Justin Rogers' journey to being out as gay and working in the NHL

Courtesy of the Seattle Kraken

SEATTLE -- "Dear younger JR. Becoming the best you will take time and understanding. That knot in your stomach -- the one that makes you feel confused, isolated, lost in the world -- invisible to everyone but you? It will slowly loosen. You don't even understand the knot, but with time you will learn things about yourself and fulfill dreams so many others like you feel they cannot."

These are the words of an older and more insightful Justin Rogers. This is what Rogers would tell his younger self about how it is OK to fully embrace and understand those feelings at a time when it feels like there is no road map.

Rogers' journey has taken him from his hometown in southern Michigan all the way to the NHL, where he is now an assistant athletic trainer for the Seattle Kraken.

One pivotal moment on that journey came on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day back in 2014. Rogers tried so many times to find the perfect words to convey to his family what he was managing inside. It was on Christmas Eve when he determined he had endured long enough. The book he was reading at the time gave him the inspiration to drive to the grocery store, buy some index cards, write down his feelings and give them to his family members.

He shared the letters with his family on Christmas Day.

What did Rogers tell his parents, three brothers and two sisters-in-law? It's the same thing he wants the NHL and the rest of the world to know: He is gay.

And when it comes to hockey, he is believed to be the first openly gay support staff member on an NHL bench.

Rogers waited nine months after he told his family before telling his two best friends, who accepted him. Nearly eight years passed until Rogers had what he has described as an intentional conversation with someone about being gay. Kraken general manager Ron Francis was that 10th person. Sharing his truth with Francis opened a door for Rogers to feel comfort about being gay in hockey and wanting to share his story in the hopes it can help others.

"I think it was more at that point, he felt that it was kind of time to tell his story," Francis said. "I said, 'Let's figure out how to help you do that.'"

An athletic trainer's work is visible to the outside world only when someone gets injured during the course of a game. But the Kraken's players and everyone else in the organization have either directly experienced or witnessed what makes Rogers so valuable. He's in tune to the nuances of what works for every player when it comes to pregame and postgame workout routines. His caring nature is what allows players to be open with him about their health, which can be a sensitive subject in a sport in which toughness is a form of currency.

"For some guys, it's more than just the treatment," Kraken goaltender Philipp Grubauer said of Rogers. "You can talk to him. He's open to listening. He's obviously a professional and we're down there to work and to get better on the ice. He helps us to get more out of us on the ice, but also, if you have something on your heart, you can talk to him and he listens and gives advice too."

Rogers' decision to publicly come out coincides with a time when the league's relationship with the LGBTQIA+ community appears to be on shaky ground. Although every NHL team held Pride or Hockey Is for Everyone nights last season, there were seven players who decided to not take part in warmups when their teams donned Pride sweaters. There were also teams that decided to not have any players wear the sweaters in warmups after it was initially planned that they would.

In late June, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said that teams will no longer wear specialty sweaters during warmups because it had become "a distraction." Bettman said teams can still have events such as Black History Night or Pride Night. They can also still create specialty sweaters and sell them at auction to raise money for community organizations.

October played witness to how the NHL struggled to gain a firmer grasp on its policies and messaging. It began when the league issued a clarifying memo about previous guidelines for what franchises and players could do this season in relation to special initiatives such as Pride Night. Another detail included in the memo was the NHL's decision to ban Pride Tape on sticks. Arizona Coyotes defenseman Travis Dermott became the first player to defy the Pride Tape ban, and days later, the NHL reversed course by saying players could use Pride Tape in addition to stick tape that supports other social causes.

Rogers' decision to openly speak about his sexuality, his journey and his need to help others inspired the Kraken to come together and deliver a message to Rogers that they hope to also share with others who identify as LGBTQIA+.

It's to tell them they are accepted, loved, respected, supported and should not have to hide who they are anymore.

"I think the most respect you can give a person is that you treat them the exact same way as everyone else. That's how we all feel here," Kraken alternate captain and winger Jordan Eberle said. "I think we've done that with Justin. I wouldn't say we openly talked about his sexuality in the [dressing] room because he wasn't openly open about it, but we all knew. But now that has changed a bit and maybe that makes him feel more comfortable, and maybe events with the team and he can bring whoever he wants and can talk about it more."

