Brock McGillis was impressed with how proactively the Toronto Maple Leafs handled allegations that a homophobic slur had been uttered during their game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday night.
Star defenceman Morgan Rielly, who the NHL said following an investigation didn’t direct an anti-gay remark at a referee, and general manager Kyle Dubas spoke with reporters for more than 15 minutes the following afternoon, answering questions and meeting the issue head-on.
They talked about how important inclusivity, safe environments and stamping out homophobia is to both themselves and the organization.
Dubas has marched in Pride parades. Rielly is interested in getting involved moving forward.
"It goes back to my time in (Sault Ste. Marie)," Dubas said. "It’s incumbent upon us and management to build an environment that if someone were gay, or were questioning their sexual orientation, that they don’t feel that they have to come in here and be somebody that they’re not, that we can create an environment that even if they don’t come out, if they are gay, that they still feel safe within the confines of our building."
"There’s lots of people that have very hard times, and struggle with this," Rielly added. "It’s important to support one another. There’s been examples over time of this team taking part in that, Kyle especially. When leadership supports something, the players follow. You know it’s not just in sports that this is important, but within our lives it happens every day. It’s important we’re sensitive to it and we’re aware of it."
But McGillis, who played in the Ontario Hockey League and semi-professionally before becoming a voice in sports for the LGBTQ community after he came out in November 2016, wants to know what hockey’s next, tangible steps look like.
"I’ve heard it many times in hockey that it’s time to move the conversation forward," he said. "I’d like to see how they plan to do it, because this is something that has been said before."
McGillis is tired of the platitudes offered when a professional hockey player utters a homophobic slur, as was the case with Andrew Shaw in 2016 and Ryan Getzlaf in 2017.
"We’ve been hearing this for years, and all I’ve seen is Pride events at hockey games," he added. "I want real change. I want real change at the grassroots level, I want real change at a national level, at an international level. I want to see a change in the game so that it’s inclusive for everybody, regardless of your sexuality, gender, orientation or your race."
Television cameras picked up what sounded like a homophobic slur in the second period of Toronto’s 6-2 loss to Tampa Bay as Rielly and an opponent skated after the puck.
The NHL didn’t specify in its ruling if the slur had been used, just that it wasn’t uttered by the Leafs defenceman. McGillis wants league officials to continue digging to find out if something inappropriate was indeed said on the ice.
"Players are products of an environment and a culture that’s been deeply rooted in them since they were children," McGillis said. "It’s language that’s commonplace within the sport and anyone who says differently is full of it."
The 35-year-old from Sudbury, Ont., added the only way he sees forward in terms of achieving real change in the often inward-looking, insular hockey world is to humanize the issue of homophobia.
"When I go and talk to players in the OHL, they don’t just see a gay guy," McGillis said. "They see a guy that is built like them, played the sport, can speak their language, played at their level. It makes them realize that, ‘Oh wow, somebody’s who’s like me tried to kill himself, wanted to die every day.’
"By presenting it as a hockey guy who happens to be gay, it allows my message to get through. They need to realize that just the language — I wasn’t bullied, I was hockey boy — I heard on a regular basis in the locker room, not necessarily directed at me, just in general, on the ice, made me try to kill myself on a number of occasions, made me hate myself. I was constantly depressed and I lived a lie for such a long time."
The NHL, which has been vocal in its support of the LGBTQ community in recent years, marked Hockey is For Everyone month in February.
McGillis said there’s still lots more to do, and not just with words.
"We haven’t even fixed sexism in the game," McGillis said. "To hear that conversation is going to move forward — good.
"Please do it … but how?"
TAVARES, STAMKOS NOT FANS OF DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF FORMAT
It’s a topic that’s bubbled to the surface around the same time in recent years — the NHL’s divisional playoff format. The idea was to create rivalries, but it often pits clubs at the top of the standings against each other in the first two rounds as opposed to the conference finals, as would be the case if teams were ranked No. 1 through No. 8 in the old setup. Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto sit in the league’s top-5, but only one club can reach the conference final because of the divisional format. Calgary and San Jose are 1-2 in the Pacific, but could meet in the semis as well. "It’s odd, it’s kind of unusual," said Toronto centre John Tavares. Added Tampa Bay sniper Steven Stamkos: "It is what it is."
YOU GET A MILESTONE, YOU GET A MILESTONE
Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Montreal’s Carey Price all had Tuesdays to remember. Malkin picked up two assists to become the 88th player in NHL history to reach 1,000 points. Ovechkin, meanwhile, had an assist to become the league’s 49th player to get to 1,200 points. And Price made 20 saves to record his 315th career regular-season win and surpass Jacques Plante for the most in franchise history.