Confronting hockey’s dark side
As the world junior championship returns to Halifax, hockey faces intense scrutiny
The day after Christmas, one of the most highly anticipated events on the international hockey circuit returns to Halifax.
The International Ice Hockey Federation’s world junior championship, which runs from Boxing Day until Jan. 5, has become a rite of the holidays for many Canadian families, but a dark cloud hangs over the tournament this year.
In May, reporter Rick Westhead broke news that the organization paid a settlement to a woman who says members of Canada’s junior men’s team sexually assaulted her when they visited London, Ont. for a Hockey Canada golf event in 2018. Police continue to investigate that incident, along with a reported gang rape by Canadian players in 2003, the last time Halifax hosted the tourney. In September, CBC’s The Fifth Estate reported that police across the country have investigated at least 15 allegations of group sexual assault by junior hockey players, with 50 investigated and 25 charged.
Amid calls for an investigation to see if management used public funds to settle the 2018 Team Canada case, the federal government froze Hockey Canada’s funding. Soon after, it emerged that the organization settled many sexual assault cases over the years, drawing $7.6 million from player membership fees collected across the country.
The scandals haven’t appeared to have much impact on ticket sales for Halifax’s upcoming world junior tournament. According to an International Ice Hockey Federation press release, 50,000 fans have entered a draw for a chance to buy tickets.
Some fans are uncertain, though. Before she was a researcher studying hockey and sexuality at Saint Mary’s University, Cheryl MacDonald was a passionate fan, drawn to major-junior hockey at age nine when her hometown of Moncton got its first team. The world juniors would normally be highlighted on her calendar, but she’s unsure whether she’ll even watch this year’s tournament.
“As a hockey fan, you don’t always want to criticize or unpack the uglier parts of your sport,” she says. “With everything that has happened with Hockey Canada in recent months, we’re starting to know that hockey culture isn’t always a safe and enjoyable space for everybody.”
It’s left her questioning her love of the sport.
“My main conflict is wanting to support the athletes because I know we shouldn’t be painting the athletes with the same brush (that) we should be painting the culture with,” she says. “When I think about some of the (players) that I’ve known and enjoyed watching, in some ways, it would make me sad to not be there supporting them.”
Mac Ross, a sport-management professor at Western University in Ontario, says the assaults and payouts are a product of the current hockey culture, which balances on pedestals of violence and nationalism.
“When you mix them both, it can be very problematic,” he says. “When nationalism is involved, that violence can be readily rationalized away … It’s just completely ignored and spun into something that isn’t nearly as problematic sounding as it truly is. It has infiltrated every aspect of hockey, from hazing, fighting on the ice, to assaults on women off the ice.”
Hockey Nova Scotia executive director Amy Walsh says her sport has missed an opportunity to evolve.
“Hockey, at its best, is an amazing sport that I believe has the power to develop individuals and build communities, but it hasn’t adapted to change the way the world works now and what people want out of the game,” she says. “There hasn’t been the change required to evolve, grow and be more inclusive, so it’s been closed-minded. I think it’s an opportunity to be more open-minded and inclusive.”
The high cost of playing makes hockey inaccessible to many, particularly in contrast with sports like soccer. Parents can spend thousands of dollars in hopes of developing their kid into the next superstar. It gives many players an inflated sense of importance.
“They’ve tried hard to improve hockey’s cultural and social diversity through campaigns meant to attract people of colour, newcomers to Canada, and the LGBTQ+ community,” Ross says. “Those consistently run into roadblocks because the culture of white masculine supremacy within the sport is so deeply entrenched. It’ll take a long time to disrupt it completely.”
The situation has also given women and marginalized groups a message: until change happens at the organization’s top, the sport’s ugly side will persist.
“I think that’s the toughest thing for people to swallow,” Ross says. “When you have an organization saying that they do want to expand the sport and ensure people are included, but they’re only standing up for a handful of people who represent the white male privilege … instead of the people that are recording abuse.”
It’s time for Hockey Canada to practise what it’s been preaching.
“The way they’ve treated women in this recent round of sexual assault allegations shows that there’s a disconnection between their stated objectives and what their actions and culture are representing,” he says.
Hockey Nova Scotia has been trying to bridge that gap. In December 2019, officials launched a diversity task force to bring recommendations on eliminating discrimination, racism, and abuse in the sport to the Hockey Nova Scotia’s board of governors.
In spring 2021, the task force report identified nine recommendations, which the board unanimously accepted. One of those was adding a permanent diversity and inclusion chair, among efforts to build diversity amongst the board, staff, councils, and committees.
“As hockey leaders, we have a responsibility to bring about change,” Walsh says. “It was extremely powerful. So many people came forward with their stories and solutions on how the game can be safer and more welcoming. It was identified through that work that hockey culture needed to be addressed. Hockey Nova Scotia would not be able to build (diversity) … A real culture shift was needed. Then we started hard, real work, which has been great. We’re not stopping; it’s just starting.”