"While in high school you will develop a love and passion for athletic training and sports medicine. That, plus being a great-grandchild of one of the first Doctors of Osteopathy, drives you to follow your dreams despite feeling deeply isolated at times. Walking into every team locker room being gay will challenge your fears of acceptance, like it does for so many others in the queer community. You know you are different. But you will discover there is a community within the sports world made up of LGBTQ+ individuals just like yourself."

Everyone back home in Parma, Michigan, a farming community of less than 800 residents, knew Rogers as a high achiever who lettered in three sports and was active in nearly every extracurricular activity. It was more of the same when he enrolled at Michigan State.

Nobody knew about what Rogers was struggling with internally. He felt isolated.

"I got to college, realized a few more things and it really wasn't until grad school that I was able to accept myself and say, 'OK. I am a gay man. I have no idea what that means yet,'" Rogers said. "It still took years after that to get to the point that, 'I'm gay and I'm ready to be out with myself comfortably and telling my family and friends in my life.'"

It was not until Rogers started working as an assistant athletic trainer for the Penn State men's hockey and men's golf programs in 2012 that he even started to consider coming out to people. He said he deliberated for about a year before coming to the conclusion that he not only wanted to come out, but he was actually going to come out.

"That's when I started realizing, 'I am like those people. I can associate with those people and I can also be in this sports world at the same time,'" Rogers said. "It was almost like both worlds were meshing at a fast rate together."

"There will be many signs of acceptance you will pick up on, both during and after your own personal acceptance. Before ever coming out to your first athlete at Penn State there will be moments of general care and curiosity from athletes that will live with you forever. One scene will repeat itself more times than you can count. There will be numerous times that sports television networks discuss LGBTQ+ stories while you are working in an athletic training room full of athletes. It will never cease to amaze you that once one of these stories comes on, the room pauses, going silent with every athlete glued to the TV, watching, learning, soaking in every word. Then, as soon as the TV segment is done, the athletes will go right back to normal rehab routines."

Rogers was a few years into his tenure at Penn State when a freshman who had just scored a goal skated back to the bench after his shift and asked Rogers if he was gay.

"It threw me off. What are you talking about? Why are you asking me this question in the middle of a game after just scoring a goal?" Rogers recalled.

After the game, Rogers spoke with the player, who told him that he was accepting of Rogers being gay.

Rogers, who by that point had come out to his best friends more than a year earlier, shared why the moment resonated with him to this day. He said that player could have gone and told the entire team. But to Rogers' knowledge, he kept what they discussed private.

Rogers' path to joining the Kraken began when he saw they had a job posting on a professional website for athletic trainers in hockey. He applied and was able to interview with the club, which led to him being hired and starting in July 2021 -- months before the franchise played its first game.

"Obviously, when the Kraken became an organization, they came out with their pillars right away," Rogers said. "Myself and a lot of my friends became fans of the organization for those reasons. I feel like I followed them on social media almost immediately because No. 1: They were doing such good work. No. 2: Maybe I'll end up there one day. ... That could be a place that I would really gun to work for and work to get there to be a part of that staff and that organization."

"There will be athletes drafted in Seattle's expansion draft who will do all sorts of research about their new city. One will tell you and everyone around they learned Seattle has one of the biggest LGBTQ+ communities. Another Kraken player will tell you about music he heard from a queer artist at a drag brunch with his girlfriend while on All-Star break. Now you will have a locker room with players and staff who know your sexuality and support you."

Rogers knows that being a member of any marginalized community means having to assess your surroundings to make sure you feel safe and, above all, that you can feel like yourself.

Working for the Kraken gave Rogers that sense of comfort. Anyone who has spent an hour in the Kraken's offices or around the team on a game day will see how the club has cultivated what might be the most diverse and inclusive environment throughout the NHL.

Inclusion, intersectionality and representation are among the Kraken's core tenets. They partnered with Seattle University to create an MBA program designed to diversify sports leadership. Their analytics staff includes people of color and women. They became the first team in NHL history to have an all-Black broadcast duo when radio play-by-play announcer Everett Fitzhugh, who was filling in for John Forslund, called the game alongside color analyst J.T. Brown in 2022. Back in February, the Kraken announced that the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe will be their sweater patch partner, making it the first time in league history that an Indigenous tribe has its logo and name on a sweater.

This was the landscape for Rogers, who decided he wanted to tell Francis, whether the Hockey Hall of Famer already knew it or not.

"I don't think it matters how many times you come out to somebody, there's always a level of nerves," Rogers said. "You don't know how someone is going to react. Ron is the most stand-up, phenomenal person in the world. Ron loves everyone within his community. I had zero doubt he was going to have my back and that it would matter with him."

