Normally, such an exclamation would direct shock and horror at the utterer. “You can’t use ‘gay’ as a pejorative, it’s offensive”, as the saying goes. However, when that utterer is himself gay, as is the case with openly homosexual defenceman Lars Frolik of the Chicago Blackhawks, it all makes sense.
“Look at it,” continued Frolik, as he was watching “Modern Family”, which contains a family run by two homosexual males. “They’re reinforcing so many homosexual stereotypes it’s not even funny. It’s like the show’s creators thought that just by having a gay family they’d be trailblazers. I’m sorry, but when the characters are sad caricatures, they set things back.”
Strong words from a player who is seen as an icon in the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgendered (LGBT) community. Unlike other professional athletes, such as John Salley, Frolik didn’t wait until his pro career was finished to reveal his sexuality, coming out at the tender age of 13 and playing as an openly homosexual athlete throughout. This despite playing his high school hockey in California- where the acceptance of the LGBT community there has always been uneasy with administrators- but Frolik, who credits his own father with the strength to “be who I am”, hopes his strength will strengthen the LGBT community as a whole and anyone else who is having trouble “coming out”.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Frolik of his decision to be openly gay from an early age, “but I knew, deep down inside, if I couldn’t be myself life held no meaning. That’s my message to others who are fighting their own sexuality- don’t hide yourself. You’re only doing yourself a disservice, and if anyone hates you for it, that’s their loss, not yours. Your real friends and family will love you no matter who you are.”
Now the blonde haired, blue eyed Frolik stands as a confident, imposing force at 6’6”, 236 lbs. His model-like good looks and affable demeanour off the ice belie an authoritative, tough as nails competitor on the ice that steadfastly guards his net like a giant guarding a cave in Greek mythology, all while possessing a shot that’s deadly in its accuracy that makes him a threat at both ends of the ice. Feared on the ice and loved off it, Frolik is at the height of his powers, after a long, difficult journey that would test the best of us. It’s a life of struggles that few would want to experience, but it’s a life that teaches us the power of determination.
THE story of Frolik begins with his birth in pre-Roman Czechoslovakia on December 11, 1986 to Joseph and Maria Frolik. Joseph played hockey in his youth but a knee injury forced him to quit the game in his amateur days, and picked up work in construction, eventually leading to a lucrative career in condominium design that took him to North Carolina in 1988. Three years later, when the United States of America spectacularly collapsed under the weight of its Cold War expenditures (as did the Soviet Union), Joseph and Maria got caught in the new political reality, as the formation of the Carolinian Empire later that year led to an xenophobic government. Thus, the Froliks felt they had no choice but to move to California, which had become independent. Although order in North America was somewhat restored by the North American Union in 1993- a largely economic union led by Rome and Britain that had two “sub-regions” that largely covered the old territories of Canada and the U.S. (though the Canadian region gained Ohio)- the Froliks still worried about their future, and it was under this cloud that Lars began his hockey career at the tender age of six.
Lars started his career in his new hometown of Riverside, California, 34 miles northeast of what would eventually become The Pond in Anaheim. From an early age, Lars’ skills were evident, as in short order he would move up from simple house leagues to playing against players who were years older than him. He had a hard time making friends, though, as the pressures of hockey would get to him at such an early age. The following October, things changed in a big way.
A PIVOTAL point in young Lars’ life came during the night of October 1, 1993. That night, Lars met someone who would later become one of his best friends- future movie actress Polly Klaas. Klaas, at the time, was bound and gagged in the car of Richard Allen Davis, who had kidnapped her just hours earlier and had to figure out what to do with her. As he was driving up the Pacific Highway, his car had a flat tire forcing him to stop at the side of the road. Joseph, driving home from Lars’ first state-wide hockey tournament in San Jose, was the first car to spot Davis after he had parked, so Joseph, as was his nature, offered to lend a hand.
“Right from the start,” recalled Lars, “something didn’t feel right. I remember my dad exiting our car and telling me it was only going to be a few minutes. Then, suddenly, I remember my dad coming back to the car, told me to ‘get down’, and using the car phone to call the police, explaining that he thought he heard a little girl trapped in the trunk of the car he was assisting. Minutes later, the police come, arrest the man Joseph was assisting and then we drive off with the girl who was in the trunk. It was very surreal.”
