All Jason Shaya has ever wanted in his life is to be a play-by-play man for a National Hockey League team.
But truth be told, it’s no longer as simple as that.
Because as much as Shaya (pronounced Shy-uh) still aspires to make the NHL in his chosen profession, what he really wants is to be something far greater than that.
That is, to be his true and authentic self. Now, the soon to be 41-year-old, for the first time in his life, is doing exactly that.
“I’m gay,” said Shaya, the Michigan-born play-by-play man who has called a lot of minor professional hockey games and some NHL games over a career that has spanned 15-plus years in the United Hockey League, ECHL and mostly the American Hockey League.
The current play caller for the AHL’s Utica Comets — the New Jersey Devils’ primary affiliate — has spent the better part of the past week coming out, telling the important people in his life that he has been living a lie.
Shaya said he knew from an early age, around 12 or 13, that he was “different.” He called it a strange and confusing time but just pushed those feelings down, never acting on them. As a teenager, he knew he was gay, but he just carried on and has kept on carrying on.
“You conceal it for so long because you think you maybe have a chance to do something [NHL play-by-play] so you just keep going and bury that part of you,” Shaya said last week, when he finally decided to be open about who he is. “But it makes you feel bad. I’m lying to people. Lying to myself. I’ve been living a lie. That’s the problem of being in the closet.
“I still have a hard time even saying the words after 40 years of not saying it. But I am [gay]. It’s who I am, and it’s become more important to me personally than professionally to be open about that now. And whatever happens, professionally or whatever, I’m good, I’m okay with it, because it’s the truth. It’s who I am.”
The early returns of his coming out have been nothing but positive. Immensely gratifying, uplifting and heartening.
“It’s been unbelievable,” Shaya said. “Every person I’ve told has been incredibly supportive. Two things have happened. One, it’s getting a lot easier for me to say, ‘I’m gay.’ Two, every time I tell someone, I feel more liberated. I feel way better about myself and my life.”
There is, however, one person he has yet to tell — his mother, Marlin.
Which might seem perfectly understandable except for the fact Jason knows his mother has been aware of his secret for many years, even though it’s never been spoken between the two.
“My brother has a big mouth,” Jason said, laughing about his older (by 10 months) brother Brandon, who has known Jason’s secret since they were 16 and 17 years old. In fact, Brandon was the first person Jason ever told his secret to.
As teenagers, Brandon suspected Jason might be gay. As older brothers are wont to do, Brandon was badgering Jason, ‘Just say it. You know are, just say it.’ So, on that day, Jason said it.
“[Brandon] just gave me a big hug that day and said, ‘I love you no matter what,’” Jason recounted. “And that was that.”
And until recently — in a handful of select situations in the last year and many more in the past couple of weeks — Jason had never said it again. He just went back to living his life; living his lie, as he called it.
Jason knew his brother shared the secret with some others in the family, including his mom. But all these years later, not once have Jason and his mom ever spoken about it. She knows he’s gay. He knows she knows. And even after coming out to so many people in the past week, Jason still wasn’t sure when or how exactly he’ll say the actual words to his mom.
“Maybe after this article comes out?” Jason said with a nervous laugh. “I get the sweats even thinking about it. It’s going to be an awkward conversation. I know she loves me, and I love her. Our relationship is great, always has been, always will be. Still, I don’t know…it’s hard.”
Telling his sister, Fallon? No problem, he called her this week. Love and support all the way around. Jason’s father, Shafiq, died of cancer in 1997. Jason adored his father, but Shafiq didn’t know his son’s secret when he passed away.
Does Jason wonder now how his dad would have reacted to Jason coming out if he were still alive?
“I do,” Jason said. “I do think about it, and I couldn’t say for sure. My dad was old school, no doubt about that, but he loved me. He was a great father, so I’d like to think he would be good with it.”
As awkward as Jason feels about saying the words out loud to his mom, broaching the subject with his employer was by far his greatest concern, the one that kept him up many nights, the one that was undoubtedly the biggest motivator to remaining closeted for fear it might negatively impact his career.
