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Billington commits to awareness (1/11/94)

Billington commits to awarenss
Roy MacGregor, Ottawa Citizen

Craig Billington knew there would be the odd eyebrow raised. He has been around hockey too long to expect otherwise.

He heard the tuba-voiced heckler the other night in Philadelphia:

"Hey, Turgeon! Conroy whipped your butt -- you fairy!"

He hears what they call each other when they are kidding around in practice: "Faggot!"

He hears the different tone in the same word when they are no longer kidding around in games:

"You wanna go, faggot?"

A week ago in Ottawa they called Craig Billington to centre ice and announced that he had been chosen Molson Player of the Month for December. In turn, he announced that the $500 award would be going to the charity of his choice:

The AIDS foundation.

He knew what some would say. He knows hockey.

Fairies. Faggots.

Billington scoffs at the connection. "AIDS is real life," he says. "It happens all over the world."

"It's not just the gay community that's affected, though that is itself a terrible story. We're losing too many good people. There are children with AIDS. People have gotten it through blood transfusions. How about the dentist in Florida who infected his patients?"

"All this is about awareness."

But this, too, is about hockey, where everything is usually reduced to the simplest denomination. To many, AIDS automatically suggests homosexuality -- and to say the hockey world is not homophobic is to deny the obvious.

Don Cherry makes fun of gays by dressing up in earrings before an episode of Coach's Corner. Toronto is abuzz all spring over innuendo concerning the possible sexual orientation of certain Maple Leafs. One of the players' names undergoes gender reconstruction in the media.

If the NHL could be carbon-tested, it would probably come out somewhere around 1957. Men are men and they never cry. Women stay home. Some players even go to bed as a team. But the sexual orientation of a player is never questioned except as a putdown in jest or an invitation to a fight. Protection in the NHL still means having a tough wonger to back you up.

What closet?

Unlike tennis, football, baseball, and so many other professional sports, no NHL player has ever come out of the closet. Most prefer to believe that if there is a closet, it remains empty. If it isn't, some would say it should be cleaned out, with fists.

Under such circumstances, an NHL player who would choose AIDS as his charity is showing a bit of courage.

"I'm sure some people mught find it difficult," Billington says. "I didn't. This is all about lack of knowledge, and I'll be the first to admit I don't know enough about the disease."

"Actually, it was my wife's idea. The Senators send out these forms at the beginning of the season and ask you all these questions, and one of them was about which charity you would want to support. I've always done things to do with children, but Susan suggested the AIDS foundation and it seemed like a good idea tro me."

"I'm pretty strong-willed and I certainly had no problem with it, so we went with it."

It was only $500. "A drop in the bucket," he says. He knows his concern as a hockey player cannot possibly have an effect comparable to, say, Magic Johnson's retirement from basketball after testing HIV positive, but this is a long road, slowly traveled.

"Magic Johnson brought the sporting world's attention to this," Billington says.

The hockey world is a time capsule within that bubble, but "Hopefully," he says, "a little thing like this will help with some awareness."

"If some of that attitude can change, that would be great."

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