Details would later emerge that the younger Frolik would understand later. Joseph first thought something was strange when he saw something moving inside a duffel bag Davis had in his trunk, later hearing Klaas’ muffled screams through the bag. Joseph also noted that Davis didn’t have a spare tire, which he found odd, leading him to call the police concerning his discoveries. Although he was a picture of calmness through the ordeal, Joseph later revealed that he was scared for his life and that of Lars through the entire episode. He was surprised that Davis didn’t think anything of the fact Joseph had to go back to his car to use his car phone, nor of the fact that the police arrived on the scene. “Davis seemed to think the cops were there for his flat tire,” Joseph later recalled. “It didn’t occur to him that the police don’t show up for flat tires unless there’s an accident.”
The bizarre moments only got crazier.
When the police fished Klaas from the duffel bag, they immediately asked Joseph to call her parents to return her to her house. However, Klaas surprised everyone when she pleaded with Joseph to go with him and not to return to her household. When asked why, Klaas sternly stated that after the episode, she couldn’t trust her parents to protect her anymore. The police reluctantly agreed to let Klaas go with Joseph and notified the elder Klaases of Polly’s decision. The result was over a year of custody battles between the Froliks and the Klaases that eventually led to Joseph’s victory in the North American Supreme Court. From that point, Polly Klaas became a surrogate sister to Lars, who was at that time an only child, and the two became the best of friends.
“Polly was my rock right from day one,” explained Lars. “She immediately took to me and she let her inner child out. People thought it was weird that a 12-year-old girl would do things that a seven-year-old boy would love but I think it was her way of dealing with the stress of her situation. I can’t imagine what she was going through at the time, nor would I wish it upon anyone.
“Bottom line is, we helped each other get through the stresses of our situation. All the problems I had with hockey went away with the support I received from Polly, and all the stresses she went through were helped by my support. I restored her faith in humanity by showing her that there are good, honest people in this world.”
One thing Lars hated having to answer were people who contend Klaas “made him gay”. “Oh please,” stammered Lars, “Polly had nothing to do with my homosexuality. If anything, she became a real tomboy, so there was no way she could confuse me about my gender role. In fact, she had a boyfriend at a really young age. There was nothing to confuse me at all.”
Despite her ordeal, Joseph recalls that he never had any problems with Klaas, outside of the normal issues one has with a pre-teen girl. He does recall that Polly became fascinated with morbidity, developed a Gothic look and became sexually active at a young age, which he did have to talk to her about.
“Polly wasn’t a problem child,” Joseph recalled, “she just decided to deal with her post-traumatic stress in an inward fashion. We always kept tabs on it because I needed to make sure that she didn’t take things too far. When Maria discovered that she had sex at such a young age, we realized that we needed to step in, but we didn’t talk down to her. We told her that we understood that Davis made her feel ‘disposable’, but she shouldn’t look at herself that way. Davis wasn’t normal by any stretch, and that most guys are normal and respectful; and if she wanted any of them, she had to respect herself.”
“The year after I encountered Davis was the worst in my life,” recounted Klaas in a 2010 interview. “Nothing seemed to make sense…everything I had come to know came crashing down. I was fortunate I entered into the arms of the Froliks because they set my life back in order…they were very open-minded and cared for me like no one ever did. That’s what helped me get back to normal- knowing the Froliks were very understanding.”
It took Klaas eight years before she would speak to her parents again, but eventually she did make up with them. Over the years, Klaas would maintain that her time with the Froliks was her favourite in her life, and she still counts Joseph and Maria as her parents. In 2001, at 20, Klaas immortalized her experience- and her experiences with the Froliks- on the big screen in her first major movie role, Petaluma Polly. Klaas played herself- even as a 12-year-old girl- with Jeff Bridges playing Davis, Frankie Muniz- who parlayed the role into the role of Malcolm in Malcolm in the Middle- playing Lars, Emilio Estevez playing Joseph and Melanie Griffiths playing Maria. The movie became notable for the scene where Davis raped Klaas, which, at Klaas’ request, was realistic and raw. Petaluma Polly earned $328 million worldwide launching Klaas’ movie career.
SHORTLY after Klaas moved in, Lars’ hockey career took off. Finally having a friend to confide in allowed him to better handle the stresses of hockey and he improved in spades. At the age of nine, on May 12, 1996, Lars signed his first professional contract, entering the youth academy of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Within a year, Lars was playing on the AAA youth team, the highest level of hockey available to him, and dominating.
