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The time is now for hockey culture to change

Trigger Warning/Content Warning: Sexual Violence

I can appreciate that in many ways the last thing that is needed in the hockey culture discussion is the voice of a middle-aged straight white man from Canada, but as the need for a swift change in hockey culture becomes more apparent, I feel like more of us in hockey’s bread and butter demographic need to speak up about the problems in the sport. That’s why I certainly encourage everyone to write their Member of Parliament to express their concerns with Hockey Canada.

Before going any further I will say that reading Gaby Ugarte’s post on this subject is a must, as is Brock McGillis’ op-ed in The Globe and Mail. At best I hope to echo the change they are championing.

Within the past few months, the reporting of Rick Westhead has not only unearthed the terrible alleged actions of the 2018 and 2003 Canadian Men’s World Junior teams, but the systemic approach to which the organization covers up actions like this.

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The worst part of these situations are that they seem to be in no way surprising nor is the manner in which they are dealt with. Hidden funds are not unique to Hockey Canada, but funding them out of children’s hockey registrations is especially disgusting.

It also seems that many Canadians have a tale of attending high school and overhearing rumours of actions taken by the hockey team that was at best disgusting and at worst criminal. The fact that the sport has culture issues shouldn’t be a surprise.

(An example of the ongoing nature of hockey’s issues is detailed in the twitter thread below)

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So much effort is put into elevating players, making them feel special, making them feel above their general populous. No effort seems to be put towards holding them to, not even a higher standard, but at the very least the same standard as everyone else.

Junior hockey at large is flawed. Players are taken away from their homes to put in situations where they are living with strangers, who volunteer to look after these players specifically because of their support of hockey, and those young players are then surrounded by older players looking to exploit the fear of younger players living away from home for the first time. This is not an every situation thing but is undeniably happening. Concerns about schooling are also legitimate and that physical and mental separation from that environment is undoubtedly impactful, although I’m not stating that a regular high school experience can’t also have toxicity to it.

Hockey has serious problems. If you want to make a case for all sports having problems, cool. We’re talking about hockey and need to start here.

The first thing that needs to be considered is that in the 21st century we’ve seen Hockey Canada balloon from a 20 person organization to an organization with well over 100 employees. A large part of that has been under the guise of addressing things like player safety, reducing bullying, and making the sport accessible to everyone. To say that there has been a limited success in those endeavours is being considerate. Instead, Hockey Canada seems to be more committed to Canadian gold at the Olympics and World Juniors.

Frankly, they have not been and probably should never be the stewards of hockey culture for the country when the fundamental “win at all costs” attitude is most prevalent. We’ve heard more concerns about Hockey Canada regarding the country’s goaltending pipeline than we have about the rising costs of the sport or addressed any culture issue. Thanks to the 2018 London gala situation we now know why we haven’t heard them address culture issues, they were actively at work to make sure those conversations weren’t happening.
Is it as simple as taking a “burn it to the ground” attitude with Hockey Canada and starting over?

Yes and no. Next week, if I wanted to, I could still go in and register for my kid to play hockey. The absence of Hockey Canada doesn’t change that. Will Sport Canada still be able to put together committees to build national teams? I don’t see why not.

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The biggest concern seems to be that without Hockey Canada there is no oversight for the Canadian Hockey League, and that’s a real problem as many of the problems that keep emerging are specifically because of the minimal oversight that presently exists there. For-profit teams will only commit to the bare minimum asked of them, and the desire to win combined with a desire to profit means that players’ behaviour will often go unchecked as long as they’ve got the talent to win. When we’re talking about blowing up Hockey Canada, the Canadian Hockey League needs to be part of that as well.

It is one thing to say blow it up and another thing to suggest how it needs to be rebuilt.

The education component is critical, like Brock McGillis mentioned in his Globe and Mail piece, once players have a better understanding of the people they are impacting and how the trauma inflicted on them is carried through their lives there is a better chance that behaviours will change. As grim as it may seem that some people need to be told not to act that way, a thorough education program will have an impact.

Part of what seems minimally required is increased independent oversight from child safety advocates. This should be occurring for travel teams and hockey academies in addition to the Canadian Hockey League. The development and safety of the players and those they are coming in contact with need to be prioritized.

There needs to be an increased commitment to mental health in the CHL. Regular player counseling provides a safe environment for players to deal with the unique situation they are in a constructive and personalized way.

An independent organization needs to be part of the primary contact for when allegations come in so they can be investigated thoroughly from the beginning.

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Hockey Canada did attempt to address some of these items in an Action Plan released Monday, including third party reporting and investigations (you know that thing that was required 20 years ago), improving education, and some character screenings for high-performance athletes. What that looks like in practice is still vague, whether it is going to come with a request for resources and funding seems likely and should be equally infuriating. Additional what Hockey Canada has still not done is hold anyone accountable for actions previously taken by the organization. The fact that there is nothing being put on the past Presidents of Hockey Canada, or those involved in the cover-ups or payouts is a further attempt to sweep things under the rug rather than do what is right. This only raises further concern about Hockey Canada being the stewards of the sport and its culture and certainly doesn’t inspire faith that the action plan will be executed thoughtfully.

In a sport that has seemingly encountered a new scandal every week, if not every day over periods of this summer, there needs to be a greater commitment to change. There is a lot to love about the sport and it would be great if that was at the forefront instead of the abuse that hockey culture and team culture has inflicted on people.

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