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I heard gay slurs every night in my Toronto hockey league

A timekeeper tells about the pervasive homophobia he witnessed on the ice during his 12 years with the rec league.

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Filmmaker Vince Sannuto was a timekeeper at a Toronto hockey league for 12 years.
Filmmaker Vince Sannuto was a timekeeper at a Toronto hockey league for 12 years.

"Shut up faggot." "Fuck you faggot!" "I an gonna fuck you up the ass."

As a timekeeper for True North Hockey Canada (a men's recreational hockey league) from 2000-2012, I was privy to a lot of crazy stuff. I saw bench brawls; players threatening referees with violence; referees getting punched out by players; referees punching out players; players crashing into boards and breaking legs, ankles, femurs and collar bones. The site of cops and paramedics at the hockey rink was quite common. Equally as common was hearing gay slurs like those that began this article.

There wasn't a night that I didn't hear the word "fag." We had a wide range of professionals who played in the league: Lawyers, doctors, IT professionals, accountants, CEOS, bus drivers, construction workers, plumbers and celebrities. But once they strapped on a pair of skates, a lot of them revealed their disdain for the LGBT community.

For the record, I am not gay. My best friend is gay. He had a tremendous impact on me. He introduced me to film. I wouldn't be a filmmaker if it weren't for him. It made me angry when I heard a slur. Every time I heard the word "fag," I know a little piece of my friend died. Any kind of slur invalidates a person. A target of a slur is told that he doesn't matter.

I was exposed to the homophobic vitriol day in and day out. What's worse was that no one was doing anything about it. The league, its administrators, its officials and game supervisors tolerated it, though I am now told things are changing. There was nothing in the league rule book about punishing homophobia. If anything racially happened, emails went back and forth between player reps, officials, administrators and the league. The attitude concerning homophobia was that it was "all part of the game."

I recall an incident when a disgruntled player challenged a call that a closeted gay referee made against him. Incensed, the player called him a "faggot." I sensed a growing unease in my colleague's facial expression. Whether you're straight or gay, you're going to have an aversion to being called a faggot. The player was ejected from the game but didn't receive any supplementary discipline for calling the referee a faggot. The player was assessed a typical verbal abuse penalty for accosting the referee and he returned next week without any reprimand for his actions. The referee never reported the incident and business went on as usual.

Every night, I completed a summary report. I would comment on each game or report all on and off ice incidents such as the Zamboni breaking down. Every time I heard homophobia, I would write what happened in my report. I would tell the administrators and officials. No one did anything. The culture was until the league did something about it, we weren't going to do anything either. Can you blame them?

Near the end of my timekeeping career one referee decided to change the culture of homophobia in the league.

Things turned fiery during one A-league game between the top two teams. "Shut up homo", one player barked." His opponent fired back, "go take it up the ass." Referee Mark Copeland blew his whistle and directed both players to the stands. Copeland not only ejected the players for the slurs but assessed the most severe penalty that you can get for harassment: A gross misconduct. A gross misconduct carried an automatic five-game suspension, a quarter of the  season.

The players were dumbfounded. "Ref, why are you throwing me out?" "Ref, what did I do?, they asked. Copeland informed them that they were being ejected for homophobic slurs. "Ref, are you serious? You're throwing me out for that?" Yes, I am. That's a slur," Copeland replied. "Really, saying ‘fag' is a penalty?" "Yes, it is," Copeland replied. I told Mark that I was proud that he did that.

When I told my friend Peter Coleman, True North's chief referee, about the "Highway 401" film that I am developing regarding homophobia in hockey, he was very supportive. The story follows Reza, a depressed, Iranian Canadian trying to come to terms with his sexuality and contemplating suicide as an alternative to facing the consequences of revealing himself to a family, friends and hockey team whose cultural values vilify homosexuality.

Peter assured me that his officials are cracking down on homophobia in the league. He tells me that his staff is penalizing players who utter homophobic slurs, but there was no policy update to address homophobia in the league's rule book

Cracking down on homophobia in hockey and raising its awareness as a derogatory slur will teach players that homophobia will no longer be tolerated. Hopefully, the culture will shift from intolerance to acceptance. Only in a safe and open environment of acceptance will officials and players come out. You have a responsibility to come out if you are a public figure. The next generation of LGBT hockey players need role models so step up.

Vince Sannuto is a Toronto filmmaker. His latest is "Highway 401," for which he has set up a Crowdfunding page. His also wrote, directed, produced and acted in his first film, "Quarter Life Crisis." The movie debuted at the Toronto Italian Film Festival to a sold out audience at the Bloor Cinema. The movie is distributed via CVS Mid West tapes.