“We thought he was unreal,” said then Ducks General Manager Jack Ferreira. “Here was a kid putting up 100-point seasons before he was 10, and displaying a defensive presence well beyond his years. Lars was a smart kid. We knew he would be a future star.”
It was at this age that Lars decided on becoming a defenceman. “I knew all about the glory forwards would get,” said Lars. “However, I became really good friends with our goaltender, Corey Crawford, and I took it upon myself to protect him personally. So it was just natural that I became a defenceman.”
Lars transitioned nicely to the role of defence, leading North American youth in plus/minus every year until his graduation to the pro ranks in 2004 and leading all North American youth defencemen in scoring in 1998 and 2002. By the time he was 18, Lars was regarded as the best defensive prospect since Bobby Orr. The sky seemed to be the limit, but clouds set in early on in his development.
LARS didn’t recall exactly the first moment he thought he was gay, but, looking back, he says it was an incident in January of 1999- when he was 12- that got things in motion.
“I had seen Corey many times with nothing on,” recalls Lars, “but one day, after a really contentious game, I saw Corey naked and thought he was attractive. I was so confused.”
Over the next few weeks, Lars wrestled with whether or not to tell Crawford about the incident. He confided with Joseph first about what happened, which led to even more confusion.
“I remember at first thinking, ‘Lars, my son? Gay?’ It couldn’t be,” said Joseph. “My wife and I were repulsed by the thought, so we thought of putting Lars in reparative therapy. It was Polly that set us straight.”
“Lars confided to me that he thought a player on his team was attractive,” recalls Klaas. “He told me he was ashamed and confused…he thought that if he told his father he would disown him. I told him that there was nothing wrong with it. I remembered what Joseph had told me, that we should all accept ourselves for who we are. I said to Lars if that’s who you are, then that’s who you are.
“I later said that to Joseph and Maria. I told them that they couldn’t tell me to respect myself if they couldn’t respect their own son. So they soon became very supportive of Lars.”
Lars still didn’t tell Crawford or his team about what happened, but Joseph said he would be supportive of him no matter what he did. After Lars’ play declined in the following weeks, he felt he had no choice but to tell Crawford.
“I didn’t want to believe it at first,” said Crawford. “At the time I was going through my own issues and trying to understand the changes I was going through with puberty. I felt weird that I started liking girls, so imagine what I felt when Lars told me he thought I was attractive.
“At first, I wanted to clock him. Then I had a talk with my mother, who told me that Lars is my friend and that I should be supportive of him while politely telling him that I didn’t share his attraction. So Lars and I had a talk and I told him everything my mother had told me. The relief in Lars’ eyes is something I’ll never forget.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing from that point, however. Crawford and Lars kept the incident a secret, but over the course of the year Lars soon realized that he was, in fact, gay. On his 13th birthday, Lars decided he had to come out to his team. Although, to a man, the Ducks’ youth team was supportive of Lars, including head coach Randy Ladouceur, the organization didn’t share the same feelings, and some players on Lars’ own team weren’t sure they were comfortable knowing that Lars was gay. It led to some of the boys’ parents to lobby the team to drop Lars from the team.
“It had gotten crazy,” said Lars. “They seemed to think I was going to come on to every one of them. They had no idea that I thought and felt like other normal people- I was just attracted to my own gender as opposed to the opposite sex. I mean, everyone knows a heterosexual man doesn’t jump on every woman he sees- by extension, they should also know a homosexual man doesn’t jump on every man he sees. I’m still human- I still have self-control. They didn’t understand that.”
The story soon found itself in the press, leading to a strange news conference on January 24, 2000. There, Lars, flanked by his parents, Klaas, Crawford and leading psychiatrist Dr. John Radler, announced that he was gay. Radler later spoke to quell a lot of the misconceptions regarding Lars’ sexuality, stating unequivocally that he was still a normal kid and that his sexuality wouldn’t make him a lewd character. Crawford came to the defence of his teammate, urging his team, the organization and their fans to accept Lars since Lars has given his all to the team and should command respect. It was the words of his mother that struck a chord the most.
“He is my son. He has hurt nobody,” started Maria Frolik. “He just has a few differences from other people on his team. Deep down inside, we are all parents. Just how we are all taught to accept the differences in our own children and teach our children the same, it’s time we accepted Lars for who he is. You would do the same if it was your own child.”
