Outside voices needed to influence hockey culture

Editorial by Owen Fullerton, YGK News, for the Local Journalism Initiative

On Thursday, Hockey Canada announced it would become a full signatory to Abuse-Free Sport, which is Canada’s independent system for preventing and addressing maltreatment in sport. 

By becoming a signatory, all complaints of abuse, discrimination, and harassment will go directly to the newly created Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner. 

Hockey Canada vice-president of sport safety Natasha Johnson called the move "an important step in working towards ending a culture of silence that exists in corners of our game".

The organization which oversees all levels of hockey in Canada has effectively lost the trust of the country thanks to its handling of serious sexual assault allegations brought forward against eight different players following a 2018 Hockey Canada Foundation Golf & Gala event in London, Ontario. 

The victim alleged that members of the gold medal winning 2018 World Junior team were among the assailants, and at this time all but four players from the roster - Boris Katchouk of the Chicago Blackhawks, Michael McLeod of the New Jersey Devils, and Ottawa Senators' players Alex Formenton and Drake Batherson - have made statements pointedly declaring they were not involved "in any wrongdoing".

Of those players, only Formenton has yet to make any statement whatsoever, and as the 23 year old continues to watch the season unfold without a contract, there has been speculation that the impasse could be related to the investigation. 

As more details about the sexual assault and the aftermath have become public, the attention has largely shifted away from the assault itself as Hockey Canada's response has taken centre stage.

Minor hockey associations throughout the country have been dismayed to learn that in addition to the Canadian government providing six per cent of Hockey Canada's operating budget, a $3 registration fee paid by every single minor hockey player helped bolster Hockey Canada's "National Equity Fund" which is one of a few funding pools it has used to pay $8.9 million in sexual misconduct settlements since 1989. 

In fact, over the years Hockey Canada has expanded its pool of money dedicated specifically "for matters included but not limited to sexual abuse."

Hockey Canada's CEO Scott Smith, who along with the rest of the board of directors has since resigned after initially resisting calls for a complete leadership overhaul, said the funds were not used to "protect our image. We've used money to respond [to] and support victims." 

Hockey Canada's mishandling of the allegations, and further accusations revolving around hockey players that have arisen in their wake including against members of the 2003 World Junior team, has managed in some ways to shift the focus away from problematic elements of hockey culture as a whole. 

Justin Davis, a former Kingston Frontenac player turned teacher who recently had a book, Conflicted Scars, published that outlines experiences in the game of hockey he's come to realize are unacceptable, says with hockey players being so immersed in the culture from a young age, it can be extremely difficult to see the flaws in it.

While the mentality has been confronted in recent years, hockey has tended to be a sport that prides itself not on individuality, but on everybody falling into line. 

"You're immersed in it from the time you're 5, 6, 7, 8 and it goes all the way up and we move away from home when we're 14 and 15, no other sports ask kids to billet at such a young age," Davis said. 

"So your teammates are your family so that's where you kind of learn what you think is normal and how to act... Hockey is a sport where everybody acts the same."
In the CHL, that requires young men and boys sometimes as young as 17 or 18 to step up into leadership roles for their younger teammates. 

RMC employs a similar tactic where leadership is bestowed on very young men, and in another federal investigation revolving around hyper sexualization and other issues in a different "old boys club" institution, Mme Justice Louise Arbour compared the practice to "children leading children".

The OHL has made some changes in recent years to try and build a more welcoming and inclusive culture, and Kingston Frontenacs General Manager Kory Cooper thinks they're on the right track. 

He pointed out mandatory annual courses for players focused on diversity and mental health, as well as the OnSide program that is centred around respecting women. 

Cooper says he feels with the steps implemented by the OHL and Frontenacs, the team is providing the right education to build a healthy locker room culture and role models within the city of Kingston.

"There's no real way to monitor everything and be on top of everything," Cooper said. 

"But if you educated your players and have the right people in there and they understand, I think you can do a really good job of it."

Davis, the former Front, suffers from back and concussion issues stemming mostly from his time playing OHL hockey, one of many leagues that has traditionally carried a "play through the pain" mentality that some former NHL players have pointed to as the cause for abuse of painkillers and the long term health detriments that come along with it. 

While his book, initially intended as memoirs for his kids, isn't intently focused on the issue of misogyny and sexual violence from hockey players, Davis said as the scandal became public the stories he was retelling began to gain a lot of traction with some people eager to learn about the sport's dirty underbelly.

