2011 Villain: Homophobia in Hockey
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2011 Villain: Homophobia in Hockey

Nominated for: poisoning one of our favourite pastimes.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—the very best and very worst people, places, things, and ideas that have had an influence on the city over the past twelve months. From December 12–23, the candidates for Mightiest and Meanest—and new this year, a reader’s write-in option! From December 26–29 you’ll be able to vote for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year, and we’ll reveal the results December 30.

Intolerance is villainous in any arena. And we recognize we’re drawing a false boundary around sports and the wider culture. But when tackling such a nebulous, long-tentacled evil like a lack of empathy and respect for fellow humans, it can help to narrow the playing field.

That evil being reared its head in the GTA this year in a few connected incidents.

Apparently apropos of nothing, in February North York-born NHLer Sean Avery declared his support for gay players afraid to come out. Later in the season, he recorded a PSA in support of gay marriage in New York State, where he plays for the Rangers. But if Sean Avery moved the conversation two steps forward, then sports agent Todd Reynolds and Sportsnet commentator Damian Goddard took at least one of those steps back. Both men expressed their opposition to gay marriage and disappointment in Avery. Both men were vilified for their statements. Goddard was fired from Sportsnet and Reynolds lost at least one client.

In response to the backlash, Goddard and Reynolds claimed they don’t hate anyone—they just love marriage laws the way they are.

It’s not hard to see that these guys are on the wrong side of history. Denying gay couples the benefits of legally binding unions will not be tolerated by our society for much longer. We can’t go backwards on that.

But since prejudice in any individual is complex, we’re hesitant to assign the villain label to Goddard or Reynolds. You won’t turn a bad guy good by calling him bad, after all; you’ll probably just piss him off. We will, however, assign blame to the statements both men made and to the homophobic attitude from which they sprang. We must call out that sort of resistance to basic human rights. Statement’s like Goddard’s or Reynolds’ make hockey a hostile environment for players and fans, young and old. And in a hockey town like Toronto, we just can’t have that.

That being said, homophobia in hockey is a villain that has heroes fighting back. Sean Avery, for one. Closer to home, there’s Maple Leafs president and GM Brian Burke (and his surviving son, Patrick). The Toronto Gay Hockey Association and OutSport Toronto are others. Progress is being made.

Even our Pride-avoiding mayor is making progress. With all the furor and offers to fly him home for the parade, the only enjoinder that seemed to affect Rob Ford came from inside the sports world, from the Leafs’ Brian Burke, a vocal advocate for gay rights since his late son Brendan came out of the closet in 2007. Burke had a chat with the city chief in the midst of the Pride backlash. Though no one knows for sure what they talked about, when asked afterwards if the discussion had changed Ford’s mind about attending Pride, the mayor responded “one day at a time.”

When gay teenagers are killing themselves to escape bullying, one day at a time is not fast enough, but at least it’s a start. Homophobia in hockey isn’t gone yet, but it will be. Until then, we’ll be calling it out.