When Andrew Shaw was suspended by the NHL in 2016 for using a homophobic slur during a tirade in the penalty box, it cemented his reputation in the eyes of many fans, despite his eventual repentance.
He missed a playoff game for the Chicago Blackhawks, apologized to "the gay and lesbian community" and claimed that "wasn't who he was." After being traded to the Montreal Canadiens, those same fans were stunned when Shaw was named the team's LGBTQ ambassador in partnership with You Can Play.
"I knew people were going to think I was just doing it to save face," Shaw told the Chicago Tribune. "I knew that was going to happen, but I did it anyway. I think I'd be the best for that job because of what I went through last year."
Whether or not Shaw learned from this experience would be a matter of public trial, perhaps for the rest of his career. On Friday night, his skeptics were the jury on a new alleged crime: Using that slur once again, and once again in an outburst in the penalty box, after an on-ice incident with Kevin Bieksa of the Anaheim Ducks.
Social media exploded with amateur lip-reading experts demonizing Shaw as a hypocrite, as video of the alleged slur made its way around the hockey world. Shaw was livid behind the scenes, protesting that he hadn't used the slur again. The NHL used the same game footage that was being shared by fans, and thought there was enough there to look into whether Shaw did or did not use the slur. Hockey operations reached out to Shaw to discuss what was said.
He claimed he was protesting the fact that Bieksa sucker-punched him but wasn't given a penalty that fit the crime when both went off the ice in the third period. (Bieksa was given a double-minor for roughing and both players received game misconducts.)
What did Shaw say? According to sources, it was various incantations of "the f-word" that referenced where Bieksa punched him, Bieska's level of fitness and, in what was caught on camera, Shaw claiming that "it's not [expletive] fair" that the officials ruled the way they had. But no slur was used.
Did the NHL take Shaw's word for it? No. Stephen Walkom, the NHL's director of officiating, interviewed all the on-ice officials, including referees Gord Dwyer and Francis Charron. The Anaheim penalty box official was interviewed as well. Each of them corroborated Shaw's story independently, and specifically denied hearing Shaw use any homophobic slurs.
The league released a statement on Sunday:
"The League thoroughly investigated this matter including interviewing Andrew Shaw, on-ice officials and relevant off-ice officials. We are completely satisfied that Andrew Shaw did not say the homophobic slur that has been alleged."
A few takeaways:
1. The NHL's investigation of the matter, at the very least, shows they're taking this policing of language on the ice seriously. Now, whether or not this would have led to something substantial punitively is up for debate: The league lost a huge amount of cachet after it refused to suspend Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf for what many deemed a homophobic comment during last year's Western Conference final, fining him instead. So, respect for the due diligence, but we'll hold the applause until the next time there needs to be consequences.
2. As hockey fans, we've been deputized to call out behavior by the league, athletes and teams that alienates and marginalizes our fellow fans. Shaw's initial suspension was a product of that. But in this case, it wasn't so much questioning whether Shaw crossed the line, but having too many voices screaming that he definitively had, based on perception and a brief video clip. The last thing we should want is terms like "witch hunt" being thrown around regarding valid concerns about these matters in the NHL because that can invalidate them.
3. That said, a reminder to Andrew Shaw and the rest of the players who have been re-educated about societal norms and apologized for their malfeasance: We're listening. And the sincerity of your words will only be validated by a change in your actions going forward.