The way Davis sees it, it's too difficult to recognize the faults of hockey culture while being entrenched within it, and only by stepping away do you come to realize how many elements of it are simply not okay.

That's why he's fully in support of the game employing outside voices at all levels to keep things in check. 

"It's until you bring in, like, outsiders and people with a different vision I think the cycle doesn't break," Davis said.

"We're finally allowing females into the game, into leadership roles... we're taking voices from people who maybe didn't play hockey that are very smart and see things different."

As a teacher, Davis interacts with teenage boys all the time and says while hockey players don't tend to be markedly different from their peers, the attitudes exhibited are "on steroids" due to being around each other constantly.

Davis talked about the startlingly lacklustre reaction by the Chicago Blackhawks after learning about the sexual assault of Kyle Beach at the hands of a team employee, and also touched on Montreal drafting Logan Mailloux in the first round after he was charged with defamation and offensive photography and publicly stated he shouldn't be drafted.

Davis says hockey teams are okay with the backlash they receive in cases like these, as they fully expect the story to fade away, or be overshadowed by a new scandal in the sport.

"Everybody was so up in arms," Davis said.

"But really they haven't put any protocols into place, there haven't been repercussions other than the firing the two people... with hockey things have always just kind of disappeared."

He hopes this time people will stop forgetting. 

The sport itself has shown several times in recent years its willingness to prioritize winning and preserving its image over doing what is best for the individuals involved.

That has perhaps been no better demonstrated than by the reaction of highly respected former Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, who when informed of the sexual misconduct during the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals allegedly said the team had worked "too hard" to get to where they were, and that it wasn't the right time to deal with the issue.

At the OHL level, and specifically for the Kingston Frontenacs, a more concerted effort has been put forward to put players' well being ahead of winning. 

Cooper says for their team at least, it is the top priority. 

"We never want to take any player's health, mental health, any sort of abusive stuff, we never take that lightly," Cooper said.

"It's primary, it's foremost, it's ahead of the game every day."

Even as it begins to be challenged, that hockey over everything mindset, continues to exist to some degrees at all levels of the game. 

Greater Kingston Minor Hockey Association President Scott Trueman acknowledged how poorly Hockey Canada handled the allegations from 2018, but when it came to the organization had the primary gripe of getting rid of Novice AAA. 

As for the 2018 scandal, while he said the players involved in the sexual assault should certainly know better than to be in that situation, he also said he thinks that after the investigation is done we will likely see some blame exists on "both sides of the fence".

"Sometimes things can happen where the victim actually created it or caused it," Trueman said.

"But that doesn't exclude the defender whose actually creating the defence from not knowing any better."

While discussing a perceived rise in homophobic and racist language on the ice, Trueman asserted that while the language certainly isn't acceptable, neither are the efforts being made to deter it. 

He says at the end of the day, the most important thing is allowing kids to stay on the ice, and he's concerned coaches will allege hateful language was used as a means of getting good players kicked out of the game.

"Calling somebody a name, no it's not correct, it's terrible some of the names people do use," Trueman said. 

"But on the same hand do we as people need to toughen up a little bit and ignore what's coming out of somebody's mouth."

Trueman says we can't use the lazy way out when dealing with these allegations, which to him is simply suspending a player for an incident based solely off someone else's word - something he could foresee being challenged legally by a wealthy parent. 

There is room for change however, according to Trueman and he says minor hockey organizations would be happy to help instill it, but they haven't been given the proper guidance or course material to implement from Hockey Canada.

"They certainly haven't provided a very good example or leadership role for all the levels below them," Trueman said. 

For Davis, he says minor hockey coaches in highly competitive centers are paid rather well, but need to have some additional focus on developing good people and not just good players. 

Davis says without healthy culture being instilled at the minor hockey level, it may be too late when players get to the CHL, college hockey or professional leagues - but agreed that it's an area Hockey Canada itself needs to step up on.

"By the time they get to the CHL and the NHL that's normal," Davis said.

"So that's where it needs to be fixed at the grassroots level. That's Hockey Canada's role though I think."

While the search for a replacement Board of Directors is ongoing, it remains to be seen if Hockey Canada has what it takes to turn a concerning tide, or if there is even the appetite within the hockey world to make those changes.