Even though Wayne Simmonds escaped punishment after being accused of uttering a homophobic slur toward Sean Avery, the NHL's most visible advocate for gay rights thinks it is time players are educated about one of the most common insults in hockey.
"It's a hurtful comment made out of habit," Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke said Tuesday of the word faggot, the term Avery said was directed at him. "But I don't believe it's a hateful comment."
Avery, who plays for the New York Rangers, accused Simmonds, a forward for the Philadelphia Flyers, of using the insult during an NHL preseason game on Monday night.
The incident was caught on video and the NHL's director of hockey operations, Colin Campbell, questioned Simmonds about it. Simmonds faced a maximum fine of $2,500 (all currency U.S.) but it could not be proved what was said. Campbell said in a statement Tuesday night, "Since there are 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. Specifically, Flyers player Wayne Simmonds has expressly denied using the homophobic slur he is alleged to have said."
The great irony here, aside from Avery's history of intemperate remarks, is this occurred not five days after Simmonds was subjected to a racial slur in London, Ont. During a preseason game last week, a fan threw a banana in the path of Simmonds, who is black, during a shootout attempt. Police in London say they have a suspect.
The next day, Simmonds made it known he hoped the incident would become a learning experience for everyone about racial tolerance.
Simmonds told reporters after the game Monday that he did not remember everything he said to Avery but did not deny making the offensive remark. On Tuesday, though, Simmonds told CSNPhilly.com that he told Campbell, who handles some player discipline, he did not make any homophobic slurs to Avery.
"He [Campbell]asked me a question if I called him a gay slur and I told him, 'No,'" Simmonds said. "I said a lot of other things, but that wasn't one of them. There's a lot of things I said to him I'm not going to repeat, but I didn't say that to him."
While racial slurs have been thrown around by NHL players from time to time, it is far more common for homophobic remarks to be heard in heated situations on the ice. In the past couple of years, many hockey players have said they're in favour of gay rights or would support a player who decided to go public with his sexual preference. But many more, particularly the younger players such as Simmonds, have a lot to learn, as Burke can attest.
Burke did not set out to become the NHL's leading spokesman for gay rights. He took up the cause when his son, Brendan, who was killed in a car accident last year, disclosed he was gay.
"I do believe with hockey players it's habitual," Burke said. "These terms are acceptable and habitual and that's got to change. It doesn't make them less offensive to our gay fans. We wouldn't tolerate if he said the n-word; he'd get suspended. There are some other words that are equally hateful and offensive."