AHL announcer Shaya comes out as gay, hopes to help others

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Jason Shaya hadn’t slept for a week. He was full of nerves, full of worries, about revealing the truth about himself to the world. That came Wednesday when Shaya, the play-by-play voice of the Utica of the American Hockey League, came out as gay in a story on the TSN website.

“I’ve just been waking up after a couple hours and just staying up all night,” Shaya said Wednesday afternoon. “The mental anguish that I went through — when you conceal something for as long as you do from most people, it’s really, really scary to then just go — in one fell swoop — ‘I’m going to let everybody in on the news.’

“It’s daunting, it’s overwhelming, and you’re also totally uncertain of how people will react to it.”

The 40-year-old had contemplated making the decision for a while, watching as others in the sports and hockey worlds came out, including player agent Bayne Pettinger, NFL player Carl Nassib and NHL prospect Luke Prokop. On July 19, Prokop became the first player under contract to an NHL team to come out. 

“My motive was twofold: to just be who I am. That’s No. 1,” Shaya said. “But No. 2 is I felt I had to do it in the manner in which I did it because I owed it to the next person. I think there’s a real sense of duty to do that in a way that somebody can look at it and go, ‘All right, I’m going to do it now.’

“And that happened because of other people before me.”

He had a conversation with Pettinger at one point, with the agent telling him, “You’re crazy not to do it. It’ll be better for yourself, better for your well-being. I wish I would have done it five years ago.”

That helped. So did Prokop’s decision. So did a conversation last week with NHL senior director of player safety Patrick Burke, who co-founded You Can Play in 2012, and whose brother, Brendan, came out in 2009 as a manager of the Miami University (Ohio) hockey team. 

“Because Luke was so prominent — the first player, he’s a draft pick — and to see the support that he got, I was really in awe of it,” Shaya said of Prokop, a 19-year-old defenseman who was selected by the Predators in the third round (No. 73) of the 2020 NHL Draft. “I was in awe because I was so happy for that kid. Thank God. In hindsight I’m thinking, of course people would be supportive. But you don’t know that.”

Shaya has always been a fan of hockey, played goalie growing up and in practice for some of the teams for which he’s announced. He dreamed of becoming a play-by-play voice for an NHL team, something that came true when he filled in for John Forslund on Carolina Hurricanes broadcasts while employed by Charlotte of the AHL. He made his NHL debut in November of 2017. 

Shaya, hired Jan. 20 by Utica, the New Jersey Devils’ AHL affiliate, has been in the business since 2005, when he got a job working for Motor City of the United Hockey League. He has watched attitudes change and acceptance grow, though he fears whether the decision to come out could hamper him in reaching his dream of a full-time NHL play-by-play job.

Which was partly why there was trepidation when the initial TSN story went up at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday. 

“I always knew that there was going to be a change from 10:30 in the morning on this day,” Shaya said. “For the rest of my life, it would never look like the way it was before that. And it throws off your equilibrium and the way that you see the world and the way that people will perceive you.”

But the rest of the day?

“The rest of the day was actually a phenomenal experience,” he said. “It’s been an incredible outpouring of support. I can’t tell you how many people reached out to me to say, ‘If you need anything, I’m here to support you.’ It’s overwhelming.”

And he knows that maybe, just maybe, his story will help with the next story. That his decision might make it just a little bit easier for the next person.

“If it helps anybody, that’s really the whole point now going forward,” Shaya said. “If I can help somebody, I’m going to help somebody.”

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