I don’t write about it much, but if you’ve taken the time to read the “About” page on this blog, you might have noticed something about me. I’m gay. I’m also married and have kids – I didn’t come to fully accept being gay until about a year ago – but there it is. Life is weird and complicated, and so, you know. That’s just that.
I only mention this because I’m having a hard time collecting my thoughts on the Andrew Shaw controversy from last night’s Blackhawks-Blues Stanley Cup Playoff game. If you don’t know what happened – or if you aren’t as obsessed with hockey as some of us (cough, cough) – Shaw got called for a stupid penalty with only 2:04 left in the third period and the Blues up 4-3. That meant the Blues could essentially close out the game on the power play, and they didn’t even have to score. Mind you, this happened as the Blackhawks were mounting a comeback, having been down 4-2 until Duncan Keith scored a power play goal with about 5:20 left to play. Basically, Shaw’s penalty cost the Blackhawks a chance to tie the game, and possibly even to win in regulation, by pulling goalie Corey Crawford and playing six-on-five.
Who knows what would have happened, but it was an awful penalty to take.
Anyway, after being called for interference, Shaw blew a gasket, calling the referee a “fucking faggot” – twice, actually: Once when he was still on the ice, and once more from the penalty box. The second incident was caught on video, plain as day, but I saw both. In the moment it happened, I knew exactly what he said, and it felt like a punch in the gut. It’s hard to explain. It’s not so much that it hurt my feelings or even made me angry; it’s that it’s really humiliating. So much so, I had to pretend I didn’t realize what he said. But I did.
The hard part, though, is not that some jerk called somebody a “faggot.” The hard part is, Andrew Shaw is one of my favorite players. That’s not a popular opinion among hockey fans. Shaw is irritating, talks too much, seems to be a little thin-skinned. And he often gets called for stupid penalties, like he did last night. Yet, sometimes he plays with a level of intensity that you don’t see from more traditionally gifted hockey players. He has an almost Dennis Rodman-like ability to get under opposing players’ skin, and so he draws them into making stupid mistakes of their own. Also like Rodman, he’s actually an exceptionally skilled athlete; so he’s not just a goon who fits a particular niche. I don’t know quite how to explain it, but there’s something compelling about the way Shaw plays, flaws and all.
Hockey is, far and away, the quirkiest of all the major sports, and that quirkiness is a huge part of why the sport is so addictive. It has its own language (they’re sweaters, not jerseys, and the space between the goalie’s legs is the five-hole). It’s the meanest sport ever invented, but it was invented by Canadians, the nicest, politest people on the planet. It makes absolutely no sense (it’s basically soccer or polo, but you play it on ice so no matter how skilled you are you fall flat on your ass on a regular basis). And because of all that, it’s exactly what Eddie Olczyk says it is. It’s the greatest game in the world.
So for reasons I can’t quite explain, Andrew Shaw just sort of fits it perfectly.
But it’s more than that. There’s a lot to like about Shaw as a person. When he first came to the Blackhawks, he wore a wristband with the name of the local iron workers’ union from the small town in Ontario where he grew up, because most of his friends back home worked in the steel mills. During the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, Shaw took a puck to the face, costing him a half-dozen or so stitches. He later auctioned the stitches on eBay to raise money for charity. And during last year’s Stanley Cup run, his brother came to Chicago to work construction on the Wrigley Field renovations.
All of this makes Shaw more of a three dimensional person than the typical hockey troublemaker, and I do think that, for the most part, he’s a decent guy. On Twitter, Chris Hine, an openly gay sports reporter for the Chicago Tribune who covers the Blackhawks, said that after both Shaw and the Blackhawks organization issued their most likely PR-inspired apologies for the incident, Shaw took the time to talk to Hine personally:
Shaw wanted to talk after his media session & he’s sincere in his apology and in saying that’s not the kind of guy he is. I appreciated that
— Chris Hine (@ChristopherHine) April 20, 2016
That’s not the sign of a horrible person; that’s the sign of a good guy who made a horrible mistake.
At the same time, as Hine noted in today’s Tribune, even causal use of a slur like that has a real impact:
That word is why gay athletes everywhere hide their sexual identity and often live lives of torment. It’s why some contemplate suicide and develop emotional and psychological issues they might never rectify.
Obviously, it’s not just athletes who feel that pain. We all do, whether or not we’re out, and whether or not we have supportive family and friends.
Truthfully, it’s a lot worse when a likable person – a good guy – uses a slur like that, because it causes you to question all the likeable people you know. It causes you to question all the people who appear to be open-minded and supportive, because you realize even open-minded, supportive people grew up in an environment where the casual use of words like “faggot” was generally accepted.
I hate to say this, but incidents like Shaw’s rant are the sort of thing that make me leery of, even uncomfortable around, people I don’t know. They make me wonder if I’m safe around other people, especially strangers, and whether it’ll ever be okay for me to be myself.
When you can’t even sit down to watch a playoff hockey game without being confronted with questions like these, it’s … I don’t know. It’s just hard, I guess.
And lord knows, playoff hockey is stressful enough.
© 2016 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.