Dave Bidini is a member of Rheostatics and author of The Best Game You Can Name
A few days ago, Chicago Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw called one of the game's referees "a fag" repeatedly, in a variety of ways. Mr. Shaw was suspended for one game and fined $5,000 for his use of the slur. These are progressive steps for the NHL.
But if you're anything like me, a hockey fan, and recreational player since forever, what startled wasn't so much what he said, but how he said it: off-handedly and repeatedly, as if it meant nothing at all.
This kind of offensive language is the verbal wallpaper of sports, at levels high and low, professional and beer league. It's a cultural blight, and because it's hockey, it's largely about us and what passes as acceptable and normal in the game. Sadly, the game still allows the connection to be made between being weak and being LGBT, and because sports is mainstream and commonplace, it normalizes this dichotomy, making it easier for people to feel justified when they assault someone for being gay, or when a transgender kid takes their life after finding zero acceptance in places where most everyone else is allowed comfort and joy.
As Canadians, we celebrate how hockey is, ostensibly, one of the defining symbols of our nation. But if that holds true, then we must swallow the truth, allowing the idea that the words coming out of Andrew Shaw's mouth were our words, too. This doesn't make everyone a homophobe – or suggest that everyone would say what Andrew Shaw said – but we are complicit in a game that allows something like this to happen.
I know that, playing minor hockey as a kid, I was never told what words were acceptable and what words weren't. There were guidelines for other things, but not this. Because we are responsible for hockey culture – its strengths, its weaknesses – we are as culpable when it comes to the dark side of hockey culture as well as its beautiful moments of light.
A retired NHL player once told me, "I try to get my opponent off his game by saying the worst possible thing about him." Another player confided: "I had a teammate who did research, trying to dig stuff up about guys." This part of the game will probably never change – it's gamesmanship at its best, verbal abuse at its worst – but we have to draw a line about what the hockey world, our world, will tolerate and what it won't.
Sadly, if your first reaction was anything like mine after seeing Mr. Shaw taunt the referee, it wasn't much of a reaction at all, having long accepted that players will speak and behave badly: the heat of the moment, letting off steam, and all of the other clichés.
But from minor midget to bantam to the junior ranks to college hockey, homophobic and sexist slurs exist because they are allowed to exist. This is partly because some of the people who run the sport– who coach it, parent it, play it – haven't done a good enough job carrying the game into the 21st century, and partly because the young men who play are emotionally and intellectually arrested, being deprived of education and life guidance in pursuit of a nearly impossible dream.
Because so few make it to the NHL, these players later become coaches, instructors and the parents of skaters. The circle eats itself because there are few guardians of the game's culture, and even fewer people to point out how much of that culture is sick.
NHL culture has traditionally allowed players and coaches to verbally abuse officials with impunity, the only league that accepts this behaviour without any recrimination.
Clamping down on this would go a long way toward stopping kids from aping their heroes' treatment of the game's arbiters.
Change comes slow, and it's often slowest in professional sport because of its sheer size and macho default code. It's one of the last places where men can go to behave badly, both on the ice and off it. And yet it's also the scene for some of our greatest personal moments of triumph: healthy venues where stress is released, love among teammates is expressed, and the mind and body are engaged.
When it comes to hockey, Canadians have our hands on the sport. It's played on our lakes and rivers, in our basements and gyms. Parents, coaches, instructors: let's make it good for everyone, rather than simply saying that it is.