The NHL is once again dealing with the fallout of another player engaging in discriminatory speech online. Last week, journeyman winger Brendan Leipsic’s private Instagram messages were leaked, revealing grossly misogynistic comments about women, including the wife of an ex-teammate. The Washington Capitals terminated his contract and the NHL sent out a statement condemning the “reprehensible remarks.”
But to Brock McGillis, the first openly gay male professional hockey player in North America, merely canceling Leipsic is futile. He says unless the NHL commits to changing player culture, Leipsic will just be another fall guy.
“Every player I’ve been around has used this type of language: racist, sexist or homophobic language,” McGillis told Outsports. “It would be very easy to take a fringe player, cancel him, and then go, ‘See, we don’t tolerate that,’ and then not do any of the work to actually evolve the culture and educate players at the NHL level and grassroots up to actually shift it so players aren’t using these words in conversations amongst each other, in locker rooms, in group chats, or anywhere.”
Leipsic’s poor performance on the ice supplied the Capitals with additional reasons to release him besides sexist Instagram messages. The six-year veteran hadn’t scored a goal since Nov. 27 and hadn’t played since Feb. 23. Washington’s acquisition of forward Ilya Kovalchuk basically rendered Leipsic useless.
If Leipsic were a star player, or even competent one, it’s possible he would still be under contract today. This appears to be a case where the Capitals were looking to move on anyway, and were granted an escape.
Last month, McGillis spoke with Outsports about the importance of calling out hate-speech in hockey, explaining why he chose to highlight two-time Stanley Cup champion Dustin Penner’s vile conspiracy-filled homophobic Twitter timeline. As the first openly gay pro hockey player, McGillis has plenty of first-hand experiences with the evils of bigotry. Though he didn’t publicly come out until 2016, his sexuality wasn’t a secret in the hockey community. The previous year, he was ousted without explanation from the association where he was coaching, and no longer allowed to work with its players. His competitors outed him, creating an intensifying drumbeat of whispers that became impossible to ignore.
Though professional hockey players haven’t been active on the ice in recent months, they’ve certainly been active on social media, sometimes to their detriment. Former NHL bruiser Brandon Prust recently went on a Twitter tirade about “reverse racism” and star Bruins forward David Pastrnak was caught using “you’re gay” as an insult on his Twitch stream, though he did catch himself and apologize. (Pastrnak was seen sporting a Pride shirt at the Boston Celtics’ Pride Night last year.)
For McGillis, the NHL must do more than release a statement about Leipsic’s individual case and move on. Though the NHL boasts about its inclusive corporate culture — the league has a longstanding partnership with You Can Play — he says the coaches and players need to be educated on the power of language and insults. Hockey culture comes from the locker room, not the executive suite.
“We need to shift hockey culture,” McGillis said. “To me, the way to do it is, we need to humanize these issues. When I go speak, I humanize being a gay man and playing hockey at high levels. I don’t think any of these players understand the impact it has, and it could be not only hurting friends and teammates, but hurting people they don’t even realize they’re having an impact on.”
Every movement needs a leader, and given Leipsic’s recent employment with the Capitals, perhaps Washington owner Ted Leonsis could take the lead on initiating next steps. Regardless, it’s clear the education needs to start early, and not just when players get into trouble. The best way to curtail derogatory language is through proactive measures.
“If you just shove education in front of Brendan Leipsic right now, it’s not going to have impact. It’s forced,” McGillis said. “You need to recognize issues, humanize issues, then engage and educate, and let’s follow up with discipline. He’s only a fall guy if this is the only step.”