AHL play-by-play announcer Shaya ‘overwhelmed’ with support upon exit

In June, the Hockey Is For Everyone joint initiative of the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association will celebrate Pride Month. All 32 clubs, alumni and current NHL players will participate in pride events, including parades, across North America. As part of Pride Month, NHL.com will be sharing stories about the LGBTQI+ hockey community. Today’s look at Jason Shaya, an American Hockey League play-by-play announcer who came out in October.

Jason Shaya is now laughing at the sleepless nights, choppy phone calls and anxiety he experienced before the news he feared was having a negative impact on his life.

Shaya, the play-by-play voice of Utica of the American Hockey League, came out as a gay man in a story on TSN’s website in October and braced himself for a barrage of hurtful reactions .

He never came.

“It was extremely supportive,” Shaya said of the response. “I was flabbergasted. I didn’t know the answer would be anything like that. I thought it would be a while, and we’d just go through. I’ve been approached so much by people I know and know who were as supportive as I was by people I didn’t know who came up to me and said, ‘That’s why your story touched me.’ I was overwhelmed by that.”

The 41-year-old Detroit native has been considering coming out for some time and has seen other players across the hockey and sports world do so in the past year, including New York prospect Luke Prokop. Nashville Predators defenseman, hockey agent Bayne Pettinger and NFL player Carl Nassib.

Shaya said nothing has changed for him professionally since coming out. He said he was always viewed by his employer, peers, players and fans as a hockey broadcaster, not “a gay hockey broadcaster”.

“I think that’s the coolest thing because at the end of the day, Shaya is Shaya,” said Utica president Robert Esche, a former goaltender who played 186 NHL games with the Phoenix Coyotes and Philadelphia Flyers from 1998 to 2007. “I mean, it was business as usual for him. He’s a great broadcaster, he does a great job.”

Shaya said the biggest change came in her personal life, a turning point for the better.

“In many ways, it freed me from having to constantly hide who I am in some aspect of who I am,” he said. “It was like putting down a very heavy bag that I had been carrying for a very long time.”

Patrick Burke noticed the weight on his friend’s shoulders. Burke, the NHL’s senior director of player safety who co-founded You Can Play in 2012 and whose late brother, Brendan, came out in 2009 as manager of the University of Miami (Ohio) hockey team ), spoke regularly with Shaya when formulating his decision.

“I see someone who is much more comfortable, much more confident and just focused on their craft and their passion,” Burke said, “instead of having to focus on the unanswered questions of “What would happen if I went out? would that be a problem?'”

Burke is the son of Brian Burke, president of hockey operations for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“Imagine sitting there getting ready for a game and also wondering if you can talk to your colleagues about someone you’re dating or if you’re able to bring your partner to work,” said Patrick Burke. . “Taking that stress away and allowing Jason to just focus on calling the best game possible, I think that had a big effect on him in a very positive way.”

Shaya said he was aware that as a teenager he was gay but hid it. Instead, he focused on hockey and pursued his dream of becoming an NHL play-by-play announcer. This came true when he replaced John Forslund on the Carolina Hurricanes broadcasts while employed by Charlotte of the AHL. He made his NHL debut in November 2017.

Esche hired Shaya in January 2021 after being fired by Charlotte in the spring of 2020 due to the pandemic. He had been a broadcaster, media relations specialist and occasional practice goaltender for the franchise for 13 years.

When Shaya began to seriously consider dating, he sought advice from Pettinger and Patrick Burke. He remembers one particular phone call he had with Burke the morning the TSN article was published.

“He’s been my rock this whole time, and that morning I basically cursed him, ‘I hate you so much for putting me in this position,'” Shaya said. “He was laughing about it and saying, ‘OK, you hate me now. Tell me what you think of me in a few hours.’

“He knew I would be absolutely fine, more than fine, and he was absolutely right. But in the middle of that moment before it happened, I was plagued with anxiety and scared ‘having not only committed professional suicide…I had I probably ostracized myself from everyone.”

Looking back, Shaya said he doesn’t regret his decision, buoyed by the outpouring of support from family, friends and colleagues in and out of the hockey community.

“I’m much more at peace with myself in my personal life, more at peace than I’ve ever been before,” he said. “There’s only one goal left for me to accomplish and that’s to be the best (full-time) broadcaster in the NHL. I think I’m really good at it, and that’s the next step I want to take.