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Cheryl MacDonald is a sports sociologist and researcher at SMU. She's also the associate director of outreach for the Centre for the Study of Sport and Health. Photo: Bruce Murray

Local researcher Cheryl MacDonald explores how hockey is diversifying and better supporting young athletes 

Cheryl MacDonald’s father loved hockey, so she tried to take an interest in the sport. She watched games on TV and at local rinks. She even tried to play, but realized she lacked the gift. 

While completing her sociology honours degree, MacDonald found a new way to embrace hockey, combining her passion for it with her understanding of gender differences. Now a sports sociologist and researcher teaching in the health and wellness program at Saint Mary’s University, she is also the associate director of outreach for the university’s Centre for the Study of Sport and Health

MacDonald recently co-edited the book Overcoming the Neutral Zone Trap: Hockey’s Agents of Change. The Hockey News has celebrated her as a “social change advocate,” as she continues to study the barriers that prevent more people from participating in the sport. 

In the following interview, she offers a unique perspective on the current state of hockey culture, inclusiveness in the sport, societal barriers, and the role of education. 

Current hockey culture: “Attitudes have not changed enough. A lot of the former ways of doing things are no longer compatible with the goals and attitudes of folks who are coming up through the ranks, in charge, or the athletes as well. We’re finding a lot — uncovering a lot of stories of misconduct. We’re having a lot of disagreements on how hockey should move forward in terms of who should be included, why or how. There will continue to be growing pains as we sort that out. I’m also paying a lot of attention to the women’s professional side of hockey, where I see they’re having a struggle for legitimacy.” 

Societal barriers: “If someone suggests a different way of doing things, or including folks who are different, the immediate reaction is to say no. It’s not to say that the folks who are impeding that are inherently racist, sexist, homophobic, or anything like that … But there is a chance that they’re not fully aware of it. The second barrier is the folks who are outwardly racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. That is a small group that exists, whether they’re from a different era, whether they don’t understand, or whether they have had their own negative experiences. There are folks who would rather not change the game of hockey, and that means keeping certain people in groups out … The biggest barrier to inclusion for me has nothing to do with identity, necessarily, and everything to do with resources. There are so many folks who do not have access to money, ice time, and equipment.” 

Homosexuality in hockey: “Ten or 15 years ago, we wouldn’t even have been having this conversation … My research has shown that at the younger levels, gay ice hockey players are fairly welcome on their teams. It tends to be at the most elite and competitive levels of men’s hockey specifically that it’s not yet fully safe to be gay … It is more acceptable for you to identify as a homosexual man of hockey, as long as you don’t act in ways that are considered feminine, so if you are very tough and masculine, then it becomes more OK for you to be gay. If you are a particularly skilled player, it then becomes more OK for you to be gay because winning happens at all costs at that level.” 

Women in hockey: “The women’s side is very different; you are often assumed to be a lesbian … They have now descended into a deeper level of stereotyping and judgment where it seems to become more about not necessarily whether or not you’re lesbian, but how you present in terms of how feminine you are. In women’s hockey, sometimes the athletes will work very hard to present themselves as very feminine or very butch right now. It’s a different challenge, but still full of judgment and feeling the need to prove yourself.” 

Racism in hockey: “There is a severe culture of judgment and therefore, anything that makes you different will be used against you … My research has shown that whether you identify as a person of colour, whether you suffered with or battled drug and alcohol addiction, whether you have mental health problems, whether you have been a victim of sexual abuse, whether you’re gay … it’s all about you being less welcome.” 

Inclusion movement: “We need to create an environment where athletes feel safe and welcome. That means having policies and rules in place that prohibits exclusive behaviour and attitudes, and also education. It’s important that we teach athletes to love themselves. It’s important to instill self-confidence in the athlete so they know they deserve to be there. They do have a right and then whoever has victimized them is definitely wrong. (We need to ensure) athletes understand they can be their authentic selves, and that they are loved as they are.” 

About Overcoming the Neutral Zone Trap: The book is “a collection of folks, academics, and keynote speakers from the hockey community, sharing their experiences … The second goal for us was to try to combine academics and empirical research with personal narrative in order to reach a wide audience. We wanted to be able to connect with the hockey fans, the academics, and hopefully everybody in between.” 

Mental health impacts on student-athletes: “My hockey research got shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic and I noticed the student athletes I had already been working with were quite obviously struggling when the pandemic hit, but I also noticed some of them were relieved because a lot of the stress was taken off them from their daily lives … We’re not always doing all the things that university athletes need to feel whole.” 

What we should be doing for young athletes: “Taking care of mental health is a big one. Having opportunities for socialization, learning about things like time management, for instance, having opportunities to engage in leadership, that transition into and out of university and university sports. Having academic support. I want athletes to feel it’s OK to have emotion and to not be OK. So, I’m interested in how to not just support their athletics and academics, but everything in between that makes them happier and a positive contributor to society.” 

What sports organizations and governments should do: “Buy in. If not, everybody is not on the same page in terms of what needs to happen to promote inclusion; it’s not going to happen because we’ll be paddling the boat in separate directions. Buy in is having everyone on board agree that this is what is best and proceeding accordingly … Policy should be number one. They have the agency to implement rules in which you have no choice but to engage in diversity, inclusion, and equity training. You have no choice but to learn about how to be less judgmental and more open minded. It’s one thing to have a rule stating you cannot make a racial slur during the game, it’s another to actually mandate the changing of attitudes so folks understand why they can’t behave in inappropriate ways.” 

The future: “Progress in hockey culture is one step forward, two steps back. We’re probably going to continue to have twice as many steps back but … that’s still a lot of steps forward from where we are right now. I don’t think we’re ever going to fully eradicate hate and prejudice from sports, but the evidence suggests we are indeed moving forward.” 

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