- Editor's Note: Sheng Peng will be a regular contributor to NBC Sports California’s Sharks coverage. You can read more of his coverage on San Jose Hockey Now, listen to him on the San Jose Hockey Now Podcast, and follow him on Twitter at @Sheng_Peng.
It was time for Kurtis Gabriel to retire from hockey. But it doesn’t mean he’s getting out of hockey.
In September, Gabriel announced his surprise retirement from the sport. Just 29, the popular winger had patrolled the ice for the Sharks during the 2020-21 NHL season. Last year, he was part of both the Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs organizations.
In his playing days, Gabriel primarily was known for his high-energy physicality, willingness to drop the gloves and embracing social issues. In February 2019, Gabriel became the first player to use Pride Tape in an actual NHL game, and not just in warm-ups.
Gabriel is getting off the ice, but he’s still a leader away from it.
Gabriel is part of the just-launched Alphabet Sports Collective, a “queer-led non-profit organization focused on creating a safer environment for people of all sexual identities and all expressions of gender in hockey.”
Alphabet Sports Collective arrives at time when hockey is, once again, perhaps feeling like it’s not for everyone.
For years, NHL teams had been hosting Pride Nights and wearing Pride jerseys during warm-ups with zero significant issue. But in January, Ivan Provorov of the Philadelphia Flyers declined to wear a Pride jersey, citing his Russian Orthodox religious beliefs. Then, the New York Rangers and Minnesota Wild reneged on their commitments to wear Pride jerseys during their Pride Nights.
The Wild claimed they were protecting their Russian players from reprisals from new anti-gay Russian laws.
San Jose Hockey Now caught up with Gabriel on Friday, on the eve of the Sharks’ own Pride Night on Saturday. The Sharks have stated that they will wear Pride jerseys, but it’s not clear if every player will wear them.
Gabriel revealed the real reason why he retired so early, the Alphabet Sports Collective’s larger goals, his thoughts on the pushback surrounding Pride jerseys, his personal experiences with Provorov and his memories of his time with the Sharks.
Kurtis Gabriel, on how he’s doing in retirement:
It's great. Definitely was meant to happen the way it happened. Feel very grateful for that.
Just enjoying not waking up every day, having that looming threat of physical nature, whether it's a fight or hitting or the crazy, hard and intense workouts.
After that, just having time to look into yourself more, more free time to grow and not always just pushing to be better hockey player. Just get to be a better person now.
Just doing some work down in the U.S., and I have a meal prep company that is set to launch our second location in the [Greater Toronto Area] in Hamilton, Ontario, with some talks and even more locations that's called Healthy Eats Inc. So, very excited about that. Hopefully get it to the U.S. and even down to South America at some point after Canada.
Gabriel, on retiring so young:
It's my wrist, I've been hiding that for a while.
I broke it when I was younger, 15, pretty severely. That, plus the fighting, plus having my [right wrist] tendon sliced by a skate, in my nerve, in 2017. Plus, just how much I stickhandled and worked at it, I just wore it down.
The cumulative effect of that really wore it down. The issues started in San Jose. That really flared up.
Then, just through last season, cortisone shots and managing it and last summer, I barely touched my stick. And for someone who already has to work really hard to be able to play with these guys at [their] skill, when we started to pick it up for training camps in preparation for getting signed to a contract, my wrist just couldn't take it.
I'm very fortunate to have had concussions early in my career, but my head is great now. I'm just very fortunate that overall I'm extremely healthy, no knee surgeries, shoulder surgeries, broken face, anything like that.
Just a little bit of a chronic right wrist that I can manage and live a normal life.
I could have played and had a good offer to go play in the NHL, I think, this year again, try to climb the ladder again and go for it. But the juice wasn't worth the squeeze anymore.
Gabriel, on which NHL team was interested in him during the summer:
Florida [Panthers], that probably was where I would have ended up. Givani Smith is kind of their tough guy now. I would have had, hopefully, a chance there.
Gabriel, on what the Alphabet Sports Collective is:
We're called Alphabet Sports Collective. It's kind of like reclaiming that whole, our detractors call it the alphabet mafia, the social justice warriors, woke people.
We're going to start in Canada with hockey, and, hopefully, grow to other sports. But we just really want to create a safe community and space for queer people in hockey. It's sorely missed.
As we know, hockey is probably the most homophobic sport. We haven't had an out player at the NHL level and just recently had one at the [ECHL] level who went back to juniors, [Nashville Predators draft pick] Luke Prokop.
We know how much of this population has been suppressed and oppressed and marginalized for so long. And people are [still trying] to pass the legislation to target the community, which is insane to us.
[But] people are still starting to come out of the closet more and they're still feeling more supported through that. So in hockey, we need a place where we can have a safe place for the whole community to congregate.