THE conference stemmed the tide a little, but not permanently. Though his teammates came to accept him, the Ducks organization was still hesitant, as were the officials governing in California. Although at the time the law banning homosexuality was rarely enforced, senior officials- right up to Californian Emperor Arnold Schwarzenegger- thought the commotion in Anaheim was serious enough to invoke the law. Despite many protests in support of Frolik in the greater Los Angeles area, nothing could stop Schwarzenegger from drafting a law forbidding open homosexuals from public service, which included Lars as he played hockey to an audience. More howls of protests, led by Klaas and her new friends in Hollywood, would soon follow, forcing Schwarzenegger to back down from his plans, but it still didn’t make Lars’ life any easier.
“I heard all the taunts. Heard all the slurs. Eventually those didn’t bother me,” said Lars, who said his skills as a fighter and his drive to bulk up were a result of having to defend himself against the taunts. “What did bother me was the trouble myself and my family had to go through to get things done. Team officials kept on inventing rules, such as forcing me to dress in a separate dressing room, meant to make participation on the team difficult, and government officials gave my parents a hard time when they needed to do things even as mundane as getting their licenses renewed. We knew we had to fight through it, since acquiescing meant ‘they’ would win, but it was tough.”
The breaking point came after a game on November 3, 2000. During the game, a 3-2 loss at home against the youth team of the San Diego Gulls, Gull forward Jason Maris beat Lars’ defensive partner Greg Cullen to get a clear shot on Crawford’s goal. Lars was late in assisting Cullen, allowing Maris to deke out Crawford and score what would eventually be the game winner. Cullen then told Lars, “if you weren’t a pansy f**, you would have been able to help me out.” Both Crawford and Lars approached Cullen with the intent to fight him before forward Mark Ripko stepped in and stopped the fight. The team managed to finish the game without incident, but the Ducks took it as a sign that they had to make a move for the better of their team. Pierre Gauthier, who became Ducks General Manager in 1998, formally asked Lars for permission to trade him (which, under the rules of the continent’s governing body, the North American Hockey Association (NAHA), he had to do as players cannot be traded before their 16th birthday). Lars granted permission to be traded, but only if Crawford could go with him, which Gauthier agreed to. He then started to look for a trading partner.
It took Gauthier two weeks to find a team willing to talk trade, since, despite Lars’ obvious skills and potential, teams didn’t want to deal with the controversy that would come with Lars. Once he did find a team that did offer a deal Gauthier found they were far from offering fair value for his player. Lars wouldn’t allow the trade talk affect his play, finding himself in second in defencemen scoring as 2000 wore to a close. Finally, the Chicago Blackhawks, mired in a disappointing season and needing a spark, inquired about Lars, and started serious trade talks with Gauthier at the beginning of December.
Eventually, the ‘Hawks and the Ducks agreed to a deal, with Steve Sullivan and three mid-level academy products going to Anaheim in exchange for Lars, Crawford and Ducks first team player Marty McInnis. The deal was formally approved by the NAHA on December 17, 2000, six days after Lars had turned 14. When Lars heard the news he was ecstatic, relieved to be free of the onerous Ducks organization. The Froliks were also relieved to be rid of Californian officials, and moving to a state- Illinois- known for its liberal values made their lives, and by extension Lars’ life, easier. They decided to have a second child in 2001, giving birth to a son, Jan, on November 9, 2001. Klaas, though, wouldn’t join the Froliks in their move to Chicago, opting to stay in California to further her movie career, though she would visit them often and Lars was her date for the premiere of Petaluma Polly.
THE move to Chicago didn’t come without its difficulties. Although Illinois was known for its liberal values and, as a whole, the state and its people were mostly supportive and/or indifferent towards Frolik’s sexuality, it still generated some protests from conservative fringe groups. Eventually, those died down, though they have been known to pop up from time to time. The Blackhawks, as an organization, were unanimous in their support of the move.
“As far as we were concerned,” said General Manager Mike Smith said, “we only cared if he would help our hockey team on the ice. We couldn’t care less about his sexuality. We also wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t think- long term- that his presence would cause problems in the dressing room. We knew he had outstanding character and that eventually the guys would start to like him, like his teammates did in Anaheim. It was a hockey move, plain and simple.”
Smith’s words were put to the test almost immediately. Eric Daze, the team’s star forward, spoke out against the move, saying he was “uncomfortable” sharing dressing room space with a man who “could be attracted to me.” Defenceman Steve Poapst, slated to be a mentor to Frolik in the coming seasons, echoed the same sentiment. Enforcer Ryan VandenBussche cited his religious beliefs in opposing the move, saying he could not “morally support a teammate who so deviates from Scripture like Frolik does.”
