It was 2019, and Diane Dandurand couldn’t sleep. She knew something was troubling her teenage son, Yanic Duplessis. They were about as close as a parent and child could be. Sixteen years earlier, he was born six and a half weeks premature, and Diane always felt a bit more maternal or protective than your average mom. She knew Yanic so well that she could always detect even the slightest change in his mood. He wasn’t himself. He insisted he was fine, but her heart told her otherwise. He was typically such a happy kid.
Yanic grew up in Saint-Antoine, N.B.. He was a charismatic leader who made friends easily and seemed to be good at everything. Diane and her husband, Andre, would marvel when he’d tell them he was taking up baseball, then volleyball, then…javelin? Yep. He was big and strong at a young age, and he was competing against older kids at the Acadian Games, placing first in javelin. After conquering one activity, he’d think of something new, try it, and excel. One day, he came home from school with a permission slip for a chess competition. His parents didn’t even know he played.
Naturally, growing up where he did, his raw athleticism drew him to hockey, too. As his mom remembers it, he was crawling with a mini stick in his hand before he walked. Once he walked, it didn’t take long before he was skating, then rollerblading, and he was blazingly fast.
He was good at a lot of things, but hockey was where he really stood out relative to his peers, especially as he got older. A rugged right winger, he was tough to muscle off the puck at a stout 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds by his mid-teens, and he started filling the net. He knew he wasn’t an ordinary player.
“In peewee, I was scoring a lot of goals per game, and once checking was involved and it started getting very physical, I’m a big guy, so that brought a lot to the game for me,” he said.
Gradually, Yanic’s focus began shifting more toward his hockey future, and 2018-19 was a big year. He was eligible for the QMJHL draft. If he seemed slightly more stressed than normal that season, it wouldn’t have sounded alarm bells for his parents. But what Yanic was experiencing was so much more than draft-year jitters.
He was gay. He’d known it for several years. By the time he starting playing hockey at the bantam level, he started to become nervous about it. He never sensed overt prejudice toward homosexuality in his teams’ dressing rooms, but he noticed a lot of casually homophobic language, like saying “This is gay” to express dislike for anything. It was commonplace, even among his close friends. He wondered how he’d be treated if he was out.
“There’s a lot of thoughts that go through your head,” Yanic said. “I wasn’t sure the guys would feel comfortable with me in the room.”
He held his anxiety in, and it started to manifest itself in different ways. No one knew he was gay, but his body was practically crying out to tell someone. He began to vomit before games. He caught whooping cough. He struggled to sleep. He was experiencing panic attacks, and he repeatedly had to get picked up from school early.
“I had many red flags,” Diane said. “ ‘This isn’t right, and this isn’t my son. Something is going on. Is he depressed? Is he very anxious?’ Obviously something is not right.”
The worry only worsened when, during a report card meeting, a math teacher said Yanic was distracted, anxious, not himself, constantly dreaming in class. The easy answer was that he was feeling overwhelmed with hockey in his draft year, that it was performance anxiety, but Diane didn’t really believe that. She called the vice-principal at his school, crying, explaining she was losing her son and asking if anyone there could talk with him, hoping he’d tell that person whatever he didn’t want to tell his parents. She couldn’t let go of the idea he had something significant weighing on him. That feeling came to a head when, one day, he called from school with more urgency than normal in his voice. He told her she had to pick him up immediately. She told him she would – on the condition he open up and let her help him. She couldn’t stand to see him suffer any further and, since his father had sustained a heart attack months earlier, she didn’t want Yanic to think his behavior was the cause of anything.
They sat together in the car.
“I said, ‘What’s going on?’ ” Diane said. “He said, ‘Guess.’ ”
“I said, ‘OK. Are you tired of hockey?’ ”
“Is it school? Is it too much pressure?”
“Nope, no it’s not that.”
“Are you gay?”
“Is it your father?”
“I named four things. You’re going to have to help me out there.”
“You said it.”
Suddenly, Diane knew.
“OK,” she said. “You’re gay.”
Yanic held her hand and began to cry.
“It’s OK,” she said. “It’s OK.”
