Skip to main content
opinion

Witnesses Scott Smith and Brian Cairo appear at the standing committee on Canadian Heritage in Ottawa on July 27.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

When Hockey Canada officials last showed up to take questions from MPs, they came off like typical sports bureaucrats. Sure of themselves, shaky on the facts and totally oblivious to the fact that everyone was enraged at them.

The usual ‘Yeah, we’ll try to get back to you’ approach went over about as well as pulling a gun in the committee room.

On Wednesday, the heads of the five hockey families returned noticeably chastened. This time they had numbers to hand. In the most non-specific terms possible, they embraced the idea that something has gone badly wrong in their operation. Defining that thing in plain English continued to be a problem, but everyone agreed it was definitely something.

What had changed most was job descriptions. These sports wonks had read Twitter and now understood their new function – as zookeepers.

Canadian hockey players are animals. It’s the Canadian hockey establishment’s job to keep them from killing chickens.

“We’ll dramatically expand the number of players who are exposed to enhanced education with respect to off-ice issues,” said Hockey Canada chief executive officer Scott Smith. “These players will carry that training back to their leagues, provincial and minor hockey associations.”

Smith said that in his opening statement, back when he was still young and full of hope that he might keep his job. Three hours in, after MPs from every party had called for his head and tried to hand him a saw, he was less co-operative.

Someone tried to nail him down on whether or not the problems at Hockey Canada, and in hockey generally, are “systemic.” Smith ducked and weaved. But if you were listening, you’d have gotten his answer at the outset.

If you need to pull the big wolves out of the wild and domesticate them in the hopes they will go back and convince all the lesser wolves to stop being so wolf-like, that’s a system-wide issue. If implementing basic human decency requires government intervention and a 19-page “Action Plan,” the system is fried.

“Players, no matter their skill, must know they cannot act with impunity,” said another game warden, CHL president Dan MacKenzie.

What an amazing sentence. It suggests this is a new idea.

That everyone’s always known that Roger, who’s stuck on the fourth line, can’t go around beating up women and expect the lawyers and insurance guys to make that problem disappear before the NHL draft. But as of right now that same rule applies to Jimmy, who’s leading the team in power-play goals and getting called up to Team Canada. This is your first and only warning, Jimmy. There’s a new bunch of old sheriffs in town.

The text of Wednesday’s hearings was fact-gathering about a single alleged assault and its aftermath. How much money was in Hockey Canada’s sex-abuse piggy bank? Who got it and when? How was it dispersed?

Smith was pressed repeatedly about business basics like keeping minutes of in-camera board meetings and doing due diligence around lawsuits. He said a lot of words that did not amount to answers. When in doubt, Smith blamed the lawyers.

“You need better lawyers,” said MP Anthony Housefather.

That was as close as Housefather, Smith’s most effective antagonist, got to a kill quote.

MP Kevin Waugh also connected with a jab: “When I look to the seven of you, and three on Zoom, that’s not the face of hockey today. That front row tells me everything.”

Occasional zingers aside, there was no great revelation or shocking stumble that will redefine this scandal. For that, you needed to pay attention to the subtext.

What no one has bothered to do during all of this is rebut the idea that young men who are good at hockey are also inherently perverse. Not some of them, but all of them. That they do what they like to whomever is unlucky enough to cross their path in the wrong hotel room late at night.

You’d think Hockey Canada would have some interest in mounting a character defence of the typical hockey player. Until very recently, when we thought of ‘good Canadians,’ we pictured nurses and firemen and a guy behind the bench coaching kids, who will all grow up to be good guys and hockey dads. Hockey Canada made a lot of money marketing this Tim Hortons utopia.

But having been caught bending the rules to protect that brand, Canada’s hockey establishment is now pressing the self-destruct button. In order to save itself, it has to destroy hockey.

Pull back from the talking points and the gotcha questions. What message are the people who run hockey in Canada trying to send? It’s twofold – hockey does not have a systematic problem (ergo, we are not the problem); the players must be Clockwork Orange’d until they are functioning citizens again.

It’s the players who’ve lost their way. Hockey Canada is the good guy. It’s trying to help the victims and make them sign NDAs, but only if they want to.

Underneath the bureaucratese, you can faintly hear the real explanation: ‘We tried, but what are you going to do with these brutes? Every once in a while, they’re going to get loose, and then it’s our job to get them back in a box before they panic the locals.’

If you didn’t believe hockey had a culture problem before Wednesday, you should now. For three hours, we were shown why players raised under Hockey Canada’s wing think they are above the normal codes of conduct that apply to the rest of us. Because the people in charge think the same thing.

If you’re caught, deny. If you’re really caught, find someone else to blame. And if there’s no one left to blame, blame the game and everyone in it. They are corrupted, not you. They require radical intervention and re-education. Since you were the one to see the taint on them, the duty falls to you to fix things. (Smith had the cheek to say his future bonuses – bonuses! – should be tied to this clean-up effort.)

As business cons go, it’s the sort that could only work on the very gullible or the very forgiving. Something tells me that when it comes to the people who run hockey, few Canadians are inclined to be either.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.