In the press, Frolik said he took the comments in stride and wasn’t fazed by them, but in private, he took the news hard.
“I knew how to pull a front after having the experiences in Anaheim, but it didn’t make it easier,” said Frolik. “There were many times I came home and cried. Hearing that my new teammates didn’t want me had a profound effect- it was already scary having to move halfway across the continent into a place where you knew nobody, and while in school and elsewhere off the rink I didn’t encounter too many issues, on the rink was what mattered and, after leaving one team already, I felt there wasn’t a team that would let me play for them, so it hurt.”
Frolik told Smith in private about the damage the comments made, so Smith arranged for Frolik to meet the team three weeks after he officially moved to Chicago. He took to the ice during the morning skate of the Blackhawks’ game before the Toronto Maple Leafs on January 8, 2001. As soon as he stepped on the ice, VandenBussche, one of the most feared fighters in the game, challenged Frolik to a fight.
“I remember most of the team laughing and giggling when they saw me,” said Frolik. “They wanted to humiliate me and hoped it would drive me away from the team. However, I knew that if I wanted to be a part of the East Cup, I had to earn my keep. My father didn’t raise me to be a quitter, so, despite being very afraid of Ryan, I didn’t hesitate to drop the gloves.”
The result was a thorough thrashing that left many of the Blackhawks flabbergasted. Frolik emerged victorious, VandenBussche a bloody mess having to peel himself- and his jersey- off the ice in a trail of shame. Frolik then dared another player to step forward. Chris McAlpine was next, and Frolik pummelled him too. Then the whole team proceeded towards him starting a brawl before the coaching staff came racing out on to the ice to break up the fight.
From that point on the Blackhawks to a man accepted Frolik into their ranks, with the players apologizing for their remarks to Frolik. “We saw how tough he really was,” said Daze later that day, “so we accepted him. We had a lot of misconceptions about him because he was gay, and meeting him put a lot of those to rest.”
The incident is cited as one of the reasons why Blackhawk coach Alpo Suhonen was fired from his job months later. Suhonen brought Frolik to the ice that day and decided to leave him to grab a coffee, instead of sticking around to see if the meeting would turn out okay. Though Frolik cites the brawl as a key turning point in his acceptance into the Blackhawk ranks, he said he felt Suhonen could have handled the situation far better. “He should have seen it coming,” said Frolik. “That he didn’t try to protect me said a lot.”
Though his teammates grew to accept him, the press had a field day with the incident. Some writers started to question if Frolik was the right fit for the team, noting that this wasn’t the first time he had gotten involved in an altercation with teammates. “While you appreciate the passion and resolve that Frolik brings to the table,” wrote David Shale for popular Blackhawk fanzine Powwow Sports, “I just can’t help but think this guy is a detriment to the team. He’s been in two fights already with members of his own team at such a young age, which says a lot about his character. You want guys who will fight for the team, not against it.”
Frolik responded just once to the criticism. “Yes, it’d be nice if I didn’t have these fights,” said Frolik a day after Shale’s comments were published on January 10, 2001. “However, face the kind of discrimination and issues that I had to face and you see where I’m coming from. With everyone attacking you, you can’t be passive- you have to be able to stand up for yourself. Once they saw that they couldn’t mess with me they accepted me.”
OVER the next few years, Lars Frolik would continue his dominance of the youth levels, prompting several calls to promote him to the senior ranks for when he became eligible on his 16th birthday. The Blackhawks were hesitant to do so, since his 16th birthday fell in mid-season and they did not feel it would have been right to throw Frolik “into the fire” without being first initiated during the preseason. They also realized that Frolik, being the first openly gay player in major hockey history, would debut to much fanfare and that, the ‘Hawks figured, was better to deal with at the beginning of the season than in mid-season. Thus, instead of making his pro debut in 2002 as he could have, Frolik would wait until the 2003-04 campaign to be properly brought into the senior ranks.
Frolik made his eagerly-awaited debut in the East Cup on September 30, 2003, in a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Normally, a youth player of his stature would garner a lot of media interest simply because he was already a “star in the making”, but Frolik’s status as a gay hockey player caused even more of a stir. “Not only was I expected to be a star for my team and its fans,” noted Frolik, “I had to be a star for the gay community as well. It was a heck of a burden to carry.”
