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Gay marriage debate in the NHL: Who knew?

Harry How/2007 Getty Images

The hockey world tends to be a conservative one, more so than perhaps most pro sports. My unscientific explanation would touch on the fact it's a fairly homogeneous collection of athletes (and by extension executives and coaches) drawing mostly from fine Northern Hemisphere-type stock. The prevailing ethic is old school Canadian, which can be boiled down to, essentially: don't complain too much; don't stand out too much and think of the team first.

As well, because there isn't that much physical variation among the athletes (size is important, but it's not as significant as in football or basketball for example) character or the perception of character probably matters a little more in hockey.

There are only so many athletic 7-footers around; being a little different or maybe even indifferent doesn't matter as much when you are physically rare. The same thing goes for NFL wide receivers and speed rushing defensive ends an the like. When you have a measurable ability that is in such demand, the likelihood of you being rejected for being a little too this or a little too that diminishes.

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As a result, individuality - for better and worse - can flourish a little more.

In hockey - and it starts at a young age - there are usually a few players whose skills and talent obviously set them apart, and then there's a roster of roughly interchangeable players who are willing to play hard and courageously in 45-second bursts.

Why be different or flamboyant or controversial when it might carry with it the risk of losing a job?

The result is a fairly staid culture, so much so that that when someone like the Toronto Maple Leafs' Colby Armstrong shows a flash of personality doing some television commentary it's almost a star-making turn or when someone the stature of Brian Burke honours the legacy of a gay son it's considered courageous (and the alternative would be....?)

All of which makes the flurry of controversy around New York Rangers' Sean Avery's support for gay marriage and the criticism of that position by a hockey management agency that oddly surfaced on Twitter Monday afternoon all the more interesting.

It was just so….unhockey!

First you had Avery, who defies any of the above unscientific generalities around hockey players by going out of his way, as a role player, to be controversial and outspoken, doing a credible public service announcement in favour of same sex marriage.

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No big deal really. It's Sean Avery; perhaps he got sensitized to the issue while interning at Vogue, if not in the Rangers dressing room (on a serious note, Avery explained his views on gay marriage as stemming from living in West Hollywood in Los Angeles and then Chelsea in Manhattan, both areas with thriving gay communities. "I certainly have been surrounded by the gay community. And living in New York and when you live in L.A., you certainly have a lot of gay friends" he told the New York Times.)

But then you had hockey agent Todd Reynolds, vice-president of Uptown Sports taking Avery to task on Twitter, essentially out of the blue :

"Very sad to read Sean Avery's misguided support of same-gender 'marriage.' Legal or not, it will always be wrong," said one tweet. And then: "To clarify. This is not hatred or bigotry towards gays. It is not intolerance in any way shape or form. I believe we are all equal."

And finally: "But I believe in the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman. This is my personal viewpoint. I Do not hate anyone."

Reynolds has been criticized for his views - though I'm not sure exactly why given that the fallout for them are a matter for him and his clients to deal with; gay marriage wouldn't be a matter for debate if everyone agreed with it, and you can hardly applaud one person for speaking out on a 'controversial' issue and criticize another for having an opposing view.

(I have adopted the long-married guy's stance on the subject: if you want to get married that badly, fill your boots; just don't say you haven't been warned.)

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Regardless, I'm not sure what's more surprising: a gay marriage debate in the NHL or Sean Avery, for once, appearing to have come out on the 'correct' side of a controversy.

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