In June, the joint NHL and NHL Players’ Association initiative “Hockey Is For Everyone” celebrates Pride Month. All 32 NHL clubs, alumni and current 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 as gay in October.
Jason Shaya is now laughing at the sleepless nights, restless phone calls and anxiety he experienced ahead of the announcement, which he feared would negatively impact his life.
Shaya, the play-by-play voice of the American Hockey League’s Utica, came out as a gay man in a story on the TSN website in October and braced himself for a barrage of hurtful reactions.
It never came.
“It was overwhelmingly supportive,” Shaya said of the response. “I was overwhelmed. Little did I know the answer would be something like this. I thought it would take a moment and we’d just go through it. I was approached so many times by people I knew and know who supported me as well as people I didn’t know who came up to me and said, ‘Here’s why your story touched me.’ I was overwhelmed by it.”
The 41-year-old Detroit native had been considering coming out for some time, watching last year others in the hockey and sports world do it, including Nashville Predators defense attorney Luke Prokop, hockey player agent Bayne Pettinger and NFL player Carl Nassib.
Shaya said nothing has changed for him professionally since he came out. He said he is still viewed as a hockey broadcaster and not a “gay hockey broadcaster” by his employer, peers, players and fans.
“That’s what I think is 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 for the Phoenix Coyotes and Philadelphia Flyers from 1998-2007. “I mean, for him everything was the same as always. He’s a great broadcaster, he’s doing a great job.”
Shaya said the biggest change has come in his private life, a turn for the better.
“In many ways, it’s been liberating for me not to have to consistently hide who I am in some aspect of me,” he said. “It was like putting down a very heavy bag that I had been carrying for a very long time.”
Patrick Burke has noticed the weight off his friend’s shoulders. Burke, NHL senior director of player safety, co-founder of You Can Play in 2012 and its late brother Brendan, who came out as manager of the Miami University (Ohio) hockey team in 2009, spoke regularly with Shaya as he formulated his decision.
“I see someone who’s a lot more comfortable, a lot more confident, and just focused on their craft and their passion,” Burke said, “rather than having to focus on the unanswered questions, ‘What would happen if I came out ? who would support me Would that be a problem?'”
Burke is the son of Pittsburgh Penguins hockey president Brian Burke.
“Imagine sitting there preparing for a game and wondering if you can tell your co-workers about someone you’re dating or if you can take your partner to a work event,” said Patrick Burke. “Removing that stress and allowing Jason to just focus on calling the best possible play seems to me to have had a huge positive effect on him.”
Shaya said he was aware he was gay as a teenager but kept it a secret. Instead, he focused on hockey and pursued his dream of becoming an NHL play-by-play announcer. That came true when he filled in for John Forslund on the Carolina Hurricanes shows while employed by Charlotte of the AHL. He made his NHL debut in November 2017.
Esche hired Shaya in January 2021 after being fired from Charlotte in spring 2020 due to the pandemic. He was a broadcaster, media relations specialist and occasional practice goalie for the franchise for 13 years.
When Shaya seriously considered coming out, he turned to Pettinger and Patrick Burke for advice. He recalls a specific phone conversation with Burke the morning the TSN article was published.
“He’s been my rock throughout, and this morning I’m basically cursing him, ‘I hate you so much you put me in this position,'” Shaya said. “He laughed at that and said, ‘Okay, you hate me now. Let me know what you think of me in a few hours.’
“He knew I would be totally fine, more than fine, and he was absolutely right. But right in the middle of that moment, before it happened, I was filled with anxiety and fear that I just hadn’t just committed career suicide … I probably shunned myself from everyone.”
Looking back, Shaya said he has no regrets about his decision, buoyed by the support of family, friends and colleagues inside and outside the hockey community.
“I’m much more at peace with myself in my personal life than I’ve ever been,” he said. “I only have one goal left to achieve and that is to become 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.”