Throughout the week on TeamGB.com, we’ll be telling some of the stories of members of the LGBT+ community from within the Olympic sporting world, starting with ice hockey player Zach Sullivan.