The first major hurdle Chicago had to face in Frolik’s first season came from the Nashville Predators, who announced they would refuse to allow Frolik to play in their arena, the ironically named Gaylord Entertainment Complex. The reason stemmed from a Carolinian law that banned homosexuality, with Carolinian officials stating that they would arrest Frolik on sight. The Blackhawks responded by insisting that the Predators forfeit those games to them, stating that Frolik was a member of their team and that either the whole team plays or none at all. Nashville said in response that Chicago’s declaration meant that they were the ones who were forfeiting, since the Predators never said that they would not play whereas the Blackhawks said otherwise.
The situation dogged the league for weeks, and, with the first Blackhawk visit to Nashville scheduled for November 9 of that year, there wasn’t a lot of time to resolve the issue. Eastern officials met with Carolina officials in an attempt to get a deal done that would allow Frolik to play, but Carolinian officials would not budge. The league then declared that if the Predators would not allow Frolik to play, then they would be forced to forfeit the game, since the Predators are not allowed to dictate another team’s lineup. The Predators, with Carolinian backing, announced they were willing to take the matter all the way to the North American Supreme Court. The East was truly in a bind, since it could not override the laws of another country, even if they put the Blackhawks at an unfair disadvantage. They, like Chicago, were prepared to fight for Frolik in court, though they still hoped for a diplomatic resolution.
Finally, on November 3, less than a week before the scheduled contest, the East, the Blackhawks, the Predators and Carolinian Emperor Chase Miller reached an agreement allowing Frolik to dress for the game. The agreement stated that, as long as Frolik does not “engage in homosexual activities” and “comports himself like a heterosexual man”, he would be allowed entry into Carolinian territory to play the hockey game. Miller stated that, despite the ban on homosexuality, the Empire cannot force its laws on someone who does not live in their country, and that technically, as long as Frolik isn’t “outwardly” homosexual, he would not be committing any crime. “As far as we’re concerned,” said Miller at the press conference, “since Lars is clean in our books there is nothing we can do, nor should do. We cannot punish him if he did not commit a crime on our soil.”
The game went as scheduled without much incident, though it was greeted with protesters. Frolik would score twice though it wouldn’t be enough, with Nashville prevailing 6-2. In the years that followed, the Blackhawks decided they would only fly in to Nashville the night before the game and arrange to fly out immediately after the game to minimize the amount of time spent in Carolinian territory. However, despite the political wrangling, Frolik did not have many negative things to say about the Carolinian people themselves. “They may not agree with who I am as a person,” said Frolik, “but they respected me as a person. None of them would have wanted anything to do with me, but they decided that if I didn’t make their life difficult, they wouldn’t make my life difficult, so I didn’t have too many problems in Nashville.”
Nashville wouldn’t be the only place where Frolik would encounter homophobia, as he faced protests everywhere he went, though the protests differed in intensity in each city. The Evangelical Christians of Florida, who banded together under the banner of the “Evangelical Christian Association of Florida” (ECA) led by Creation Science Evangelism founder Kent Hovind, organized intense protests every time he visited the Tampa Bay Lightning. The protests featured what was purported to be live “reparative therapy sessions” with gay men being “repaired”. The sessions were later revealed to be just a show featuring actors, and the “real” sessions offered during the game did not actually “repair” anyone. Frolik himself even attended a seminar- to much fanfare- and promptly made out with a male spectator as soon as he left the session, which he later described “a joke”. Despite the fraud revelation, the sessions were still well received until they ended with Hovind’s incarceration for tax evasion in January 2007.
The East Cup took the backlash as an opportunity for education, commissioning several public service advertisements for release in the 2008-09 season. Without wading into the deeper waters of LGBT politics- such as taking a position on gay marriage- the PSAs preached respect and dignity for members of the LGBT community, noting “they are people too”. Frolik himself appeared in a few ads, and while the mainstream media praised the East for taking up the fight for acceptance, Frolik and many in the LGBT community were not impressed by the ads.
“They basically took the approach of, ‘Let’s hope this works’ and left it at that,” said Frolik. “They didn’t make a lot of effort to really address the issues, instead making some hamfisted videos talking to the public and the players as a mother would talk to their child.”