Francis said the day Rogers walked into his office and told him he was gay, he immediately thanked Rogers for having the confidence and trust in Francis so he could feel comfortable enough to share that with him.

What made it so important for Francis and the Kraken to help Rogers tell his story?

"Everybody that works for us is unique, and in trying to make him feel comfortable and part of the group like he belongs, you want to help him be able to share his uniqueness with other people," Francis said. "I just didn't think it was a big deal for me to step in and help him with that. I felt very appreciative that he had enough trust in me to come and have this discussion."

Francis shared how he's had conversations with friends whose children have come out about their sexuality. Those discussions allowed him to gain a deeper understanding of those who have struggled to feel free to live as their true selves. Francis believes it is important to facilitate those conversations.

"I think people understand there's a lot that we need to learn," Francis said. "You're going to have some really tough conversations. It's not always going to be easy. You might get to the point when you're at an impasse or you don't understand certain things, but I think you still have to work through that. It's what we've tried to do as an organization, which is try to have these conversations."

Helping Rogers tell his story with the hope that it can help others is something that was also important to a number of Kraken players. Reigning Calder Trophy winner Matty Beniers, along with Grubauer and Eberle, welcomed the chance to share what makes Rogers so beloved and respected and discussed the challenges the game has faced over the past year when it comes to acknowledging those in the LGBTQIA+ community.

Beniers drew from his experience attending a Boston-area high school he said was diverse, where he knew people who were openly gay, lesbian and transgender.

"I think that was just completely normalized," Beniers said. "You didn't bat an eye, it didn't change anything. I had lots of classmates who were different sexualities. For me, it was normalized then. I didn't really think about it at all, and in this situation, it was the same thing with JR."

Eberle said he has friends in his life who identify as LGTBQIA+ and said that their sexuality does not change how he feels about them.

"It's the way I was raised," Eberle said. "I have kids and if they identify to be whatever they may be, it doesn't matter to me as long as they are a good human."

Grubauer said his conversation with Rogers was the first serious one he has had with someone who was coming out. He said he believes both the city of Seattle and the Kraken have provided the sort of welcoming environment that can hopefully allow anyone who is struggling with sharing their identity a chance to feel free of that burden.

Eberle explained how even though Rogers had not been open about his sexuality until recently, the team still had an idea that he was gay. Rogers himself said there might have been hints, such as what he posted on his Instagram feed, the fact he'll occasionally wear a rainbow watch band for his Apple Watch or how he has put money on the board for Pride Night.

"If he didn't want to talk about it, then you don't talk about it," Eberle said. "Whatever he does in his personal life is up to him. But he knows my kids, my family, I met his dad on the dads trip. I think the biggest thing for him was he just wanted to become open and make it apparent so he can bring his personal life in more, more than what he's done prior."

Knowing Rogers wanted to be more open, what have the Kraken players done to make sure that their dressing room feels like a welcoming place?

"I don't think there is anything different we have to do because I think we have such a great group of guys that you are so welcomed," Beniers said. "That's not even in the back of our heads."

A Kraken spokesperson told ESPN that the team will continue to host a Pride Night and still plans on creating sweaters for those nights. Those sweaters will be signed by players before being auctioned off to raise money for charity.

What was it like for Rogers to be a member of the LGBTQIA+ community who worked in the NHL last season?

"I think in-season, my main focus was working on the team and getting the players ready," Rogers said. "Pride Nights are cool for the fans, but it doesn't necessarily affect me because I have my community around me. Am I disappointed that we're not wearing a jersey? Sure, but that's 16 minutes of work that the NHL and the teams are doing. I hope now we are able to flip the spotlight from the jerseys to doing the true behind-the-scenes work that hopefully teams are doing."

Beniers, Eberle and Grubauer were asked how they've grappled with the reactions that some in the league had to Pride Night sweaters while also finding a way to make sure Rogers feels supported.

Eberle said they cannot worry about what other organizations do, but they can control what happens with the Kraken. He said the fact Rogers feels comfortable speaking out says a lot about the environment everyone within the Kraken has tried to foster.

"Other organizations can do what they want. Guys can have their own beliefs. I think if you talked to Justin he would say the exact same thing," Eberle said. "We believe in what we do here, and we try to include everyone and make everyone feel comfortable with us so they can come to work and we can be successful. At the end of the day, that's what we're trying to do."