Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Time for the NHL to look inside, really inside the game

In 1995 the National Hockey League introduced NHL Diversity as a major component of the league's "Hockey is for Everyone" initiative. The issue of inclusiveness in the NHL is at the forefront of the news the last week. An ugly incident at an NHL pre-season game in London, Ontario and an alleged incident Monday night in Philadelphia has media talking about hockey for the wrong reasons.

Last Thursday night during an NHL pre-season game at London’s John Labatt Centre, someone threw a banana at Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds, who happens to be black.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called the incident “an obviously stupid and ignorant action by one individual.” An investigation is ongoing to find the person responsible. There is even an reward for any information leading to the apprehension of this individual.

A few nights later during a game in Philadelphia, Simmonds is alleged to have made a homophobic comment directed at New York Ranger Sean Avery. This is the same Avery who back in May became the first NHL player to openly support New York’s bid for same-sex marriages.

"The places I've played and lived the longest have been in West Hollywood, Calif., when I played for the L.A. Kings, and when I moved to New York, I lived in Chelsea for the first four years," Avery said in a phone interview. "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."

Avery, who lives in the SoHo section of Manhattan and keeps a home in Los Angeles, said some of those friends had wanted to marry, and he saw no reason they should not.

"I'm certainly open to it," he said. "Maybe I can help, and I jumped at this opportunity."

Avery joined Larry King, Julianna Margulies, Michael Strahan, formerly of the New York Giants and Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns in their support of the cause.

Various sources report that Avery confirmed what Simmonds said to him, while Simmonds vaguely said “language was exchanged.” Simmonds said he didn’t recall the specific words he used.

Here are some quotes from both sides according to Puck

“To be here now having to answer the questions about what he did is disappointing for me. I’m disappointed for him,” Avery said.

“Honestly, we were going back and forth for a while there,” Simmonds said. “I don’t recall everything that I did say to him but he said to me some things I didn’t like and maybe I said some things that he didn’t like. I can’t recall every single word I said.”

Tuesday Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke joined the debate stating, "that type of comment has no place in the game."

"If that happened, that is just so embarrassing and the league should not tolerate it," Burke said. "That should be treated on the same level as a racially charged incident. It's the same level of offensiveness and inappropriateness." Burke became an advocate for gay rights after his son Brendan announced he was gay. Brendan died tragically in a car accident.

Brian Burke reminded ESPN that Miami of Ohio men's hockey coach Rico Blasi was supportive when Brendan, a student manager for the team, told his teammates he was gay and would not accept any backlash that Brendan faced.

"Rico said, 'This has to stop,' and it stopped," Burke said about the pervasive use of anti-gay language. "I stopped. It's possible to stop and the league should definitely feel the need to use discipline in fines or suspensions."

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation contacted the NHL and the Philadelphia Flyers in hopes the league and the team would act take action on Simmonds.

"Hate speech and anti-gay slurs have no place on the ice rink," GLAAD acting president Mike Thompson said in a statement. "The word that Simmonds used is the same word that is hurled at LGBT 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."

Colin Campbell, the league’s senior executive vice president of hockey operations and former disciplinarian, said because of “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.”

“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,” Campbell continued in the statement. “This is the National Hockey League’s policy and it will remain so going forward.”

“It also is important to emphasize that the National Hockey League holds, and will continue to hold, our players to higher standards with respect to their conduct both on and off the ice,” Campbell said. “While we recognize that the emotion involved in certain on-ice confrontations may lead to the use of highly charged and sometimes offensive language and commentary, certain lines cannot be crossed.

“We have for many years emphasized to our clubs and players that commentary directed at the race or ethnicity of other participants in the game (or even non-participants), or that is otherwise socially or morally inappropriate or potentially hurtful—including as it may relate to sexual orientation—is absolutely unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” he added.

Wayne Simmonds happens to be connected to two deplorable incidents, one as the victim as one as the alleged offender. Whatever Simmonds may or may not have said to Avery isn’t the point. The mere suggestion that Simmonds may have used a homophobic slur hurts the NHL’s image.

The National Football League dominates the sports pages, Major League Baseball grabs their share of available space, and the NCAA occupies much of the rest of the white space.

The NHL fights for as much coverage as the league can get but this is the not the way they hope to grab the headlines.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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