Frolik then mimicked a mother’s voice before continuing, “Now kids…play nice or else I’ll tell your dad!” He then rolled his eyes and continued in his own voice, his anger rising, “There’s still a lot of work to do. Homophobia is still very real in the hockey world. While my own team has done a lot to further a culture of respect- the team suspends anyone that utters a derogatory term, including homophobic slurs, in any capacity- the rest of the league is still very far behind. Dressing rooms are still filled with slurs of all kinds, and the old tired ‘joke’ of playing into a man’s fear of homosexuality is widespread. They can claim it’s all in good fun but it’s denigrating. I’m sorry, but how am I supposed to feel when a player cracks that the team should be ‘afraid’ of another player because ‘they’re gay’? Does that mean they should be afraid of me because I actually am gay? This is ridiculous.”
Frolik didn’t offer much hope that this culture will change any time soon. “You can change the laws,” he said matter-of-factly, “but you can’t change the attitudes. Homophobia has been entrenched in locker room joking for years, it won’t go away overnight. That’s why I won’t stop working until I do get rid of it.”
FROLIK showed flashes of the brilliance he would later bring during his first season. The two goals in Nashville would be the only two he would score all year, but he would finish with a respectable 10 points and a +5. By the end of the season, Frolik would be paired with Carlos Fernandez, another 16-year-old who graduated to the Blackhawk ranks with Frolik in 2003-04. The two would eventually become inseparable on and off the ice. “I became his wingman,” Frolik explained. “He was a good looking guy and always did well with the women, and since women were drawn to me because I’m gay, I helped him a lot.”
Fernandez and Frolik had an instant chemistry and their careers took off. In their second seasons, Frolik jumped to 7 goals and 15 points whereas Fernandez hit the 20-point barrier with a 21-point effort. Fernandez established himself as the passer and offensive quarterback, while the bigger Frolik established himself as the shooter and the defensive specialist, though both could play the other side of the game just as well. Eventually the tandem became the league’s top unit, combining for 75 points in 2006-07 and averaging 77 points together from 2007-08 to last season.
“We just have this knack of where the other one is going to be at all times,” said Fernandez. “It’s at the point where I don’t need to look to pass the puck perfectly to Lars- I know he will receive it. That blind pass has worked many times to give Lars the space he needs to unload his shot, which is a real beauty.”
The first time the partnership gained prominence was in a game against the Buffalo Sabres on December 14, 2006. The Sabres entered the game in their customary position of first overall, having lost only twice all season to that point against 20 wins and three ties. They also entered the game having not lost to Chicago since 2002. The game would also be played at the Aud, where the ‘Hawks had yet to post a single victory, so the Blackhawks had their work cut out for them.
“It was our first game against Buffalo,” recalled Frolik. “We both were having good seasons to that point, but nobody really noticed it because we were the Blackhawks and we weren’t that good. So if we wanted to make a statement we had to perform against Buffalo; and we did.”
Frolik scored a hat trick in the game to go alongside four assists and 20 hits, with Fernandez adding a pair of goals and five assists in what would be a 7-5 Chicago victory. The game winning goal would come off Frolik’s stick midway through the third, with Fernandez using his patented blind pass.
“Carlos gained the zone by carrying the puck, like he usually does,” said Frolik. “Then he lifted his stick as if to shoot the puck at the net, and, all in one motion, kicked the puck with his right skate right to me. I just laid into it and buried it. Ryan Miller didn’t stand a chance.”
The win, unfortunately, was a rare highlight in a customarily tough season for the Blackhawks. Since losing the East Cup Final to the Leafs in 2002, Chicago never once hit the .500 mark and has averaged 25 points since Frolik made the jump to the big team. The primary reason for the Blackhawks’ misfortune is the fact they never did acquire adequate depth on defence or compliments anywhere else on the ice. Chicago has yet to play in the new Stanley Cup League (SCL), the only team other than the hilariously inept Pittsburgh Penguins to be shut out, which has led to the Blackhawks becoming a laughingstock in the league.
“It’s frustrating, yeah,” said Frolik. “You don’t play this game to lose, you play it for a chance at the Stanley Cup; but there’s nothing for Carlos and I to do but play. We could sit and sulk or incessantly demand a trade, but that creates more problems and makes it just about us instead of the team. When we came up the ‘Hawks were rebuilding…they still are. Things take time, and we’re both still young enough to have some patience with the process.”
As the ‘Hawks tried to figure out how to succeed at the East Cup level, Frolik was going through his own learning curve. Although he possessed smarts and instincts beyond his years, he had trouble in his youth adjusting to the East Cup game.
