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It was a Friday night in early October, and our home team, the Vancouver Canucks, were playing the Calgary Flames in the final game of the preseason. My son was turning 15 that weekend, and his friend – a huge Flames fan – treated him to a ticket. I tagged along. The hitch: we had to attend the pregame skate with signs supporting the Flames. (I’m a Leafs fan, so why not?)

The players seemed to get a kick out of the signs. One acknowledged the boys with a nod and a smile. Knowing nothing about the Flames, I declared him my favourite player on the team.

That smiling Flame was Dillon Dubé – one of five members of Canada’s 2018 world junior hockey team who have since been charged with sexual assault, accused of assaulting a woman at a hotel in London, Ont. that year.

So what to say to my son about these allegations? And about the wider issue of sexual assault?

This is a conversation a lot of parents in my orbit are having. It’s not like we can (or should) protect teens from this. It’s out there. They’re getting notifications on their phone, and seeing jokes about it, I’m told. Even if we’re not the ones breaking the news to them, we need to help them navigate it.

For anyone who has tried to talk to their teenage son about anything to do with sex, I know, cringe: on their part, maybe ours too. But if you’ll forgive the cliché, this is a teaching opportunity. A gate has been flung wide open for a difficult but crucial conversation about consent, and about what to do if you find yourself in an environment where something is going down that you know is wrong – about their responsibility to intervene, to stop what is happening, to get help if they can’t stop it, to help people get to safety.

There are families whose lives revolve around hockey – playing it, watching it, discussing it. This is not a bad thing. As another teenage hockey player in my life told me this week, playing hockey – which he has done since he was six – has taught him a lot about friendship, leadership and teamwork, which he has applied at school and elsewhere.

Still, it’s hardly breaking news that hockey has a bad reputation for its culture. So this is an opening for coaches too. The best of them bring life lessons into the dressing room, talking to young players not just about the game ahead, but about what kind of people they want to be.

There are also organizations devoted to the issue of mental health in hockey and other sports, including Buddy Check for Jesse and the Future of Hockey Lab. The latter’s mission is to reimagine hockey and transform the sport’s culture. Perhaps this moment can be a catalyst for that change.

This week, I spoke to Corey Hirsch, a former Canucks goalie and vocal mental health advocate who joined the board of Hockey Canada in November. He would like to see mandatory education for players around these issues. But he is also pushing for wider systemic change. “Get 16-year-olds out of junior hockey,” said Mr. Hirsch, who started playing at that level at 15.

“We’re taking 16- and 17-year-olds out of their homes, out of their high schools, away from their friends. And it’s a 16-year-old brain. Now you’re putting them with college kids. The gap between 16 and 20 is massive.”

Instead of a system where professional players come up, say, through schools, Canada’s feeder system for hockey typically sees young, impressionable players with often long-shot NHL dreams placed in faraway towns, billeting with families who, as wonderful as they might be, aren’t their own. In this environment, manipulation and abuse has sometimes flourished, with predatory coaches able to access vulnerable, lonely and ambitious kids.

We don’t know what led to what is alleged to have happened in that hotel room in 2018. But we do know that this woman’s life – and many other lives – have been forever changed. Maybe it’s time for the system to change too.

A 2021 profile of Mr. Dubé in The Golden Star newspaper recalled his formative years in that B.C. town, where he grew up while cheering for the Flames, the closest thing he had to a home team. He told the reporter that a plaque, hanging in the Golden & District Arena recognizing his Hockey Canada accomplishments, showed young players in Golden that it’s possible to be from a small town and achieve something big. “I hope that someone can follow in my footsteps,” he said.

Pending a court decision, a town spokesperson told me, due to the sensitive nature of the situation and the severity of the allegations, that plaque has been temporarily removed.

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