We want to create a central hub of members and really start from there. We want to be able to community build through programming with membership growth, we want everybody to kind of be centralized in the same place, get them talking, get them feeling good, and then we can go from there.
Gabriel, on ASC’s recent launch event:
We just had our launch event, which is going to be able to get us all the funds to start putting this stuff into action. We're definitely going to have Discord and community events online to get people together and get them feeling like they have a supportive family that looks out for them, that keeps them safe.
We're going to have a speaker series coming up this year. We just want to get members feeling good about themselves and that they belong in hockey.
From there, we can start to target people in that group that want to take more of a career path in hockey or volunteer more in hockey.
We need more seats at the table. We need more queer seats at the table in hockey, whether it's coaches, agents, players, officials, in every capacity. If we have people with seats at the table, then when all these things happen, all that people have to do is look to their right or left and see these communities represented. And hopefully, we can solve these problems a lot better.
Gabriel, on the pushback against NHL Pride Nights and players wearing Pride jerseys:
It [was just] one player doing this. It wasn't a big deal and you've seen the fallout. We are going backwards, in that case.
The fact that one player making a stand is allowing all the bigots and all the people that think it's okay for someone to exercise religious freedom [and be bigoted]. It's absolutely okay to exercise religious freedom. But there's going to be consequences [if you’re bigoted]. But the consequences weren't doled out. He wasn't held accountable for his actions.
Gabriel, on his personal experiences in Philadelphia Flyers camp with Provorov during the 2019-20 campaign, and what he means by consequences for Provorov:
I was in camp with him. I remember they have a little basketball court and stickhandling area, I would play 21 or around the world with him all the time. Shoot back, just me and him.
Seemed like a nice guy.
We're all nice people, we're all good people. But we have the capacity to get lost.
He believes that it's his religious right and belief to exercise that, freedom of speech, it absolutely is. But this does not mean you don't face consequences.
First of all, I think he should have chosen himself to not play the game. That would have actually been a lot more in line with his said beliefs. Just don't play the game if you're not going to wear the jersey.
But it's the fact that he doesn't understand the significance and the meaning that he's just like, 'Oh, whatever. I'm just going to play the game anyway.'
From what I understand and looked into, [the Flyers] could have definitely sat him in the game because players are, in their contracts, [to] support initiatives of the team.
[Flyers head coach] John Tortorella too, he messed up the Colin Kaepernick thing by being so derogatory [about that].
Then he thinks he's doing the right thing now by letting Ivan Provorov do the same thing. He's allowed to say it, John, but it doesn't mean there's not going to be consequences for it.
I think that's the part that was missed, because it sends a message that it's okay to be a bigot. And it's just not. It's just absolutely not.
Gabriel, on his time with the Sharks:
I'll focus on the positives and the people. There's some things I don't feel ready to talk about, to be completely honest.
But there's the people I met there. The guys in that organization were a very neat group of guys, the players, some of even the staff in the front office, some of the women running the [Teal For Change] podcast.
Very welcoming, all the way up to the security guards.
Being up there and playing with those guys, getting to know their personalities a little bit. Joke around with [Brent Burns] all the time, jumping on his back in practice and him flipping my stick into the stands when we're in battle drills. All that kind of stuff was a lot of fun.
Yeah, for sure it was weird [year]. You're split up into four different parts of the Sharks locker room to get changed. Organized, obviously, by rank, how long you've been in the league.
I tried to be really strict. I couldn't afford to get COVID. I wanted every chance to play, I wanted to be ready. So I was just Instacarting and everything. I was at my house and I was at the rink or I was at the beach relaxing, I was still only by myself a lot.
I just spent four months apart from my family, couldn't see anybody. It was weird, man. It was really weird.
Gabriel, on his mom Kim and her involvement in the "Hockey Moms" book:
A hockey mom put together a collection of, I guess, maybe standout hockey moms stories that are just a little more unique than the rest. But every hockey mom is special, we know that the sacrifice they go through.
I had obviously just the one parent for most of my life with my dad taking his own life. So I guess that was a unique angle for us that it kind of became our journey, not just my journey in hockey. It was really our shared thing, and she kind of lived through me. She went from being a volleyball, basketball and soccer girl to she could talk hockey with anybody.
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She's just a very loving person who just learned from immigrant Scottish parents to work really hard, and that translated to me.
She was so supportive to me the whole journey, and I think it was harder for her when I retired than it was for me, to be honest.
Gabriel, on his closing message:
Yeah, I would say that people [should] just seek fulfillment, peace, joy, happiness, it's accessible to anyone whenever you want. It's our human birthright.
Somebody who's really helped me and a resource that's really helped me is a guy named Michael A. Singer. He's, like, Oprah's favorite author. He is this guy in Florida, who just writes books and has podcasts.
Speaks about just dealing with that voice in your head and letting go of life and acceptance, and I think it's helped me a lot.