He only became the Comets’ play-by-play voice last January, on the heels of a 13-year association with the AHL Charlotte Checkers and (at times the NHL Carolina Hurricanes) that ended when he was cut loose in the spring of 2020, during the pandemic. Comets’ team president Robert Esche, the former NHL goaltender, was the one who hired him in Utica.
“Honestly, it took me two or three days to work up the courage to tell Robert I even needed to meet with him,” Shaya said. “I was hyperventilating before we met.”
That meeting took place last Thursday morning.
“So, we were sitting there, and I was having a really tough time getting the words out,” Shaya said. “Robert had no idea why we were there. He thought maybe I was there to quit or maybe tell him my mom was sick or something really bad. So, I finally got the words out and he laughed, laughed in a good way, smiled, and he grabbed me and gave me this huge hug and told me, ‘Whatever you need, we’re here for you. I’m on Team Jason and we’ve all got your back here in this building.’ Robert was fantastic. It was overwhelming.”
And just like that, with a big bear hug from Esche, the most deep-seated fear that caused Shaya so many sleepless nights was squeezed right out of him. It was exhilarating and liberating, just the way coming out is supposed to be.
Shaya also made a point in the past week to tell some of his other hockey friends who have come to mean a lot to him.
That includes current Pittsburgh Penguins’ assistant coach Mike Vellucci, who was the Charlotte head coach for two seasons starting in 2017. The two Michiganders hit it off extremely well and maintained their friendship even after Vellucci left Carolina/Charlotte to coach Pittsburgh’s farm team in Wilkes-Barre in 2019-20.
Shaya visited Vellucci in Michigan this past summer, they smoked cigars and got caught up, but it wasn’t until last week Shaya was prepared to tell his friend he’s gay.
“It caught me off guard,” Vellucci said while en route to the NHL season opener between Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. “I never knew [he was gay], don’t care either, in the sense it doesn’t change anything with our friendship. When you get a call like that, my first thought is, what do I say or do to make him feel comfortable and supported? So, I just assured him he’s loved, he’s a dear friend and we’re all here for him.
“Jason is such a great guy. He’s like a member of my family. Such a good person and he’s a phenomenal play-by-play guy, too.”
Shaya also reached out to Edmonton Oiler forward Warren Foegele, who spent the 2017-18 season in Charlotte with Shaya calling his games. And when Foegele was called up to play his first NHL game in Carolina, it was Shaya calling the game on TV for the Canes. He got to call his friend’s first NHL goal in Foegele’s first game.
“From his first day there, we just seemed to hit it off,” Shaya said. “He was only in Charlotte for one season but even after he went to Carolina [NHL], we kept in contact. We would talk a lot, about hockey, about politics, about life.”
But never about Shaya’s sexual orientation. Until this past week, that is.
“It takes a lot of courage to do what he did,” Foegele said this week from Edmonton. “I just told him I’m here for him and I’m super happy and super proud of him. I can’t even imagine how he felt for so many years, not able to be himself. Jason doing this now will maybe help other people, too.”
Shaya’s family is from Iraq.
His parents met and were married there. Then they emigrated from Iraq to the United States, settling in Detroit, where they raised their three American-born kids. A lot of Marlin’s family emigrated from Iraq to Canada. So young Jason living in Hockeytown and having Canadian relatives was bound to have an impact on him. He was destined to love hockey.
“My dad was a massive Red Wings’ fan,” Jason said. “He was the reason I love the sport so much. He was the greatest man I ever knew. I grew up listening to Bob Cole [Hockey Night in Canada] and Gary Thorne [ESPN]. Those are the two [play-by-play] men who remain most influential to my call.”
Jason played a bit of hockey as a kid, but the reality was the family couldn’t afford to keep him in the sport. He played goal and he loved it. In his later teen years and into his 20s, he got himself some goalie equipment and went back to play when he could for fun.
In 2005, he got his first hockey job, working for the Motor City Mechanics, based out of Fraser, Mich., in the infamous United Hockey League, or the U-Haul as some called it. The next year he ended up with the utterly forgettable one-year wonder Chicago Hounds UHL franchise. The recently released Netflix hit documentary on the UHL’s Danbury Trashers has been getting a lot of attention, which makes Jason snicker.
