First, the facts. The NHL investigated Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly’s alleged homophobic slur, uttered during Monday’s home game at Scotiabank Arena. The league’s official finding, coming from senior executive vice-president of hockey operations Colin Campbell, read as follows:
“Following a thorough investigation, the National Hockey League has determined that Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly did not direct a homophobic slur at referee Brad Meier during last night’s game with the Tampa Bay Lightning at Scotiabank Arena. League officials reviewed several of the participants in the game – including Rielly and Meier – and reviewed audio of the alleged incident. All those interviewed adamantly denied that Rielly uttered a slur and the audio supported their statements. The National Hockey League does not tolerate language or gestures that disparage anyone based upon their race, creed or sexual orientation and continues to work to ensure that our games are played in a welcoming atmosphere for all of our players, coaches, officials and fans.”
Rielly and Leafs GM Kyle Dubas addressed media following the verdict Tuesday afternoon and stressed again the idea Rielly would never use a homophobic slur.
“I’ve known Morgan now for five years, and this is a cause he’s supported socially throughout his time here,” Dubas told reporters. “A few weeks ago he had gone to our community department and asked to be formally involved in the Pride Parade in Toronto this upcoming June.”
We can accept the verdict as the truth – or we can choose to believe there merely wasn’t sufficient evidence to condemn Rielly, that he and the league dodged a bullet. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. What the incident in Monday’s game taught us is that the use of homophobic language in hockey transcends just one offender or instance, whether this one came from Rielly or someone else in attendance at Scotiabank Arena or if the noises we heard deceived our ears. The biggest takeaways came from the public reaction to the incident, a lot of which was bigoted (check out some of the ugly replies to this tweet). That highlighted how far the sport still has to go to cure homophobia.
Brock McGillis, a former OHLer who went on to play pro, become the first professional hockey player to come out as gay in 2016. He’s a public speaker and widely admired advocate for the LGBTQ community, someone people look to as a leader when it comes to promoting equality in the sport. Naturally, his phone blew up Monday night with people wanting to know his views on the Rielly incident.
“I go around and I speak to hockey teams, I speak at schools, and everywhere I go, I ask, ‘Who has used homophobic language?’ and I’ve never gone anywhere where there was less than 85 percent of people with their hand up,” McGillis said. “So the reality is, it’s in the culture. In Canada, hockey has a major influence on our culture, and because of that, the language used there trickles into mainstream society.”
From what McGillis has been told by many people in the past 24 hours, Rielly is a stand-up guy, not the type of person who would’ve used a homophobic slur, and McGillis calls Dubas and Leafs president Shanahan “progressive, inclusive people.” But the discussion goes beyond Rielly. The way McGillis sees it now: it doesn’t make sense to focus on Rielly. This issue is far bigger than him.
“These players are products of an environment, they’re products of a culture, and they’ve been hearing the same comments since they were seven years old,” McGillis said. “Well, guess what? In a moment of rage or anger, whether he said it or not, that’s a go-to. Same thing with Ryan Getzlaf a couple years ago and with Kevin Pillar in baseball. These are go-tos because it’s been something they’ve been hearing their entire lives. How can we vilify somebody for being a product of culture when, instead of that, we should put our energy toward shifting the culture as a whole? It’s not going to be done with putting tape on a stick solely or having a pride night. It has to be education and humanizing the issues for both major-league players and youth alike.”
To McGillis, the key to eradicating homophobia in hockey is a two-pronged approach, not from the grassroots-up or the NHL down – but both. Having a new generation born into an era of acceptance can only happen if the older generation, the people they look up to, buy into the cause as well. Hockey is a bubble for any competitive-level team from peewee to the pros. Players, coaches and management have an enormous influence on each other’s social views.
“These kids are constantly around one another at the minor-hockey level – they’re at the rink five or six times a week, they’re there four to five hours a day, from getting ready to practice to getting changed afterwards,” McGillis said. “Because they travel so much, their friends become their teammates, and that’s who they hang out with constantly, so they copy one another’s language. And the kids above them, whether it’s major junior players, or older AAA players, they’re kind of their idols. In the same regard as they idolize NHL players, they idolize major junior players, they idolize the star players two years older than them. So they’re copying what they say.
“So to only tackle (homophobia at) the bottom…it’s not going to lead to the results unless we’re having the conversations and educating and humanizing the issue from both sides and targeting both sides. That’s when we will live in a time when we see minor hockey players come out as gay, and then go through a system where they don’t feel like quitting, and they don’t want to kill themselves, and they continue through the sport, and they progress to the major leagues.”
Instead of focusing on who said what, we can use the Rielly incident as a reminder that, regardless of what happened Monday, these things are being said constantly in hockey. Team pride programs and the NHL’s Hockey is For Everyone campaign represent great progress, but hockey has a long way to go. The changes have to start with deeper education on how the sport’s culture influences players’ behavior.