TORONTO – There is no question in James van Riemsdyk’s mind.
If a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs were to publicly come out as gay it wouldn’t create any discomfort inside the dressing room.
“I know if we had someone that were to come out on this team, that we’d obviously be supportive,” van Riemsdyk said Tuesday. “We only care if they’re a good teammate and a good player. That’s all we’re worried about.”
The veteran forward raised the topic himself after being designated as Toronto’s “You Can Play” ambassador for the NHL’s “Hockey Is For Everyone” month. As one of the longest-tenured players on the roster and the team’s NHLPA player rep, he clearly felt it was important to say.
The NHL is the only of North America’s major sports leagues that hasn’t had a former or current player come out.
However, the sport is taking strides towards fostering a culture of acceptance. Each team will host a “You Can Play Night” in support of the LGBTQ community in February, with the Leafs scheduled to do so this Saturday when they face Buffalo.
It’s a message that van Riemsdyk believes a diverse city will naturally embrace.
“It’s a melting pot here, for sure, which is a cool part about playing in such a big city like this,” he said. “What’s really special for us is that we seem to be a bond that brings people together I think in this city, just with the following that we get.”
One of the changes van Riemsdyk has noted over his nearly 500-game career is what’s said behind closed doors in the dressing room.
There is still good-natured chirping, of course, but it’s rarely delivered using homophobic language.
“Definitely (that’s changed),” he said. “I would say for sure. I think once it was brought to people’s attention – maybe they didn’t realize it was a malicious sort of thing. You definitely have noticed a shift in that sort of stuff … and that’s how it should be.
“It’s about having accountability to your words and to your actions and stuff, and just being a good person.”
For the 27-year-old, it’s a no-brainer to help carry the flag for the “You Can Play” cause. He did it even as a young player in the league with the Philadelphia Flyers and his brother, Trevor, has signed on to be the Chicago Blackhawks’ ambassador as well.
What he looks forward to is the time when the NHL doesn’t need to organize a month like this one because universal acceptance will just be a given.
“I think that sort of stuff is important because we want to be inclusive to everyone, especially in this locker-room,” said van Riemsdyk. “I think we’ve got a great locker-room and I think we want it to be to the point where these sorts of things aren’t really a big story any more. It should just be normal.
“But obviously we’re not quite there yet, I think, as a society.”