Tommy Wingels is a local boy who made it big.
In 2008, he was chosen in the sixth round of the NHL draft by the San Jose Sharks. But years before he was playing in front of thousands of fans, Tommy was practicing before school with Coach Rafe Aybar at Centennial Ice Rink in Wilmette.
“Looking back, [that] was one of the first of many sacrifices my parents made for my hockey career,” Tommy says. At the time, “My parents and I had no real interest/intent or dreams to play in the NHL.”
Born in Evanston, Tommy grew up in Wilmette and started his hockey journey with the Wilmette Braves at the tender age of 5.
After graduating from New Trier, Tommy took a year off to play for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders of the U.S. Hockey League. He then went on to play hockey and graduate from Miami University, where younger brother Johnny is now a freshman following in his brother’s skates.
At Miami Tommy met Brendan Burke, a student manager who helped the hockey team with video and other behind-the-scenes work. Brendan eventually shared with the team that he was gay. As the son of then-Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke, coming out was a big deal.
“It would take the bravest of brave to be able to handle the spotlight that would ensue, and Brendan would be that pioneer to change the hockey world,” Tommy says. “Brendan was the same fun-loving, hard-working, driven [guy] that we had become friends with over the past couple years, and this didn’t change a thing.”
Less than a year later, Brendan passed away in a car accident. Brendan’s brother, Patrick, then cofounded the You Can Play Project with a dedication “to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation … You Can Play seeks to challenge the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas by focusing only on an athlete’s skills, work ethic and competitive spirit.”
Patrick asked Tommy to join the advisory board.
“Although we really had no idea how the world and hockey community would react to such a project, we were moving forward regardless,” Tommy says. “Having had this relationship with Brendan and seeing his bravery and passion for equality in hockey, there was no doubt I was going to do all that I could to help.”
In 2013, Tommy was nominated by his teammates for the NHL’s King Clancy Memorial Trophy, which the NHL says is awarded “to the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community.”
“I was very excited [to be] nominated for the King Clancy Memorial Trophy last year for the sole reason that it brought more attention and publicity to the groundbreaking project that I was a part of,” Tommy says. “The support around the league, from the players, GMs, owners, and fans has been unbelievable. To see how quickly things have progressed and how every team in the league has taken part in a YCP video shows that we are doing something right.
“I think as a professional athlete, we are oftentimes given the ability to influence others, so I found this to be an extraordinary opportunity to do what I think is right. The hope is that one day, hopefully not in the too distant future, there no longer will be the need for such a project.”