There's no denial recently that hockey has at least attempted to make some progression in the past few seasons with regard to making the sport more inclusive.
With the public support of initiatives like You Can Play and Pridetape from some of the NHL's biggest stars, the recent announcement by the NWHL of a policy to make it easier for transgender athletes to compete followed by the trailblazing efforts of Harrison Browne, and the slow but sure movement by many in hockey fandom to challenge and confront discrimination and abuse where it's found (amongst them the efforts of writers like Julie DiCaro in challenging the misogynistic attitude still exhibited by far too many people in hockey) there is great work being done.
However, unfortunately the problems in hockey still remain, and are still visible. We've spoken at length about hockey's issues with female fans and how women's hockey still doesn't receive the support it should, We've spoken at length recently about the way hockey views itself, and how sometimes the "please like my sport" attitude can veer into praising hockey with undertones of homo- and trans-phobia.
The NHL is still a league with a lot to learn in terms of educating its players - although it has started to respond to homophobia more strongly, notably with Andrew Shaw being given a one game ban for using a homophobic slur while with the Chicago Blackhawks last season.
Last night, though, we saw something rare in the NHL, which was a player publicly using their Twitter platform to call out and challenge the kind of homophobic comment that is still all too common on hockey Twitter. That player was Boston's very own Brad Marchand, who responded to a homophobic tweet aimed at him with a devastating public rebuke.
(we've edited the tweet to cover the slurs and offensive language, but it's safe to say that the message is very clearly and openly using a homophobic slur to refer to Marchand).
Marchand's Twitter was flooded with fans both in Boston and around the NHL reacting to him for the public response, with the vast majority praising him for doing so and many more adding to this by saying that the fact he did so was hugely important.
It's the second part of the response we want to consider in this article. Why is this one tweet such a big deal? What difference could it make, after all, in a league and sport that still has much to learn about toxic masculinity and its effects?
NHL players, by nature, are public figures. The vast majority of them have carefully-regulated Twitter personas and will have been informed by their teams and media training throughout their careers to be very careful and aware of what they put out and the message it can reflect.
We've seen many players in the past castigated for tweets that show too much of their personal lives, or are considered by some as not "representing hockey" the right way. Among what established thinking says is the "right way" for an NHL player or indeed any public figure, particularly a sports star, to act is to ignore or not respond to the public in many cases, and particularly not those hurling abuse. NHL players are considered to be "above" all that. "Don't give these people the satisfaction" runs the conventional wisdom.
This means that the comment in question is the type of comment that normally, NHL players or indeed many sportspeople would ignore. After all, Marchand is a player who probably attracts more than his fair share of opproprium on Twitter - the style of play that makes him so loved in Boston will make him a target of abuse for many opposition fans.
While this is understandable, it means that most NHL player "activism" is done through carefully-managed PR releases or interactions with the public. Even when players truly believe in a cause, the way that their celebrity forces them to deliver the message to campaign for it often seems, if not fake, at least carefully filtered.
This, however, wasn't. This was Marchand seemingly finally deciding, for whatever reason, that this particular comment was the breaking point for him and it was time to push back and call out the offender. It wasn't a carefully-scripted YCP soundbite or a press-release quote. It was one man turning to another and saying "this is not acceptable. Enough".
It just so happened that this particular man happened to be a role-model for thousands of people in the hockey world, and one of the most well-known players in the biggest hockey league in the world.
We also need to consider another factor. For many hockey fans, Brad Marchand is considered a "proper" hockey player. His gritty, in-your-face style of play and willingness to involve himself physically and take no prisoners are what many consider an image of hockey as it should be, one that they consider, for some reason, to be placed under threat by what they sneeringly refer to as the "pussification" of the game. These are the fans who will defend players for deeds that others will challenge (like for example Shaw's homophobia) as "just being part of the game".
They're also the type of cynical hockey fan who will look at initiatives like YCP and their choice of superstars as "safe" or "bland". To these people, the argument runs, Sidney Crosby is bound to put the "correct" message across regarding inclusivity because it's what he's expected to do. They argue that these initiatives are merely PR and "proper" hockey players don't think that way. They are the kind of people who are most prone to fall into the trap discussed at length in a truly excellent piece by Katie at Pension Plan Puppets here, which explains how there is a tendency in hockey fandom to focus more on the welfare of a perpetrator of homophobia than its effects, one they call a "misattribution of victimhood"
Therefore, while wishing in no way to denigrate the efforts of Crosby or any other superstar who might be considered "corporate" by some, it's arguably more important to see a player like Brad Marchand openly call out things like this then someone like Crosby because he's the kind of player that these "old-school" hockey fans would point to as a role-model/PROPER PLAYER, whereas Crosby doing it, while influential, is going to make the people who REALLY need to be hit by it just sneer "oh, goody goody corporate Crosby he WOULD do that"
It is the old story that sometimes, the same message delivered by two different people can have very different effects.
By openly challenging homophobia, Marchand has struck an important blow, not just against this one individual, but against all those like them. A player idolised by many who might consider homophobia "just part of the game" has spoken up publicly, outside of carefully-managed PR opportunities and league-sanctioned initiatives, to say, simply, plainly and unfiltered "you're wrong, it isn't-and you are the problem".
That is what makes his act so important to so many people.
One of the scrappiest pests in hockey has taken on the very crowd that use him as a reason for still feeling free to their own bigotry.
As a result, the shot he fired on Twitter last night will likely have more long-lasting (if invisible) effects than any one he'll ever fire on net.
And for that, Brad Marchand is to be massively applauded.