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Montreal Canadiens' Andrew Shaw, right, was suspended for using a homophobic epithet during last year’s playoffs while he was playing for the Chicago Blackhawks.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The well-known moral philosopher Johnny Cash once said of mistakes: "You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone."

Another wearer of dark metaphorical hats, Montreal Canadiens winger Andrew Shaw, appears to have embraced the man in black's wisdom. Shaw has volunteered to be the Habs' representative on a league-wide anti-homophobia initiative, in partnership with the You Can Play Project.

Remember, this is the very same player who, as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks, was suspended in last year's NHL playoffs for hurling a homophobic epithet from the penalty box.

After initially saying he couldn't recall using any objectionable words, he apologized unreservedly and effusively. Now he's backing up his words with deeds.

"I thought it would be an opportunity to help out, you know. What I went through last year, I learned from it. Words affect people," Shaw said.

The 25-year-old native of Belleville, Ont., is a self-described agitator who admits the suspension was perhaps the most difficult few days of his life.

The offshoot, however, was that several gay-advocacy organizations reached out to both him and the league. They included the You Can Play Project. One of its founders is Patrick Burke, who works in the NHL's department of player safety.

Shaw also had a lengthy heart-to-heart conversation with Chris Hine, a Chicago Tribune hockey writer who is openly gay. In person and in print, Hine encouraged him to learn from the controversy and do better.

Shaw reckons this is a chance to do just that.

And lest any cynics out there believe this is more about burnishing Shaw's personal brand or the Habs' well-tended reputation, there is no evidence to support that; he volunteered, the league made that fact public and the media asked to talk about it with him.

"I don't want it to be a bigger story than it is. I want it to be about the program, not about me. I just want to be there to help, and help is what I'm going to give," Shaw said.

He equated homophobic insults with racist slurs and said the simple message he intends to carry on behalf of the club is this: "Everyone's equal out there, everyone's the same, so I think we should all step up and start treating people the way we want to be treated."

To be clear, this isn't some sort of conversion on the road to Damascus; Shaw is well aware that what he said was wrong. He wants to do his bit to support vulnerable people, which he plans to do mostly by listening.

"I want everyone to be themselves and to be comfortable with who they are … I think the only way to be truly happy is to be yourself through and through," he said.

Shaw also alluded to the evolving attitudes in professional locker rooms, where casual homophobia has existed since time immemorial. Change, he said, "can only be a good thing."

Speaking of apologies, they tend to come in bunches with rumbustious players like Shaw, who was acquired mostly for that reason (well, that and his two Stanley Cup rings). On Friday, he held up his hand for "selfish" play against the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night; with the Habs up 1-0, he took a needless penalty, the Flyers scored on the power play and won 3-1.

"I can't be doing that. I'm here to help the team win … I love to win, I love to be part of a winning culture," he said. "I accept the full consequences of my actions."

He was then asked about riding the edge between aggressive and dirty play – whether it's hard to stay on it.

"Some days," he said with a wry smile.