And this fall, Hockey Nova Scotia launched a Future Hockey Lab in response to suggestions made during consultations.
“It is at arm’s length, which was important to ensure they had the ability to live out the mission, which is to enable the creation, experimentation and testing of game-changing innovations,” Walsh says. “It’s the first social innovation lab in the world, and really, it’s about bringing diverse groups together to come up with solutions and innovative ideas on improving the hockey culture and making it more credible.”
Hockey Nova Scotia is working with Hockey Canada to let people share complaints anonymously for investigation by an independent third party.
“That’s a really important step because what has happened historically (was that) everything is kept quiet,” Walsh says.
The organization is also hoping to develop the women’s game further.
“It is by far the biggest opportunity for growth,” Walsh says, adding that only 15 per cent of Hockey Nova Scotia members are women. “We did a lot of work to look at how you can grow the female game, and we put together a plan, and we’re in the process of implementing that plan.”
In October, as outcry over Hockey Canada’s response to the sexual assaults grew, Hockey Nova Scotia stopped transferring player fees to Hockey Canada. “Until our values at Hockey Nova Scotia are reflected by Hockey Canada’s senior leadership, we simply cannot support hockey’s national governing body,” the organization says in a press release.
Since the provincial organizations have a closer relationship with local minor hockey associations, it enabled Hockey Nova Scotia to be proactive by listening, reacting to the outcry and criticism from parents of young hockey parents and act. That was a much different approach than Hockey Canada took, and Ross says it was a strong power play move.
“In doing so, they gave the parents a degree of visibility and financial leverage that they simply didn’t have before,” he says. “This, combined with the exodus of corporate sponsors, put a ton of pressure on Hockey Canada’s leadership. While the corporations took away a chunk of the leadership’s financial base, provincial organizations like Hockey Nova Scotia threw their ability to govern and direct the provinces into question. All together, the actions represented an insurmountable obstacle for this unethical and immoral leadership team to overcome.”
The national groundswell of pressure that finally led to the resignation of Hockey Canada boss Scott Smith and the board of directors.
Before the resignations, politicians were questioning their support of the upcoming championships. Now, HRM Mayor Mike Savage and local councillors say they’re again onside, but Ross says they should stand by.
“We have an action plan developed as part of a broader crisis management campaign,” he says.
“We have resignations, but there is nothing, yet, to suggest the sort of cultural change the sport requires will even happen. Let’s not rush this. Let’s get it right. Life will go on without the WJC.”
With the world junior championships looming, the question becomes whether people should support events that involve Hockey Canada or disengage until there’s meaningful change. Ross concedes there will be nothing significant achieved by the time of the tournament.
“Some people may be different, but the culture will be the same,” he says. “If the Maritimes do go ahead and host, which it sounds like they will, it would be best if Hockey Canada was excluded for the year. We need more time for reform.”
He encourages fans to keep up the scrutiny.
“Be vocal, email Hockey Canada, email your provincial organization, reach out to your government representatives,” he says. “Keep the pressure on until we see meaningful change. The CEO and the board stepping down was the easy part of all this. The hard part will be initiating change and developing momentum for that change over time. It will require patience and persistence.”
Walsh wants people to also remember the benefits of hosting the event, though.
“There’s a huge economic impact, especially following a pandemic,” she says. “It also has the opportunity to show what … we’re doing specifically in hockey, to bring about change and what potentially other places can learn from what we’re doing.”
With the international stage comes an opportunity for Halifax, but Ross says any city considering hosting a hockey event should consider a few things.
“Look for real tangible legacies,” he says. “What is it bringing into the city, and if we’re propping up a sport, in this case hockey, that’s constantly been in the media for its poor track record in protecting people, why would you do it? Why would you bother bringing them in?”
It could take the sport years to recover from Hockey Canada’s mishandling of the sexual assaults.
“They merely picked up that culture and packaged it up nicely for consumption, hiding the ugly bits from public view,” he says. “Now that the curtain is pulled back and we can see the whole beast for what it is … There have been decades with zero transparency or accountability. The organization has been grotesquely mismanaged. That sort of thing can’t be corrected overnight.”
Hockey Canada’s new leadership choices will set the tone.
“Women have to represent 50 per cent of the board,” Ross says. “There needs to be folks with hockey experience, but also board members with skills and abilities relating to equity and inclusion … Hockey is producing a very specific sort of masculinity, which is then celebrated and protected. This is all tangled up in nationalism, making it very difficult to resist. We have a rare moment here to reset and chart a different course. We must take advantage of it.”
Walsh dreams of that future.
“I would like to see that hockey is more representative of the Canadian community and the culture,” she says. “I’m a big proponent of using sport as a vehicle for good, and it will be about developing individuals and building community.”