In 2019, Jessica Allen, a correspondent on the CTV talk show The Social, made some rather banal observations about hockey culture in Canada – and kicked off a firestorm, all the same.
“I don’t worship at the altar of hockey. … There’s a certain kind of person, in my mind, in my experience, who does,” Ms. Allen said on the show after Hockey Night in Canada host Don Cherry was fired following a rant criticizing immigrants.
“They all tended to be white boys who weren’t, let’s say, very nice,” she continued. “They were not generally thoughtful, they were often bullies, their parents were able to afford to spend $5,000 a year on minor hockey.”
To those who knew about the reality of hockey culture in Canada, Ms. Allen’s comments were unremarkable; she might as well have been observing that some cats have spots and ice cream melts in the sun. But to many Canadians, Ms. Allen’s words were heresy: The hashtag #FireJessAllen started trending on Twitter, and the TV station was quickly flooded with complaints. Angry fans were aghast that she would claim that their boys were so privileged, so deified, that they were somehow beyond reproach – so they would prove her point by demanding her head. And in the end, she apologized.
The public didn’t know then that, about 18 months earlier, eight Canadian Hockey League players, including members of the 2018 gold-medal-winning world junior team, allegedly sexually assaulted a woman after a Hockey Canada fundraiser in London, Ont. (The allegations have not been tested in court.) We didn’t know that, upon hearing about the alleged assault, Hockey Canada executives assembled for internal meetings first, then contacted their lawyers and insurer, and, only after that – some time in the evening – did they contact police.
It would be years before the public would learn that Hockey Canada commissioned, and then closed, a third-party investigation that did not compel participation from the players; and years before we would discover that Hockey Canada had hastily settled a lawsuit brought forward by the alleged victim.
Until recently, Canadian parents were also unaware that some of the fees they’ve paid to register their kids in Hockey Canada programs have gone toward a special reserve fund to settle complaints without involving insurance – certain “uninsured liabilities,” including sexual abuse.
And at the time Ms. Allen was pilloried for pointing out the noxious culture within Canadian hockey, the public had no way of knowing about another alleged group sexual assault – this one involving the 2003 world junior hockey team, as revealed by Hockey Canada last week.
These specific allegations may have remained largely unknown and unreported until recently, but the toxic locker-room culture – an incubator for abusive behaviour and misogyny – was there for all who wanted to look. The sport is relatively homogeneous (at least, compared with other organized sports) and participation demands a certain affluence (again, compared with other sports). Hockey towns also tend to function off an understanding that the sun shines out the backsides of top players, which can immunize them from any rumours, stories and allegations.
Only now it’s fair to wonder to what extent Hockey Canada has played a role in ensuring those rumours so rarely materialize into something more.
The #MeToo movement largely skipped over hockey in Canada in 2017. There was a reckoning in hockey a few years ago over coaching – Bill Peters resigned as head coach of the Calgary Flames after admitting he used racial slurs; former Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock was accused of bullying players – but there was little in the way of a public examination of how hockey culture might fuel retrograde ideas about masculinity, abuse and consent. That reckoning may be happening now, years after the rest of society began grappling with these issues. Welcome to the year 2017, Hockey Canada: Only five more years to go.
On Monday, Hockey Canada released an action plan to “shatter the code of silence and eliminate toxic behaviour in and around Canada’s game.” The plan includes introducing a new, independent and centralized reporting system for complaints (with certain data to be made public annually), establishing “enhanced character screening” for high-performance players and mandating participation in any future investigations. The purpose of many of these measures is to “hold Hockey Canada accountable” – according to Hockey Canada – but conspicuously absent from its agenda is a plan to clean house in terms of its executives who, for years, apparently allowed a toxic culture in hockey to proliferate.
Three years ago, certain Canadians demanded Ms. Allen lose her job for pointing out the obvious. Hopefully, they can see now they were gunning for the wrong person to lose her job.
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