On a Tuesday night in the NHL, in hockey’s Mecca, Toronto, Canada, events beyond the game became the central focus of the game rather than two Eastern conference giants facing off, in a battle that could be a fore-runner to a second round playoff match up. All that went out the window, when the broadcasters mics picked up a clear ethical off-side: a player had yelled a nasty homophobic slur at the ref, and it’s clearly caught and Toronto Maple Leafs and potential Norris trophy candidate, Morgan Rielly skated by.
Hear it for yourself, around the 6 second mark, the phrase “fu**ing fa**ot” can be heard screamed by someone on the ice.
Now since then, the league has investigated and Morgan Rielly and the Toronto GM, Kyle Dubas, have come out with statements vehemently denying using the slur. alongside the leagues findings that he did not utter the slur. So, Rielly, you’re safe, you’re off the hook and your stellar reputation is still in tact. You can see from the worry on his face that this was a scary accusation to have thrown your way, especially when it goes viral on social media. When he should be worrying about the 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, instead he stressed that there would be a witch hunt for him, and so waited to make an official statement until the league investigated using their channels and could clear his name.
This obviously raises a different question though, I’m happy that Morgan Rielly didn’t utter a homophobic or racial slur on the ice, but clearly someone did. It could have been another player or a fan who was close to the boards, but the main issue that arises here is that it was used at all in a moment to expression frustration at a public spectacle where everyone should feel welcome.
The NHL had made great strides in the last few years to make sure everyone can attend and can play, regardless of race, creed or sexuality. The NHL’s You Can Play Project is a stellar example of what major sports leagues need to do when it comes to becoming inclusive and promoting the rights of everyone to play and enjoy hockey. It’s exactly why this site exists, to make sure all voices are heard and everyone has a place to fit in while enjoying the best sport in the world, hockey!
But sports are also a microcosm of the real world, and we can’t escape the bigotry that exists outside the rink because as you can clearly hear, it finds it way in. It’s much better than it used to be when the ice was like a jungle and anything went to get the two points for your team. Luckily in 2019, there is more sensitivity to this kind of behavior and it’s dealt with right away but it’s not eradicated. Stupidity prevails. I’m happy this blew up into a huge news story, because it should. No one should be called a fa**ot, let alone players who need to remember they are role models for millions of children continent wide.
It’s not the first time it’s happened either. In 2016 Chicago Blackhawk, Andrew Shaw was caught using the slur. He was suspended one game in the 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues and fined $5,000 for directing an inappropriate gesture at an on-ice official. On camera you can see that Shaw did both after being called for roughing with around two minutes remaining in regulation. He also underwent sensitivity training, but did it help?
The NHL and You Can Play, in 2017 named an LGBTQ-inclusion ambassador on every team, and you guessed it, Andrew Shaw, now of the Montreal Canadiens got the nod. That move left many bewildered since only a year before Shaw was suspended for using a gay slur during a game. It makes you think how serious the inclusion message is in hockey and how deep support for LGBTQ people really is in NHL locker rooms.
In 2017, once again a prominent player was caught using the slur shamelessly, when in 2017 Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks in the playoffs Game 4, against the Nashville Predators, shouted a sexist and homophobic slur towards a referee. The NHL fined Getzlaf $10,000, the maximum amount allowed under the CBA, for using “inappropriately demeaning and disrespectful” language. Getzlaf’s apology fell short, and it reveals a deeper issue of how language is used among players.
Getzlaf’s apology boils down to something we’ve heard so many times before from athletes who have a hard time understanding that certain words have very volatile meanings beyond just their interpretation or off the cuff use. Getzlaf’s shallow apology, and the NHL’s poor decision not to suspend him a game because it’s the playoffs, revealed that process is slow, and the league has even taken step backwards. But the fast reaction to this week’s controversy surrounding Morgan Rielly has also shown that today, we took a step forward. And for the LGBTQ+ community and everyone who’s ever faced discrimination, it’s definitely something worth cheering for.