Morgan Rielly didn’t say it. That’s what the referee said when the NHL asked, and he was five feet away at the time. That’s what the audio confirmed, when the 10 microphones and both broadcasts were checked. Rielly was accused of yelling a homophobic slur at a referee Monday night, in a loss to Tampa Bay. The National Hockey League investigated, and said he didn’t.
And it could have been left at that, even after social media was set aflame by people yelling at Rielly, or the people who yelled, So what if he did say it, and people who still insisted that the investigation was a cover-up by a league that fined Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf for calling an official a c—sucker in the Western Conference final in 2017, and suspended Chicago’s Andrew Shaw for one playoff game for calling an official a faggot in 2016. Rielly was cleared. The Leafs could have just let it lie.
But general manager Kyle Dubas, with team president Brendan Shanahan, decided to turn this into something positive. So they tried.
“It goes back to my time in the Soo,” said Dubas, at an afternoon press conference. “Our goal as an organization is … if a homosexual, bisexual, transgender fan walks into the rink that they feel welcome here and safe here. If we have a player who’s contemplating what their sexuality is, if they feel safe here, they can be themselves here. That’s why the cause matters to me.”
Dubas said he would have been surprised had Rielly employed even casual homophobia, where the word is used to hurt and denigrate rather than to describe. Rielly has tweeted in support of both the Vancouver and Toronto Pride Parades, and Dubas said a few weeks before the defenceman went to the team to say he wanted to march in this year’s Pride Parade in Toronto. Dubas, former GM Brian Burke, and Leafs such as Ben Scrivens have also marched, and Rielly admired that.
“I think it’s important because there’s lots of people that have very hard times, and struggle with this,” said Rielly. “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.”
And Dubas went out of his way to say that Rielly and the Leafs were not the victims here. That was important.
“I think that some people rushed to judgment, and that’s what happens in 2019,” Dubas said. “But there are a lot of people in our community, and people that we know, and people that have family members where they are affected by homophobia every single day in our community, and all throughout the world.”
Brock McGillis is one. He played with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds when Dubas was a 16-year-old there; Dubas was one of the first people to call McGillis when he came out as gay. McGillis has also spoken on numerous occasions with Shanahan, and has a lot of time for both.
“Kyle’s a very progressive individual, and is focused on a culture shift; I think he really wants that, I believe that,” said McGillis. “And (Shanahan) is an incredibly enlightened and insightful human being who again, is very inclusive and wants a culture shift.”
McGillis gets 50 to 100 calls a week from young gay athletes, and mentors about 100 between speaking gigs and advocacy; he says from what he hears, homophobic language is still threaded throughout the sport, in small towns or big ones. It shouldn’t be surprising. He’s still not sure whether Pride Parades or Pride Nights at games reach the most vulnerable kids — “the kid who’s hearing homophobic language in an NHL game who is playing minor hockey and is gay, and struggling. I don’t know if it helps him. I don’t think it does.”
But he does appreciate that in the still-monolithic culture of hockey, people like Dubas, Rielly and Shanahan are positives; the Jays suspended Kevin Pillar for two games when he used the word in 2017, but didn’t do this. The Utah Jazz banned a fan who directed what could have been a racial or homophobic slur at Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook Monday night. But they didn’t do this.
And as Dr. Kristopher Wells, an associate profession at MacEwan University in Edmonton who co-founded Pride Tape and specializes in LGBT and youth issues, says, “five or 10 years ago, we weren’t even talking about this.” Understanding what the words mean to people matters. The Toronto Gay Hockey Association bans the word faggot, even if used fondly, because it can carry such hurtful implications. McGillis simply says, “It’s our N-word.”
“Even if (Rielly had) said it, I don’t care,” says McGillis, “If he didn’t say it, even better. But the fact that people thought he did is more of an indictment of where the sport is at. They’re all products of an environment that is so insular, such a bubble, and you hear the same language over and over.”
“Honestly, hockey has a long way to go. It’s an opportunity to step up. I hope they use it to springboard future initiatives. I hope the team and the league use it as an opportunity.”
It wasn’t going to happen in a day; nothing will. But faced with this moment this version of the Toronto Maple Leafs, with the full knowledge of their reach and power, did more than they had to. They said something. That was good.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur