I play hockey about once a week, twice if I'm lucky. It's usually just a pick-up game with some friends, and sometimes other groups join us and we get some pretty legitimate games going. Monday night was one of those instances.
It was a relatively small game, about 10-to-15 of us. We played a solid four-on-four game for a few hours, then called it quits, drank a beer or two while packing up and went home. While we were sitting around chatting, one of the guys mentioned how he had to take off a little early, couldn't stay and have a beer.
Another guy casually remarked, "oh come on you f---ing faggot, what's the rush?"
Stuff like this happens in just about every locker room in just about every hockey-playing locale in North America (and surely beyond). It's routine. I doubt the guy who said it even gave it a second thought.
It's just not a big deal, right? I mean, of the 10 of us who were within earshot, I don't think any of us are gay. Nobody was offended. No harm, no foul.
But what if one of us were gay? Would we even know? And how many times has the exact same scenario played out in a locker room in front of somebody who is gay, but just didn't have the courage to be open about it? These kinds of words aren't helping them find that courage, to be sure.
I'm not proud of it, but I've said things like that in the past. If you play hockey, you likely have, too. That's the idea here: this type of hate is so interlaced within the fabric of the game and, hell, even our broader society, that we can discriminate without even thinking about it, even if we don't mean it. That's the level of acceptance we're dealing with here.
But let's not confuse it. For every case of passive intolerance like this, there's another case of very blatant, obvious, intentional intolerance. Just plain old bigotry. It's not any different than American racism prior to the 1960s, an issue that still isn't fully solved after centuries of fighting.
Most of the hockey world knows the story of Brendan Burke, the manager of the Miami Redhawks NCAA men's hockey team and the gay son of Toronto Maple Leafs GM who was an advocate for these issues in hockey. He passed away in a tragic car wreck last February, but his legacy lives on. He was the voice -- the only voice at the time of his passing -- brave enough to speak out as an advocate for homosexuals in the sport.
Following his death, his brother Patrick wrote a column in Outsports about Brendan's courage. Patrick is a scout with the Philadelphia Flyers, and Brendan was afraid that his coming out could hurt Patrick's standing in a field that's very small and tight-knit. A good old boys club, you could say. It was a legitimate fear, but the Burkes decided to go ahead with the fight.
Homophobia runs rampant in hockey, and it takes voices like Brendan's to really speak up and let it be known that this sort of thing isn't okay. It shouldn't even take that, but it does. Sean Avery of the New York Rangers is another one of those voices.
Avery recently filmed a public service message that's currently airing on New York-area television, advocating for marriage equality for gay couples.
It was a courageous stand by Avery to step up in a way that few in the hockey business have done before.
But for every action taken by someone in hockey in favor of gay acceptance, there's somebody on the other side set to knock them down. That's exactly what Todd Reynolds, player agent at Uptown Sports Management tried to do on Monday. Using his company's Twitter account, @uptownhockey, Reynolds said the following.
Very sad to read Sean Avery's misguided support of same-gender "marriage". Legal or not, it will always be wrong.
It was a proud moment to see the response from the hockey community in the aftermath of those comments. Twitter is a pretty amazing thing, and literally minutes after @uptownhockey made those comments, they were flooded with responses denouncing their comments from average fans, media people and other agents alike.
A moment of bigotry from a somewhat prominent agent in the NHL -- one who represents Mike Fisher of the Nashville Predators and Jonathan Bernier of the Los Angeles Kings, among others -- turned into a rallying cry in favor of gay rights in hockey. That's remarkable, especially when people like Reynolds claim they're part of the "silent majority" on the issue, as he did on TSN Radio Monday evening.
Of course, that doesn't mean the battle for equal rights and acceptance for gay people in hockey and in broader society isn't one that's over. Patrick Burke perhaps explained that best in his Outsports column.
It is truly a vicious cycle: Athletes who are never exposed to gay culture hold onto antiquated (and often harmful) stereotypes about homosexuality, which makes gay athletes afraid to come out, which means the athletes never confront the ignorance of their beliefs. The cycle has been repeating itself for generations in pro sports.
It will take men of courage, gay and straight, to break this cycle. The hockey establishment must do a better job of establishing a safe haven for gay athletes.
We're reminded of that vicious cycle every once in a while on a very public stage, as was the case on Monday thanks to the @uptownhockey Twitter episode. And there's always a lot of criticism whenever people comment on bigotry and hate-filled comments like this.
Oh, you're just giving them the attention they want and don't deserve. What good does that do?
But each time this happens, a few more people are turned off of the bigotry. A few more people learn to accept gay people in hockey. Slowly but surely, person-by-person, the tide is turning.