TORONTO — Kyle Dubas and Morgan Rielly could have let the NHL investigation speak for itself. On a scheduled day off for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the general manager and star defenceman could easily have let Colin Campbell’s determination that Rielly did not direct a homophobic slur at referee Brad Meier carry the day.
But, in deciding instead to meet the issue head-on, they left no doubt about where the Maple Leafs stand on LGBTQ rights and matters of inclusion.
"It’s incumbent on us in management to build an environment 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," Dubas told reporters Tuesday. "And that we can create an environment where even if they don’t come out, if they are gay, that they still feel safe within the confines of our building.
"That’s really the hope, is that people see that we support it, we understand that it is a challenge for people to potentially come out if they are gay, but our goal as an organization … is that it’s more about the environment that we’re creating for everybody."
That environment came into question during Monday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, where a microphone on the broadcast seemed to pick up a homophobic slur being yelled during game action.
It was initially attributed to Rielly by multiple social media accounts, presumably because he was skating back into his own zone after being hooked and looking directly at Meier, and those serious allegations spread like wildfire before the player even had any idea a slur was potentially uttered in the game he just played.
Rielly had essentially been found guilty on the internet before arriving home to his downtown condo. He immediately returned to Scotiabank Arena to meet with Dubas, and eventually be interviewed by NHL officials, and had his name cleared by their investigation a little more than 12 hours later.
"I was 100 per cent confident that I didn’t use the word so we allowed the process to play out," said Rielly. "It was difficult at times to not make a statement because of how strongly I felt about it and the fact that it is a very important issue, but I’m very happy that it came out today that it wasn’t used by me.
"I think it’s an opportunity for us as a team to realize that there’s really no place for slurs like that in sport and in life."
Dubas took it even further. He’s marched in the Pride Parade in years past and saw his team host an awareness night for the "You Can Play" organization just over two weeks ago.
As much as he didn’t like seeing the allegations directed at Rielly, it offered an opportunity for the Leafs and the 25-year-old defenceman to stand alongside fans in the community and perhaps even some working within their own organization.
"I don’t think the team or Morgan are victims at all," said Dubas. "I don’t want it to be perceived that Morgan feels that way or that the team feels that Morgan was slandered, I think some people rushed to judgment and that’s what happens in 2019. There are a lot of people in our community and people that we know and people who have family members where they are affected by homophobia every single day in our community and all throughout the world.
"Every time it’s even thought that those types of words are uttered in our facility or anywhere, I think we have to do our part as the Toronto Maple Leafs to use this situation to continue to do our part to rid casual homophobia, vulgar homophobia, things that make people of any sexuality or sexual orientation feel uncomfortable and unsafe."
It still isn’t entirely clear what was said or who said it. There were 10 microphones stationed around the ice surface and players’ benches for Monday’s game and a couple of conspiracy theories popped up, including the possibility a common hockey term ("rag it") was confused for a homophobic slur.
The NHL interviewed Meier and Rielly while also reviewing tape from both broadcasts. Dubas said he watched the clip so many times that "you kind of convince yourself you can hear hundreds of different things as you go through it."
"I know that I didn’t use that word and I didn’t hear it during play, but I did listen to the video," said Rielly. "There are different ways to listen to the video and when it’s a topic that’s very serious you tend to think what may have been said."
The mere possibility it was said was enough for the general manager to step back and reflect on what the organization is doing to create an inclusive atmosphere. Without getting into specifics, he said there’s more that can be done to be proactive and take a stance on these issues.
"If a homosexual, a bisexual or transgender fan walks in the rink, [we want them to] feel welcome here and safe here," said Dubas. "If we have a player who’s contemplating what their sexuality is [we hope] they feel safe here and can be themselves here. That’s why the cause matters to me and I think that because of our role in the community and in the country as the Toronto Maple Leafs, we have a unique opportunity to be proactive and to take a stance on the matter."
That will be remembered long after this particular incident has been forgotten.