When Brock McGillis heard homophobic language used by his teammates, he knew it wasn’t acceptable “locker-room talk.” More than that, it was damaging his self-worth.

McGillis is gay.

For the first half of his life, he never told anyone. His hockey pals didn’t know. His parents didn’t know.

He said by all appearances, he “passed” as a straight man, which allowed him to fit in with the hockey culture. But it also caused him to feel more isolated because he had no one to share his inner turmoil with.

“It was a nightmare: I was constantly depressed, I was suicidal, and I struggled immensely,” he said.

McGillis played semi-pro for teams in the OHL and Europe and he believes his mental health was impacting his hockey career.

“My career derailed quickly and the toil emotionally, physically was more than I would wish upon my worst enemy.”

His life changed when he met Branden Burke, son of the Calgary Flames president. He said Burke encouraged him to come out.

He said when he finally did, he felt liberated.

“You can play sports and be gay. You don’t have to conform to this idea of what an ‘athlete’ is.”

That was more than a decade ago.

McGillis is now 34 and spends his time advocating  to change the way hockey players talk to one another, specifically the use of homophobic language.

“Who you love should be irrelevant to your ability to play a sport. But the problem is the language hasn’t evolved with their thoughts, with their beliefs. So now you have kids leaving the sport because they don’t feel it is a safe space for them.

“There are over 10,000 professional hockey players every year around the world and I’m the only one who’s come out in the sport. So obviously there are deeper rooted issues there.”

McGillis shared his story on Friday in front of a large audience at The Hockey Conference at the University of Alberta.

He hopes to make hockey safer for those struggling with their sexuality and believes Canadians can have a big role to play.

“I think the league, the teams and everyone with the support, can do more. Especially when we’re in Canada where hockey has such a major influence on our culture and we have the opportunity to shift it.”