NASHVILLE — Hey, NHL. Rainbow tape isn’t enough.
Anyone can tape up a stick with pinks and reds and purples, use it at a skills competition, and then fall right back into our black-and-white hockey culture the next day. What’s hard is to look in the mirror and ask, “Why?”
Why have the other sports’ experienced players come out, but not the National Hockey League? Or Canadian Major Junior Hockey?
Why do the NHL, the NHL Players’ Association, the Anaheim Ducks and Ryan Getzlaf look at the “C” word spoken in the heat of the moment by Getzlaf in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final and not hear the word the way a gay man would hear that word?
Well, let’s talk about that.
To be honest, I think hockey writers swear more liberally than hockey players. I have heard the word spoken by hockey people for as long as I can remember.
Almost never was it employed with homophobic intent, but neither were other words and terms once commonplace in sports and society, but no more. Our language is littered with words, terms and names for things that we once considered acceptable. But times changed, those words became offensive, and we either stopped using them or assigned new words to describe what we meant.
When terms hurt people, common decency dictates we stop using them.
And so it is time for the hockey world to examine the word Getztlaf used, one that has been accepted inside its dressing rooms for decades, and decide if it is acceptable anymore. It is a Top 10 swear word in the hockey vernacular. Maybe Top 5.
Getzlaf is a product of the Western Canadian hockey culture, as am I. He grew up in Regina and played his junior hockey in Calgary. I’m an Edmonton guy. We have both been desensitized to the word, the same way a doctor does not get squeamish at the sight of blood.
That is why the NHL, the Ducks, the NHLPA and Getzlaf all missed a golden opportunity this weekend to actually walk the gay rights walk. To not just tape a hockey stick for the LGBTQ community, but to identify and admit to a metaphor for homophobia that exists inside hockey’s DNA, and start down the path to removing it.
“This is the reason why hockey culture and sports culture is the way it is,” said Brock McGillis, a former OHL and CIS goalie who came out only after he was certain his days inside the game were over. “I was a part of that culture. I said those words. Now, I’m trying to shift it. We need to be better.”
Today McGillis is an openly gay advocate for kids who are growing up the same way he did. Kids who were scared that coming out meant being excluded by hockey.
McGillis’s story plays out over and over again across Canada and the rest of the hockey world, further cemented when the NHL looks at an incident like this one and does not find the courage to see it through the eyes of those it hurts the most.
“It’s tough to see somebody refer to it (as homophobic). I didn’t mean it in that manner in any way,” Getzlaf said after Game 5. “For it to go that route was very disappointing for me.
“I understand that it’s my responsibility to not use vulgar language, period. Whether it’s a swear word, or whatever it is,” he said. “I hope I didn’t offend somebody outside the circle we trust.”
Getzlaf’s full denial was enabled by the NHL, which carefully danced around his choice of words, refusing to use the word “homophobic.” Rather, the league labeled it “obscene, profane or abusive language.”
They could have made a stand, but then precedent would have dictated a one-game suspension for Getzlaf, as Andrew Shaw received when he used a homophobic slur last spring.
The league chickened out on Getzlaf, ostensibly labeling it a cuss word. I’ll bet that infuriated NHL exec Patrick Burke, a champion of gay rights along with his father Brian.
“It’s a homophobic slur,” said McGillis. “When you’re calling a man that, you’re using that to belittle or demean him. As if, in doing that action, he is somehow less than a man should be.”
Think it through. Define the word for yourself. You can only come to one conclusion: that the term identifies its target as someone who is gay, and as such, is inferior or weaker in some way.
That they literally spent hours of debate at NHL headquarters this past weekend defining a word like this, and then decided it was not in any way homophobic, speaks volumes as to where a gay man would see his place in the game.
“This is the reason why young people come to me and say ‘I quit hockey in Midget AAA, because I hated myself. I hated my life,’” McGillis said. “This tone of language is why kids are committing suicide. Why I wanted to die every day, and tried to hide who I was for every day until I was 23 years old.”
It is why, in an NHL where even the least aggressive numbers predict there some 20 gay men scattered among the 30 teams (and likely more), not one of those men has identified an environment that would accept him as he is.
Not a single one, in all these years. Eight hundred NHL players per season, with hundreds more in the American and East Coast Leagues.
Chances are there is at least one gay player in this Western Conference Final, quite possibly under Getzlaf’s captaincy. And I bet he’d sit at that podium with Getzlaf, if the environment was such that he could stop living the lie, and could help his captain realize the unintended power that word has in our game.
“As a gay man who has been part of the hockey community for 25-plus years, who still lives for the game, I am incredibly disappointed and upset,” said McGillis. “I could not believe (Getzlaf) took a homophobic comment, and equated it to the ‘F’ word.
“No ownership that it is homophobic? And you’re apologizing to hockey? As opposed to the LGBTQ community? It’s so disheartening.”
The NHL can be better than this. So can the NHLPA, and the Anaheim Ducks.
And so could Getzlaf, who is an intelligent, thoughtful person, likely without a homophobic bone in his body.
It’s a bad word. We don’t need it anymore.