“People ask me if I’ve seen it,” he said with a laugh. “See it? I kinda lived it.”
In 2007, he moved up a rung on the minor pro ladder, joining the Charlotte of the ECHL. In 2010, the Checkers left the ECHL to play in the AHL. He became firmly ensconced as the voice of the AHL Checkers and was just one step away from his dream job of calling games in the NHL, which he finally achieved as a part time fill-in for the NHL Hurricanes.
When John Forslund, the voice of the Canes, had national TV assignments, Shaya would fill in to do Carolina’s TV games. He made his NHL television debut in November of 2017 in Toronto. The Canes lost 8-1 but Shaya calls it “the greatest moment of my career.”
In 2019, he called Dougie Hamilton’s regular-season game-winning overtime goal, which remains “the most memorable call of my career.” It’s a call that’s been used in an NHL promotional commercial.
Shaya’s journey through the minor pro ranks of hockey allowed him to often strap on the pads and be a practice goalie. All 5-foot-6 of him. In 2005-06, Motor City Mechanic goalie Rod Branch played all 72 games that season so he didn’t practise much. Jason would tend the net in practice. That’s where his practice goalie career was launched.
“Every team I’ve called games for has given me the privilege of practising with incredible players, some of whom have gone on to play in the NHL,” Shaya said. I backed up a lot of games in the UHL and ECHL and even an AHL game, too, when Mike [Vellucci] asked me to do it.”
He’s still looking for that full-time gig as an NHL play-by-play man. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever get it – he turns 41 on Nov. 3 – but he certainly doesn’t lack the confidence to do it. “Honestly, I think I call a helluva game,” he said. “I know I can do it. If it does, I’m ready. If it doesn’t, if it’s passed me by, so be it.”
Shaya didn’t just wake up last week and decide to come out as gay.
It’s been something of a process, but it wouldn’t have happened at all if Jason didn’t think hockey culture was changing for the better.
“I feel the culture has changed,” Shaya said. “The old guard is either gone or going. The AHL has become a much younger league. There were no Pride Nights when I started, that’s for sure. I couldn’t have done this [come out] in 2010. I think of some of the [veteran minor pro] players back then, some of them were, uh, not very good people.”
In the last year, there have been three moments that spurred Shaya to seriously consider coming out and ultimately paved the way for him to do so.
The first was in November of 2020, when hockey player agent Bayne Pettinger, who works for CAA, came out as gay. Shaya saw how warmly Pettinger was welcomed by so many in the pro hockey community. Jason reached out to Bayne after that to seek his guidance and counsel.
“Bayne’s announcement was a real inflection point for me,” Jason said. “I was able to talk to Bayne, who was on the other side of where I wanted to get to. He basically said, ‘the water is fine, you can jump right in.’ I heard what he said, I wanted to believe it, but I said to myself, ‘I’m different.’ No, I’m not actually different but that’s what you tell yourself when you’re running away from something.”
Another notable point was last June when Carl Nassib became the first active openly gay NFL player. On the occasion of that news, Shaya emailed a hockey journalist he knew to ask the question, “What do you think the reaction would be if a minor pro play-by-play man were to come out?”
He was admitting to someone who didn’t know he was gay that he was, in fact, gay. But he didn’t have to say the words. More importantly, he was weighing whether he was ready to take the same plunge as Pettinger and if pro hockey was ready for an openly gay play-by-play man. He wasn’t there yet but the walls were beginning to crumble.
And then this past summer, Shaya called Patrick Burke, who works in the NHL Player Safety Department. Patrick’s brother, Brendan, then a student manager of the Miami University men's hockey team, came out in 2009.
Brendan was tragically killed in an automobile accident in 2010, but his legacy lives on in the You Can Play program that was founded in 2012, largely inspired by Brendan’s courage and Patrick’s work to ensure a legacy for his brother.
“Patrick was great,” Jason said. “He assured me if I came out [You Can Play and the NHL] would have my back. That means everything to someone in my situation.”
