Kristi Allain is an associate professor of sociology at St. Thomas University and the Canada Research Chair in physical culture and social life.
Over the past couple of months – and not even for the first time in the past 12 months – Canadians have recoiled at allegations of sexual violence, abuse and cover-ups in hockey. Less than a year after Kyle Beach revealed he had accused a former Chicago Blackhawks video coach of sexual assault, recent reports have alleged sexual assault by some of Canada’s most prominent young hockey players, including members of the World Junior Hockey Championships teams from 2003 and 2018. Much of the criticism has focused on Hockey Canada, the organization charged with the governance of the sport in this country.
The violence pervading men’s elite-level hockey comes in a myriad of forms, from permitted on-ice activity (fighting) to off-rink racism, hazing, and sexual violence against women. What bonds these acts together is their connection to the long history of what is increasingly being called “hockey culture.”
As scholars have pointed out, the invention of hockey, forcibly divorced from its Indigenous roots and reimagined as a settler-colonial game, has deep ties to cultures of violent masculinity. Canadian settlers emphasized the brutality in their version when they sought to establish a unique national identity – one distinct from the British (and bourgeois activities such as cricket). The national image was also centred on romantic (and inaccurate) depictions of Canada as a barren, uninhabited North. Hockey, with its rough play and frequent injury, tied into this story: one where a tough masculine style was necessary to subdue and survive the land’s harsh physical environment. So despite early 20th-century news reports expressing concern, the violence has stayed with the men’s sport for generations. It is this form of the game that has become profoundly representative of Canada and its people. In the words of one author: “My country is hockey.”
At the same time, we’ve been disgusted when we learn of reported abuse of players by hockey stakeholders, the brutal hazing of rookie players with alleged organizational awareness, the tragic deaths of players connected to on-ice fighting, sexual violence against women, and racism toward players and fans. These incidents always bring intense media coverage, handwringing, reports and investigations, and promises to do better.
Today, we face the prospect that certain players – draped in the maple leaf and celebrated as national heroes – might have committed heinous acts of sexual violence against women. However, we appear to have stopped pretending that these are only the actions of a few bad actors. These incidents have finally shone a sliver of light on the profoundly broken system that is men’s elite-level hockey in Canada.
If we had been paying attention, we would not have been surprised. But given our relationship to the sport, many of us are also hurt and dismayed. This has rocked our confidence in hockey and its importance as a national symbol – as it should.
The forms that violence takes in “our” men’s game are not only connected to a long history, but are supported by insular thinking in insular spaces: locker-room ideologies that emphasize conformity (or subjugation) to a white masculine ideal. These are spaces where men are expected to sacrifice themselves and their bodies for the team, and where ethnocentric, racist, homophobic and misogynistic language often abounds. It is an environment that demands adherence to unspoken rules, and where generations of players, coaches and managers – those most invested in this game, and typically charged with supporting and mentoring its next generation – have perpetuated the culture.
Bonded together through the myth of what it means to be a Canadian hockey player, what these men and boys learn from one another is violent masculinity.
Hockey simply means too much to too many Canadians for it to continue in this way. We’ve just begun the conversation, demanding better from all involved. If hockey is to remain a symbol of the nation, we all need to continue to push for real change. Those most insistent on maintaining the status quo, those who concealed the truth in order to protect a broken system, and those who cannot move beyond this troubled masculinity, cannot continue to direct men’s hockey or mentor the next generation of boys.
We are at a moment of shame, sadness and anger, but also possibility – where we can imagine both the nation and its game as something better. We must let go of a system and a group of people who cannot see this project to the end, and open the door to new voices and new ways of framing, building and overseeing our national sport.
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