Note: This story was updated to include the NHL's findings.
The NHL investigated an incident in which a Toronto Maple Leaf defenceman allegedly called a ref a homophobic slur during a Monday night game and found he did not use the slur.
In a statement released on Tuesday, Senior Executive Vice-President of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell said that after a "thorough investigation" the league found Rielly did not "direct the slur at referee Brad Meier."
"League officials interviewed several of the participants in the game—including Rielly and Meier—and reviewed audio of the alleged incident," reads Campbell's statement. "All of those interviewed adamantly denied that Rielly uttered a slur and the audio supported their statements."
Campbell added that the NHL "does not tolerate language or gestures that disparage anyone based upon their race, creed, or sexual orientation."
The incident occurred at the tail end of the second period of their Monday game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. According to the Sportsnet play by play man announcing the game at the time, Rielly was upset at the referee for not calling a hooking penalty. Later that night, the NHL PR department tweeted out that “aware of reports that a homophobic slur was used during the Maple Leafs-Lightning game. The League is investigating the incident.”
The Toronto Maple Leafs cooperated with the league’s investigation. Toronto general manager Kyle Dubas said in a press release that the Leafs were aware of the reports and the “issue of homophobia is one the Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Club strongly condemns and takes very seriously.”
Rielly has yet to make a public statement about the incident. The 25-year-old was drafted fifth overall by the Leafs in 2012 and has spent his career with the team. While he’s performed well for several years, he is having a breakout season and is now considered one of the league’s elite defencemen.
There is a precedent in the NHL, and other sports leagues, of taking actions against their players for using slurs during game time. In 2016, Blackhawks player Andrew Shaw was suspended for a playoff game and fined $5,000 for calling a referee a homophobic slur when given a penalty. He apologized for his remarks saying, he knows his “words were hurtful and I will learn from my mistake.” More recently, in 2017, the captain of the Anaheim Ducks Ryan Getzlaf was fined $10,000 for calling a referee slur in the Western Conference finals.
In 2017, Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Kevin Pillar called Jason Motte, a pitcher who just struck him out, a homophobic slur. Pillar was confronted on the field and would apologize several times as well as being suspended for two games by the Blue Jays. Last year, in the NBA, Nikola Jokic was fined $25,000 for using a slur in a press conference and, in 2011, the league famously fined Kobe Bryant $100,000 for using a homophobic slur against a referee.
Dr. Kristopher Wells, an associate professor at MacEwan University, is the co-founder of Pride Tape—a rainbow-coloured hockey tape used to express support for LGBTQ+ people that has been used by several teams across the NHL.
Wells told VICE that the NHL, and everyone involved in hockey, “need to make it clear that homophobia has no place in hockey or in our society.” He added while steps were being made in the right direction there is, of course, more work "to be done to ensure that these beliefs are supported on and off the ice, in the stands and locker room, and out in the community,”
“It’s important that homophobia has consequences, but we should also use this as a learning opportunity to educate our players and fans about why it is so very inappropriate," said Wells. "This is not only a hockey issue, but a societal one."
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