“I used to always think, ‘commentators are sure stupid to think that rookies need to *adjust* to the game at a higher level. I mean, it’s not like I never laced up a skate before,’” said Frolik, “and while some of the talk is pretty condescending, the truth was I did need to adjust. The game always came easy to me, so I didn’t work any harder than I did before making the jump to the Blackhawks, and I got schooled. Players make fewer mistakes at the professional level, and, though I understood that going in, it was hard to know how to deal with it until you actually did. This is because it forces you to rethink the game to account for stuff you were used to seeing that you don’t see anymore.”
One of Frolik’s bigger challenges was adjusting to the speed of the game. As a bigger player, he was always going to have issues with footspeed and had to account for that- “I wasn’t going to outrun anyone for the puck”, he cracked- but once he got to the East Cup, he realized he need to relearn his entire positional game, for two reasons.
“One, the players don’t make as many mistakes and you have to account for that,” repeated Frolik. “You’re used to the puck being in one place in the past but now it appears in a different place, plus players aren’t afraid to use any opening they can get, because now they can hit them. So you have to be smarter with your own body positioning and your moves, because even the littlest of openings can get you burned.
“The other part is that the East has a lot of guys who are big that can move,” continued Frolik. “I had to learn to use my size in a greater context than just in a ‘I’m going to overpower you’ kind of sense. You’re just not going to push Joe Thornton out of the way- he’ll just skate by you and knock you down for good measure, so I had to pay greater attention to where I was in relation to not just the puck but the player as well. The East forced me to develop a more complete game, and I’m happy it did.”
“When he first came up in the league,” said current Blackhawks head coach Jesper Ridgeway, previously a Chicago assistant, “Lars made a lot of mistakes that were typical for rookies. I knew he had the smarts to play the game, because he hardly made the same mistake twice. However he wasn’t used to the East Cup player so there were a lot of new things he had to learn. He was used to being the biggest and best player in the league so the players he faced didn’t know the tricks he knew, but Eastern players did, and that was his biggest challenge. To his credit, though, he learned quickly, and look how far he’s come.”
NOW Lars Frolik is arguably one of the most dominant defencemen in the hockey world. He won the Norris Trophy in 2012 as well as the East Cup’s Best Defenceman Award. He also received considerable consideration for the Hart but Chicago’s status as an also-ran derailed that bid. In addition to the accolades he celebrated a far more important occasion.
“It’s my three year anniversary with Adam later this week,” said Frolik, his face beaming with excitement. “I can’t say what we’re going to do, though- it’s a surprise, but it will be fun.”
Frolik is referring to Adam Courchesne, the owner of the successful “Chicago Pizzaville” chain of restaurants. The two met in 2007 when Frolik happened to be in the CP restaurant that he owned, and the two of them hit it off instantly.
“He and I both had a lot of things in common- he loves Issac Asimov’s books as much as I do, he’s a Harley enthusiast like I am and he’s addicted to spelunking. I still can’t get him into Emeril Lagasse’s recipes, but we’re so meant for each other. I couldn’t be happier.”
Frolik and Courchesne have stated they intend to marry, but, considering most of the world still does not approve of homosexual marriages- including in Nashville, which arrests anyone known to be homosexually married- they will wait to exchange vows. “It’s sad, really,” laments Frolik. “We’re two consenting adults that love each other- where are we hurting other people? I don’t understand people sometimes.”
It raised an interesting scenario with their home situation. They’ve moved in together in to a house in Lincoln Park, but, because of the fear of legal complications, have declined to register themselves as “married” and have asked not to be counted as a common law couple. “For all people know, we’re just two friends who live together,” said Frolik, “and, unfortunately, we need that ruse for me to continue my career. This is why we need to fight to get things changed, because this is madness.”
Still, the couple refuse to let all that dull the happiness they share. Frolik shows me pictures of their backpacking trip to the Himalayas this past summer, as well as a fishing trip to the Maldives. “I’m telling you, there’s no better escape than that tropical breeze flowing through your hair like your lover’s soft hands. I love hockey and I love winter, but even that gets tiring after a while.”
Has Adam met Frolik’s parents yet? “Oh yes, and they thought he was charming,” said Frolik, beaming even more with every word. “I’m so glad they accepted him into my life, that meant the world to me.”
He also explained that his teammates were playful upon learning of Adam. “They pried for details like they do with the other guys’ girlfriends,” said Frolik, “and a couple of them joked that I ‘must be the girl’ in the relationship.” He then grinned, “they can ask, but I won’t answer. A man kisses but he never tells.”
A sign of the happiness that Frolik has achieved, one fully deserved.