TORONTO -- Forward James van Riemsdyk did not have to think twice when the Toronto Maple Leafs were selecting a You Can Play ambassador for the NHL's Hockey Is For Everyone month. In fact, neither did his brother, Trevor van Riemsdyk, who is serving as the ambassador for the Chicago Blackhawks. For the two brothers, the concept of respect and equality for all has been instilled in them by their parents, Allison and Frans since they were children.
"Our parents always raised us growing up to treat everyone with respect and that everyone is your equal," James van Riemsdyk said. "I don't know if there was a certain instance, but we were always raised that way and this is just an extension of that. As long as someone is a good person and this instance a good teammate and a good hockey player, that's the only thing we really care about within our locker room."
Each team across the League has named an ambassador to help draw awareness regarding inclusion, diversity and tolerance as part of the NHL initiative this month.
"It's a great thing, I think, for our League to be a part of," James van Riemsdyk said. "It's important to have an inclusive environment where everyone feels comfortable playing hockey, and not only just hockey but in everyday life. Obviously, it's great to see the Maple Leafs and the NHL getting involved in something like this."
The Maple Leafs will host Hockey Is For Everyone night during their game against the Buffalo Sabres at Air Canada Centre on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; CBC, MSG-B, NHL.TV).
The NHL and NHL Players' Association have partnered with the You Can Play Project, an organization founded by Patrick Burke, the NHL's Director of Player Safety, which works to ensure equality, respect and safety for people participating in all sports, including LGBTQ athletes, coaches and fans.
When the You Can Play Project launched in 2012, Burke was working as a scout with the Philadelphia Flyers and asked several players around the League if they could lend their voice to the cause. For James van Riemsdyk, who played for the Flyers at the time, it was a no-brainer to accept Burke's invitation and help out.
"The Burke family has always been very good to me and this is a great cause to be a part of so it's a home run as far as being involved with something like this," van Riemsdyk said. "You see the work that the Burkes and all the people who have been associated with this cause have done to help get it more notoriety, and now it's not just the NHL, it's in a lot of different sports. I visited the University of New Hampshire a couple of weekends ago and they had an awareness night there, too. For something like this, it was great to see."
More than 20 players from the Toronto Gay Hockey Association (TGHA) will be in attendance at the morning skate on Saturday and will have a meet and greet with Maple Leafs alumnus Darryl Sittler. Chris Murray, who serves as the Commissioner of the TGHA, will be among those on hand. He said the support his Association has received from the NHL and the Maple Leafs has made a significant difference.
"It's really important because there are a lot of good athletes out there of differing minorities that due to sexuality, religion or whatever it may be, they don't feel comfortable to be who they are and play," Murray said. "I think it is great the NHL has taken a position of leadership where you can be who you are and just be a good hockey player. If you can play, you can play. I love that. You go to a bar with my hockey team and we're cheering on the Leafs as much as anybody else. Being able to see acceptance of who they are, it's a great feeling. It's still fresh enough that people remember that wasn't necessarily the case even five or 10 years ago."
James Van Riemsdyk, in his eighth NHL season, said the kind of language used in dressing rooms has changed since he first came into the League.
"I don't think it was necessarily in certain cases people doing things to be malicious, but maybe they just didn't realize they were saying things that were so hurtful," he said. "Now you notice it has definitely shifted, I can for sure say that. From my first couple years [in the NHL] until now, that kind of stuff is almost non-existent now."
For Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, the notion that in 2017 someone would be excluded or made to feel uncomfortable seemed perplexing. He made it clear that is something he would have no tolerance for.
"This is how simple it is: if you're good enough to play, you get to play, how's that?" Babcock said. "This is just me, but I always thought everyone's included always anyway, it didn't really matter. Let's be honest, the world changes and everybody is important and everybody should have the right to live the way they want to live and do the things they want to do."