Another valuable resource for Shaya was his good friend and fellow play-by-play man, also named Brendan Burke, who is now the voice of the New York Islanders. Brendan and Jason came up through the low minors together, following the same path. When Jason lost his job in Charlotte, it was Brendan who connected Jason with Esche in Utica.
“I know how Jason felt when he lost his job [in Charlotte] because the same thing happened to me in Peoria,” Burke said. “Jason is too skilled a broadcaster to not be calling games, so I did what I could to help out [in Utica].”
Jason talked to Brendan this past summer as a sounding board on the most critical question, the biggest reservation bar none, for him: “If I come out, do you think it will negatively impact my job/career?”
“Jason reached out and he was really nonchalant about it, like I had known for years [he was gay] when I didn’t know at all,” Brendan said. “There was no grand announcement, ‘I’m gay’ or anything like that. So, I just rolled with it and gave him my thoughts. I remember thinking how sad it is that [Jason] has to worry about whether this will hurt his career, but it’s a question he has to ask. You just never know for sure how anyone will react. I’m so happy for him [that he’s been able to come out].”
But even after seeking the counsel of friends and colleagues in the game, Jason still wasn’t entirely comfortable with the notion of revealing his true self. And then along came 19-year-old Luke Prokop, the Nashville Predator prospect who in July announced he was gay. That was the proverbial turning point for Shaya, the moment when he knew it was not a matter of if he would come out, but when.
“I asked myself, ‘Why does this teenage kid have so much more guts than me?’” Jason said. “I mean, he’s a player on the ice playing the game. He’s an actual NHL prospect. If he could take this huge step in his young life, why not me at age 40?”
A cynic might suggest Shaya’s story, or those like his, is becoming “same old, same old” because there has been a proliferation of these “coming out” stories in pro sports.
The cynic would be dead wrong.
Because in each and every one of these stories, there’s a real human toll that has been exacted on those who are telling them. There’s nothing routine about the angst Shaya has dealt with his entire life and how intensely those feelings get amplified in that moment of truth when he effectively becomes born again into a new life full of uncertainty.
But also, a life with so much more hope for a better, happier future.
He spent decades building a walled fortress to protect his true identity.
Shaya has never been on Facebook or Instagram. He has a Twitter account but only because the teams he’s worked for want him to promote their games. He believes he’s always been a private person by nature but readily concedes he’s had to nurture a protective shell. So how much more outgoing might he have otherwise been if not burdened with a secret life that he couldn’t even live?
“It takes a toll on you,” he said. “It’s like you’re carrying something around with you all the time. It makes you want to be less accessible to people. More introverted. You protect yourself. I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily lonely, but I’m alone a lot.
“It’s hard to meet new people. They could be really nice people and they may have sincere interest in knowing you or knowing about you, so they ask questions. It’s just natural curiosity or being nice but for me, it was frightening. So, you develop a sense of when to avoid those meetings and situations. You can’t answer questions about yourself honestly. If you lie, you might betray who you really are. So, it’s a lot easier to just not meet new people.”
And perhaps now that he’s come out, he’ll be able to go to a New Year’s Eve party again, because the one time he was invited to a team New Year’s Eve party, it didn’t go well.
“Every guy who was at the party was there with a wife or a girlfriend,” he recalled. “When the clock struck midnight, every couple is smooching. I’m literally the only one on my own, just standing there, looking at everyone else kissing. Well, this is awkward. Then they’re looking at me by myself and I can see the look on their faces, ‘Oh, poor Shaya.’ I made the mental note that night — no more New Year’s Eve parties for me.”
There’s a whole new world out there now for Shaya to navigate. A brave, new world.
“It really is a courageous thing that he’s done,” Vellucci said. “To be 40 years old in the line of work that he’s in, well, that takes great courage. I mentioned that quote to Jason, ‘Those who matter don’t mind; those who mind don’t matter.’ He’ll find out who his real friends are.”
And make some new ones as he embarks on a new life as his true self.
Just as Bayne Pettinger and Luke Prokop showed the way for Shaya, he hopes his decision may inspire someone else to live their best life and be themselves.
“I know how lonely [closeted life] is,” he said. “If I can help someone else feeling the same way I did, that would make me very happy.”