Kristin Raworth: Hockey culture has a problem
The Social's Jess Allen was right. This is a culture that enables bad behaviour.
By: Kristin Raworth
In 2019, Don Cherry was fired from Hockey Night in Canada after a segment in which he repeatedly referred to new Canadians as “you people” in a rant about how few Canadians were wearing poppies for Remembrance Day. Following his firing, the hosts of the CTV show The Social discussed both Cherry and the overall culture of hockey. Social correspondent Jess Allen described hockey players as “a certain type of person,” who tend to be “white boys who weren’t, let's say, very nice” and “bullies.” She called out the problematic hockey culture that tends to “worship at the altar” of the player, often to the detriment of those around them. The backlash against Allen was fast and intense. She was target of a furious campaign of social media criticism; both she and CTV eventually apologized.
But … Jess Allen was right. Not every hockey player is bad, of course, but hockey’s institutions have a culture problem.
Over the past year we have seen more stories of abuse of and by players that were systemically shoved under the rug. This culminated in the shocking revelation that Hockey Canada used, in part, children’s registration fees to pay out alleged victims in sexual misconduct claims. To add insult to injury, the fund used for this purpose is the “National Equity Fund.” The money has settled nine cases for a total of $7.6 million dollars since 1989, $6.8 million of that going to the survivors of Graham James, who was convicted of sexually assaulting underage players, including Sheldon Kennedy and Theo Fleury.
These revelations are emerging at a time when multiple allegations of assaults involving national junior team players are coming to light, including an alleged gang rape in 2003 that was just referred to police last month. Hockey Canada claims it was only through reporting on the issue by TSN’s Rick Westhead that they learned of the alleged incident, despite their own official statement and testimony before a parliamentary committee that admitted staff had heard rumours at the time. In Hockey Canada’s parliamentary testimony they also discussed quietly settling a 2018 alleged sexual assault, but they didn’t inform the Minister of Sport, who has responsibility for the file, because they only provide the office “statistics.”
In short, Canadians are being told that nobody is responsible for anything, especially the players involved in these alleged incidents, who have never been publicly named.
But this is what it all comes down to. The players. Their careers, their futures, their paycheques.
Hockey is a fundamental part of Canadian identity. All you have to do is go on Twitter during a Leafs or an Oilers game to see how passionate Canadians are about the game and the players. In Edmonton, where I live, the hero worship for Connor McDavid is so intense that he has been nicknamed “McJesus.” There are images of him everywhere. To many Edmontonians, he can do no wrong. If he did, the value of punishment would be weighed against the city’s thirst for a Stanley Cup.
I have seen a lot of comments stating this isn’t just about hockey, that the issues of rape culture and toxic masculinity and sexual violence exist everywhere. Of course they do. But there is a permission structure around elite sports that does need to be considered. In Canada, that’s especially true around hockey.
From the time young male hockey players begin to move up in the hockey world, they are treated like they are untouchable. What matters the most is winning, above anything else. This is a mindset encouraged by parents, coaches and fans. Exceptions are made. Their needs are prioritized. Authority figures look the other way. Bad behaviour is enabled and then ignored.
This is the culture that created an environment that allowed the Montreal Canadiens to draft a player who admitted to sending explicit pictures of a sexual act without consent — which is a crime — and thinking it was fine. Or the Oilers signing of Evander Kane, who has a long history of alleged sexual and domestic violence. To even say on social media that you find these signings problematic is to invite a wave of toxic responses ranging from “women lie” to “who cares?”
A lot of prominent male sports anchors and voices are only now beginning to speak out after Hockey Canada’s complicity has become so undeniable. But it is often in general tones, waxing poetic about institutional change and other buzz words. None is demanding that accused players be named or suspended while they are investigated for a gang rape.
Hockey fans have even gone so far as to attack Sheldon Kennedy, a former player and sexual assault survivor advocate, after he called for the board and executive to resign. Hockey Canada created the structure that made complicity the easy response to sexual assault but fans who consistently turn a blind eye to bad behaviour encourage it.
I would love to see a real honest and accountable way forward. Hockey Canada needs to commit to being transparent in how registration fees are used. Instead of statistics, they need to provide the minister’s office with an action plan with tangible outcomes that is created in consultation with survivors and experts.
Instead of merely saying they have zero tolerance, Hockey Canada and the NHL must actually practice what they preach. Players credibly accused of serious misconduct need to be named and suspended pending the outcome of the investigation. For Hockey Canada itself, a fresh start can only begin when the entire board and executive is gone.
A massive cultural shift in all levels of hockey is needed. Exceptional athletic talent can no longer be a factor when determining consequences, if any, for awful, even criminal, behaviour. Individual fans need to look at their own behaviour and the behaviour they model for those around them. If they don't demand change, then change won’t happen. Cultures don’t change on their own. They changed when they’re forced to change.
And Jess Allen? She’s owed an apology.
Kristin Raworth is a victim advocate.
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