Kurtis Gabriel is a professional hockey player who has taken the privilege of having this platform to a new level. His advocacy for LGTBQ+ issues, anti-racism and other equity initiatives is the foundation of his life as a professional athlete. Outspoken, reflective and committed to continuous learning, Kurtis has never backed down from a challenge, on or off the ice.
Kurtis sat down in the barber chair to discuss the importance of Movember, losing a parent, mental health, masculinity and using his platform as a voice.
What does Movember mean to you? What connection do you have to Movember’s cause areas?
Movember’s cause areas all mean a lot to me, but especially prostate cancer and men’s mental health and suicide prevention. My grandfather is a prostate cancer survivor. My father struggled with his own mental health which led him to develop a gambling addiction and ultimately make the decision to take his own life. I have seen many people struggle with mental health, and believe we all struggle in our own way. I am convinced mental health issues affect every person on this planet in some way shape or form, as well as cancer.
Losing a parent at such a young age is heart-breaking and would turn anyone’s life upside down. How has that impacted you and your perception of mental health? How did you learn to cope with it?
Losing my father at only ten years old was definitely a big challenge. It took away the enjoyment I had for the game I loved, hockey. I lost a lot of confidence and it definitely shaped me both positively and negatively into who I am today. What does not kill you makes you stronger though and I fought back by internalizing the pain of my father’s death. I thought, “he did not want to be around to see me become who I was gonna become” and instead used that pain and grief to fuel me - in hockey especially. I was driven to get to the highest level of the sport. Even though I know now that this coping mechanism wasn’t the healthiest, it was how I personally coped. However, the biggest coping mechanism was my amazing Mum who became both ‘Mum & Dad’. She was with my brother and I every step of the way and gave us absolutely everything a parent could give to their children. Love ya Mummy. It was not until later - after the great work done by organizations like Movember to educate and de-stigmatize mental health - that I realized my father had been sick, not weak. He needed treatment just like anybody else with a disease. This totally changed my perception of what happened. I no longer felt like I needed to prove anything to him. I only wish - if he had to go through what he went through - that he could have experienced his struggle during a time when mental health was more openly discussed. It’s this idea that inspires me to speak out about these prevalent issues.
What kind of coping mechanisms have you integrated into your self-care regime over the last few years that allow you to be in a healthy mental space?
Without a doubt, the best and most important coping mechanism for me has been the great relationships I have with my family and friends. From my Mum and girlfriend to my brother and my buddies, to everyone else I meet in my life. I try to be as open as I can be and foster safe spaces where those around me feel they can speak up and are comfortable talking. Some other coping mechanisms that have worked for me are being physically active, eating predominantly well, sleeping well, continuing to try meditation (although it has not become a habit yet) and recognizing that I don’t know everything. A growth mindset is so important. You will never be perfect; there will always be down times. You just have to accept that and keep on trying to grow.
You’ve spoken previously about masculinity in hockey culture, how do you think typical views of masculinity impact the locker room and it’s players?
Being vulnerable has always been seen as something men don’t (or shouldn’t) display. It is all about being unflappable, calculatedly strong, unflinchingly aggressive. That mindset stops people and players from talking about how they feel, instead fearing it will impact their reputation and career. That said, I have started to see a shift happening in hockey over the past couple seasons. When mental health issues have come up, not only are guys much more educated and accepting of them but players are coming forward to get help from the team, leaning on their teammates and the organization. Vulnerability is increasingly being recognized and seen as the strength that it is.
Knowing what you know now and the experiences you went through, what advice would you give to your younger self?
If I had to give myself one piece of advice it would be to just double down on being yourself and know that everything is going to be alright. Life has a funny way of working out, maybe not the way you expected it to, but it works out if you focus on being yourself. I definitely doubted that at times.
Why was is it important for you as a white cis male to use your platform to speak out about inequality and provide a voice to underrepresented communities?
Quite simply, because we are the oppressors. The group I am a part of causes a lot of the issues. I don’t need to be lost in white guilt, feel bad about it or ashamed of who I am. But we as white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied men can just realize what has transpired, educate ourselves on it, and learn to help make the world better for the future generations. Together, we can be on the right side of history going forward.