Once again, the NHL has found itself trending for all the wrong reasons.
Philadelphia Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds, just days removed from being subjected to an apparent racial taunt in London, Ont., found himself under investigation for an alleged homophobic slur made to New York Rangers agitator Sean Avery.
While Simmonds ultimately escaped punishment, the league issued a strong warning in announcing its decision.
“All players, coaches and officials in the National Hockey League deserve the respect of their peers, and have the absolute right to function in a work environment that is free from racially or sexually-based innuendo or derision,” Colin Campbell, the league's senior executive vice president of hockey operations, said Tuesday in a release.
“Since there are conflicting accounts of what transpired on the ice, we have been unable to substantiate with the necessary degree of certainty what was said and by whom. ...
“In light of this, we are unable at this time to take any disciplinary action with respect to last night's events.”
The latest ugly turn in an eventful NHL pre-season not only provided more fodder for talk shows and social media sites, but also offered a reminder that truth is often stranger than fiction.
Avery is the league's most notorious pest and was suspended six games in 2008 after making the infamous “sloppy seconds” remark about an ex-girlfriend who had started dating Dion Phaneuf. However, he's also been a strong advocate for gay marriage in New York State.
For Simmonds, it was a second appearance at the centre of a controversial story inside a week. A fan threw a banana out of the stands at John Labatt Centre last Thursday during a shootout attempt by Simmonds, one of a handful of black players in the NHL.
There was some confusion about the incident with Avery on Monday night — Simmonds said he wasn't sure exactly what was said in the heat of the moment — but the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) demanded an apology.
“Hate speech and anti-gay slurs have no place on the ice rink,” said Mike Thompson, the acting president of GLAAD. “The word that Simmonds used is the same word that is hurled at (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) youth on the playground and in our schools, creating a climate of intolerance and hostility.
“He should not only apologize for this anti-gay outburst, but the Philadelphia Flyers and the NHL have a responsibility to take action and educate their fans about why this word is unacceptable.”
With the NHL slated to open its regular season Oct. 6, the incident shifted the focus again away from the on-ice product.
And that is decidedly unwelcome following an off-season dominated by Sidney Crosby's concussion problems and the tragic deaths of a trio of enforcers. A string of suspensions resulting from illegal pre-season hits have also made headlines.
The most recent incident occurred during a heated game between Atlantic Division rivals. Avery and Simmonds were at odds in the first period, and television cameras caught Simmonds arguing with Avery, appearing to utter the slur.
It immediately became a major discussion point among fans and journalists on Twitter before spreading to NHL dressing rooms on Tuesday morning.
Player opinions ranged from those questioning the source of the allegation — “With Avery, you never know what the real thing is,” said Habs forward Mathieu Darche — to those wondering whether words exchanged on the ice should be discussed in public afterwards.
“There's a lot of things said back and forth,” said Calgary Flames defenceman Scott Hannan. “We've all been there. If you've ever played sports and been in that situation, where the anger or the emotion gets a little ahead of you, that should be taken into context somewhat.”
Added Vancouver Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa: “Racial slurs are off limits. Stay away from personal issues all together, people's families and wives. After that, I don't think there has to be a whole lot of tattle-tailing.”
Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, who's late son Brendan came out publicly announcing his homosexuality with the support of his father, said he approved of the way the league handled the incident.
“I don't think a player should be suspended until the league had made it clear that that was a suspendable offence,” said Burke, an ardent supporter of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender community.
“I'm really pleased with Colin's (Campbell) statement. I do think it should be a workplace that's free of commentary like that. I do believe a lot of this is habitual and it's got to stop.”
Campbell gave up the NHL's discipline job in June, but stepped in to handle Simmonds' discipline hearing because of the long queue forming at the door of his successor Brendan Shanahan.
Shanahan continued his crackdown Tuesday by suspending Anaheim Ducks forward Jean-Francois Jacques for the remainder of the pre-season and five regular-season games after leaving the bench on a legal line change to start a fight with Vancouver's Mike Duco over the weekend.
That brought the total discipline meted out by Shanahan to six suspensions covering 21 pre-season games, 22 regular-season games and US$636,952.83 in forfeited wages — all over an unprecedented span of just six days.
More punishment is coming.
As of Tuesday night, the league hadn't announced any discipline against Flyers forward Tom Sestito, who was ejected from Monday's game for hitting Rangers forward Andre Deveaux from behind — a textbook example of the kind of play the NHL is looking to eliminate.
With all of the bad press coming out of the exhibition season, some began to question whether it was dragging on too long. Perhaps that was only a matter of perception.
“It's only two and half weeks,” said Habs defenceman Josh Gorges. “It's hard to explain how all this happened in one pre-season but it's definitely not too long. It's short, it's quick.”
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