Jashvina Shah is a hockey reporter and co-author of Game Misconduct: Hockey’s Toxic Culture and How to Fix It.
There may not be a future for Hockey Canada in its current form. I doubt it can rebuild the trust broken since the organization became immersed in scandal, involving multiple allegations of sexual assault and secret “hush money” funds. Personally, I think Hockey Canada should be disbanded. But if Hockey Canada is to continue, change needs to happen.
It’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of restructuring, and Hockey Canada has to be willing to do it, even if it means dismantling the model of hockey as we know it – and that includes billeting and junior hockey.
I fear the necessary mindset shift required is further away from happening than it seems. Because in all the open letters and action plans Hockey Canada has disseminated in a last-ditch public-relations effort, it is still missing the most important point.
The way we think about sport is wrong.
The way we treat players is wrong.
We must stop thinking of hockey like a factory that treats hockey players like a resource meant to power a vast machine in search of a single desired output: winning.
Many of the problems we see in hockey come from the idea that winning is king. This is why successful coaches and players are revered as heroes, given free rein to do as they please. It’s why coaches are selected less for their off-ice character and more for their on-ice ability. It’s why promising players, those who one day might feed the machine, leave their homes at such a young age.
There are too many areas of concern to list in one piece. And in order to change a culture, you have to clean the whole house. You need to remove all the furniture and reach into even the furthest corners, where the most dirt collects.
That starts with removing the entire board of Hockey Canada, the same board that allowed the organization to discreetly take a portion of player dues to create a fund used to pay off settlements involving alleged sexual abuse. There isn’t room for anyone who was a part of that decision, or knew about it and allowed it to happen, to stay.
Once the board is removed, Hockey Canada needs to focus on its training, and not just for high-performance players. All players need to be educated from the earliest stages of the game on sexual consent, harassment, bullying and discrimination, and when they are boys, not already young men.
That means more than just a one-off seminar. It needs to be hands-on, interactive, ongoing training targeted to all levels and age groups of hockey, be it players, coaches, general managers or equipment managers.
Hockey Canada partnering with an organization like the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo is a good start, but how can we teach players to be active bystanders if coaches enforce a culture of silence in their locker rooms? As of now, a player still puts their career on the line if they speak up.
That brings me to the next point – the coaches. Yes, coaches are required to undergo online training modules meant to address abuse, bullying, harassment and discrimination. But an online course that one can either not pay attention to or ask someone else to take is not nearly enough. And it’s shocking to me that an organization that serves youth has previously not gotten off-ice personality reference checks for coaches (Hockey Canada says it will begin to do that now). That’s a major red flag in youth protection. How can we just let anyone spend so much time around our children without knowing who they are as a person? Without knowing the kind of language they will use or if they will teach them to respect others?
The barrier here is that it’s hard to be picky with coaches since there are so few options to begin with. How can you reject coaches if you don’t have enough people willing to sign up? There are two options: one, you reject them anyway. Protecting youth is more important. Two, you give more incentives for coaches to sign up. Maybe you reduce the time commitment. Again, it’s going to take a lot of work. But we need to choose good people over those who only care about winning.
Every allegation needs to be transparent and documented to the public. Even the old ones. How Hockey Canada has handled every single one of those allegations.
And as insignificant as it sounds, women’s hockey can no longer be labelled “women’s hockey” unless men’s hockey is labelled “men’s hockey” instead of just “hockey.” That specific verbiage connotes that the default version of hockey is for men and not for women, making women outsiders. And that is the kind of language and thinking that leads to sexual assault.
These changes should not stop at Hockey Canada. Hockey should not be a siloed sport, and whatever changes come out of this terrible situation should not stop at our borders. This problem must go beyond Hockey Canada. All hockey governing bodies, all leagues, need to work together. Otherwise it’s all for naught.
It seems all for naught right now. Each month some news of misconduct, abuse or assault breaks. It’s disheartening and demoralizing. I love this sport, and every day I watch it become worse. There’s nothing left to say because it’s already been said. And still, nothing changes.
It’s time for things to change.
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