CALGARY – At the height of his career with the New Jersey Devils, Ken Daneyko went through a very public and very difficult battle with alcoholism. When he returned from treatment midway through the 1997-98 season, some of his opponents were merciless. Under the guise of trying to gain an edge, they were personal and they were cruel in their on-ice comments. Looking back, Daneyko doesn’t harbor any ill feelings for them, knowing it was simply a part of the hockey culture back then.
Thankfully, it isn’t anymore. “Back then, nobody thought anything of it,” said Daneyko, a television analyst for the Devils. “We always said, ‘Don’t cross the line,’ and for us, that was things like family. But now, everything crosses the line, which is understandable.”
News that the NHL had investigated Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly for the use of a homophobic slur toward a referee in a game Monday night makes it crystal clear the culture of the game has changed for the better. It turned out the whole thing was a misunderstanding, but the fact the NHL took the situation as seriously as it did indicated a tectonic shift in attitudes in the game. There were times not long ago, when the homophobic slur Rielly was alleged to have used was used countless times in games without reprisal and excused as just a word used in the heat of the battle, but the shift has been swift, decisive and seismic. Say what you want about the shortcomings of the NHL, but it has walked the walk when it comes to being inclusive. The league has been at the forefront of inclusion with programs such as Hockey is for Everyone and, along with other hockey organizations, adopting a Declaration or Principles, the eighth of which is: All hockey programs should provide a safe, positive and inclusive environment for players and families regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation and socio-economic status. Simply put, hockey is for everyone.
Devils veterans Andy Greene and Travis Zajac said that word isn’t even used in dressing rooms anymore, something that is backed up by Devils coach Jon Hynes. “I think if you actually acted that way, guys wouldn’t have respect for you,” Hynes said. “Whether it was a coach or a player, guys would be like, ‘Did he really say that?’ ”
Kelly Hrudey’s NHL career ended more than two decades ago and he played at a time when using homophobic slurs were even more common than fights. The fact that we see them so infrequently now indicates how much the game has changed over the years. In fact, Hrudey looks back at the way players used to talk to each other on the ice and the vernacular used in the dressing room and he’s a little embarrassed for his generation of players. “All of us truly understand it’s wrong,” said Hrudey, a television analyst for the Calgary Flames. “We shouldn’t be tolerant of that and it’s ridiculous it was ever part of the game. I’m really happy that our game has made changes, and quickly. You look back and you say, ‘Did we really say that?’ How shameful.”
It does make trash-talking opponents a little more difficult, but on the flip side it forces players to be a little more creative as well. Flames captain Mark Giordano said the organization has gone to great lengths to make sure its players are socially aware and that their words and actions have power. “You have to be aware of your choice of words out there,” Giordano said. “We’re on a big stage out there and we have to be aware of it.”
One of the things that has aided the transition is that the league is trending younger than ever in terms of players. And many of those players have grown up and played in a culture where sexual orientation is not near the polarizing issue it was. They’re also playing minor hockey in associations that don’t tolerate that type of language and punish it harshly. So by the time they get to the NHL, they’re far more socially aware and conditioned to use other language. That’s in stark contrast to players from previous generations who grew up with that vernacular, basically from the time they started playing hockey. “I really think you have to credit the players here,” Hynes said. “The players in the league are worldly now. They understand what’s going on in society and they’re big parts of it. There are always things that we’re promoting as players and coaches in the league and it’s nice to see that it’s not just lip service. It has a lot to do with the quality of people who are involved in the game at this level.”
One of those people is Zajac, a thoughtful 33-year-old veteran who has seen the transformation in the game. Like most other players, he’s totally on board with the league coming down hard on players who use racial or homophobic slurs. “It’s not that anyone necessarily meant any harm by it and it was a word you would just say and get away with it, but now you can’t,” Zajac said. “It’s good. The more love in the world, the better. I just think there’s too many bad things that happen in the world and we have to create a culture and everyone has to feel part of it and respected and loved.”