Diane wasn’t the first person Yanic told. He knew the moment was approaching in which he’d come out to his family, so he’d done a dry run with his close friend, Xavier Melanson, a few months earlier. It went well. Melanson was extremely supportive and was even a hockey teammate. It gave Yanic confidence that he could someday be out in the hockey community, and it gave him the push to tell his parents and his brother and sister.
Their reaction was shock – not in negative way, just shock in that it was still a big change.
“You kind of see the person in a whole different way, you know?” Yanic said. “It was something new, but they reassured me they still loved me for sure.”
They shared the burden of Yanic’s secret together throughout that school year. Home was the one place he knew he could be himself, and he’d unload emotionally once he was back home within the walls of the Duplessis house. His parents began to educate themselves on the LGBTQ community and searched for support groups on Facebook. They would read but not join any groups because Yanic feared being outed.
But this summer, the timing finally felt right. The Duplessis family worked with a writer and QMJHL scout named Craig Eagles, who’d caught wind of Yanic being outed and let them know he’d tell Yanic’s story whenever he was ready. They worked together and published a piece on Yanic’s terms Sept. 7, 2020. His life changed forever on the spot. The reactions were instant. There was some hate sent his way, and the initial shock of it hurt badly, Yanic said. But the support drastically outweighed the attacks. The Duplessis family was staggered by the outpour of encouragement.
“There was a bunch of people sending us messages in our inbox on Facebook, people that we didn’t even know,” Diane said. “The support… I cried from 9:15 in the morning until 11:00 at night. They were happy tears, and we were (saying goodbye to) all the tears we cried of sadness, of seeing him and being powerless to helping him. “
Yanic received a crush of messages, not just from friends or people admiring his courage, but from other closeted gay athletes seeking help. He recognized the opportunity to use his story as something that could inspire. He was ready for it well in advance.
“I always told myself that when I came out. I would do something to help others who are going through the same thing as me, because it was a struggle,” Yanic said. “I wanted to help make a difference. So when everything got out, I said, ‘Well, all my family and friends know, so the people that I know love and support me, so I’ll try to make a difference.”
Even at 17, Yanic has become an instant role model as the first openly gay QMJHL prospect. He has inspired people in the same situation he was in. He has the support of his friends and family. But what about the hockey community? The culture is among the most homophobic and conformist of any sport. It was never a guarantee that Yanic would be welcomed.
So far, he’s happy with the feedback he’s received. The Drummondville Voltigeurs selected him to the ‘Q’ in the ninth round of the 2019 draft, and their GM Philippe Boucher has reached out to the Duplessis family to let them know Yanic is welcome at camp. Yanic, however, isn’t ready to test the tolerance level of major junior just yet. He’s sticking with his high-school team now. He feels safe and welcome there.
“They have been nothing but good to me since I came out – it’s unreal,” Yanic said. “I wasn’t really sure if I was going to be playing hockey because I got outed. But most of my teammates, pretty much all of them, well, most of them, still want me on the team.”
It’s a work in progress, of course. Though his generation is more accepting than previous ones, he’s still a victim of online hate speech, and even his close friends sometimes accidentally subject him to microaggressive language with baked-in homophobia. He calls them on it. He tries not to get angry. He knows it comes from a place of ignorance rather than malice in their case.
“I already tell my friends pretty much everyday,” he said. “ ‘It is a habit,’ I say. ‘Don’t feel bad. I know you guys support me.’ But I just want them to make an effort. Because if you don’t change anything, we’ll never reach a point where (being gay) won’t even be a thing. We have made it a long way, and we still have a long way to go. “
So Yanic enters his next hockey season out and proud, albeit it’s too soon to know how or if it’ll happen thanks to COVID-19. Is all the attention a lot for a 17-year-old at times? Sure, but he feels ready for it, even if he has to step away once in a while and put his phone away for a few hours. He’s embracing his status as an icon. He’s determined to effect change.
“You just bring whoever you want home: it should be like that,” he said. “It shouldn’t be a thing. That’s what I’m trying to say. You don’t see a straight guy say, ‘I’m straight. I’m coming out. I’m straight.’ ”