Sean Avery has carved out a place as an NHL legend in large part for his unnatural ability to lure on-ice opponents into flying off the handle and committing acts they almost immediately regret. History was repeating that pattern again this week - only this time, the act by Avery, the flying-off-the-handle and the quick-onset regret took place off the ice.
The Rangers left winger made headlines for participating in a public service commercial for an equal-marriage rights campaign in New York State. Shortly thereafter, NHL player agent Todd Reynolds decided to respond on his agency’s Twitter account, saying he was “Very sad to read Sean Avery's misguided support of same-gender ‘marriage,’ ” and that, “Legal or not, it will always be wrong.”
In the Twitter world, Reynolds’ comments triggered an instant avalanche of responses. Just about all of them supported Avery’s position and railed heavily against Reynolds and his Uptown Sports Management agency. And I felt the same way. I let Reynolds and the world know exactly how I felt about it.
But after a while, after I saw just how thorough a verbal thrashing Reynolds took, the story for me was no longer about him. It was about what the average hockey fan’s reaction said about the game and the people who consume it like oxygen. It was about a culture that clearly is turning the corner toward full-on modernity when it comes to equality for all.
One barely perceptible step for mankind, one sizeable leap for the hockey community.
Now, don’t take that to mean I see you and all the hockey fans you know as one protruding brow removed from Cro-Magnon man. But let’s be honest with each other. Hockey crowds aren’t famous for always coming up with nuanced, sophisticated reactions to cultural shifts and the evolution of the sport in general.
It’s been less than a decade since a banana was thrown on the ice in front of Kevin Weekes during an NHL game in Montreal. Like Weekes, Trevor Daley, Mike Grier, Donald Brashear, Georges Laraque and other black players have been subject to racist taunts over the years. And when Theo Fleury offered his opinion on the Vancouver Canucks’ playoff chances this spring, the horrible crimes perpetrated against him were used by gutless Twitter weasels as virtual daggers and sunk into his most vulnerable spots.
So with that history still fresh, it was more than a little pleasing to see the masses inform Reynolds as to exactly how hurtful his words were. And it was just as invigorating when the hockey world saw through Reynolds’ attempts to paint himself as the victim for being “brave” enough to take up the cause of exclusionists and separators. I mean, is there anything more hilariously ironic than someone preaching intolerance who turns around and squawks about not being tolerated?
Listen, in my limited dealings with Reynolds, he’s always been a professional and I’m sure he’s done enough good deeds we’ve never heard about to offset the damage he’s done this week. There are rumors out there that Uptown Sports already has lost a player as a client over the Twitter situation and that doesn’t bring me any great pleasure. Reynolds has the right to feel the way he does and live his life as he chooses. But he does not have the right to say what he said and be coddled or celebrated for it.
Indeed, while all of us have the right to free speech, none of us have the right to have our minds and ideas protected like a painting in the Louvre. Public forums such as Twitter are a smash-up-derby of philosophies - and in such a theater there are going to be sacred bumpers torn off, deeply cherished doors bashed in and conceptual catalytic converters crushed.
“The marketplace of ideas is supposed to be a Moroccan bazaar, people elbowing each other and haggling at the top of their lungs,” legendary Boston sportswriter Charles P. Pierce recently told Esquire writer Chris Jones. “It’s not supposed to be an upscale specialty shop on Rodeo Drive.”
In this case, Reynolds showed up at the Moroccan bazaar selling a batch of sour grapes. People at the bazaar tasted them, were sickened by them and let him know they did not appreciate his product. That’s exactly as the process ought to work.
As it is for all of us, time will be the ultimate judge of Reynolds. Statements like the ones he made this week will be heard by future generations as we react today when hearing some stern-looking white American in the 1950s describe, very politely, why segregation made perfect sense to them: with equal parts bafflement and disgust.
For now, at least, any gay players or fans dismayed to see a flare-up of intolerance should take solace in the rapid, forceful way it was extinguished by the grand majority of the hockey world.
We can’t pull everyone into modernity, but we can ensure the unwilling foot-draggers understand they’re being left behind.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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