Two years ago, after former National Hockey League player Daniel Carcillo went public with stories of suffering physical and mental abuse while playing major junior hockey for the Sarnia Sting, David Branch, president of the Canadian Hockey League, called the allegations sickening. He said the CHL had “failed” Mr. Carcillo.
But that was followed by a summary investigation, after which Mr. Branch, who stepped down as CHL president in 2019, said there were no grounds to discipline the team.
Mr. Carcillo isn’t buying it. He and another former major junior player have filed a class-action lawsuit against the CHL and its constituent leagues – the Western Hockey League, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the Ontario Major Junior Hockey League – as well as every team in those leagues.
The statement of claim alleges systematic physical, mental and sexual abuse of teenage players. “The result is decades of rampant child abuse which has left the [plaintiffs] with emotional and physical injuries that are entirely unrelated to hockey and which have no place in the sport,” the suit says.
None of the allegations have been proved in court, and the teams and leagues named in the suit have yet to file their responses.
But other players have corroborated some of the allegations, and have said they will join the suit. And Mr. Carcillo, who is something of a conduit for former players who want to talk about what they went through, and his lawyers are confident the suit will draw out others with similar stories.
The root problem with major junior hockey is that it’s structured to ensure that players, who generally enter the league at the age of 16 or 17, are a compliant work force.
Unlike student-athletes in the United States, who get to choose which college they will attend, and can even change schools if they are unhappy, top high-school age hockey players in Canada are drafted by major junior teams, effectively becoming their property.
They must report to that team and can be traded by it. What’s more, although teams are generally private, profit-making businesses, the law does not compel them to treat their players as employees.
As a result, at 16 or 17, a boy can find himself living with strangers hundreds of kilometres from his home, his future riding on pleasing an organization that has the power to make or break his NHL dreams.
That was Mr. Carcillo’s lot when he joined the Sarnia Sting in 2002 at the age of 17. He says he and other rookies were routinely subjected to abuse at the hands of older players – abuse they felt they had no choice but to endure.
The list of allegations includes: being forced to masturbate in front of teammates; being anally penetrated by objects including hockey sticks and brooms; being forced to consume the waste, saliva and semen of teammates; being physically assaulted with belts and hockey sticks; being forced to consume dangerous amounts of alcohol and illicit drugs; and being demeaned with racist and homophobic slurs.
The suit alleges that coaches and staff turned a blind eye to the abuse, and sometimes encouraged it and even took part. As well, those who complained were sidelined and branded as “problem players,” a career death sentence in a game whose culture insists on stoic conformity from those hoping to make the NHL.
The CHL must, as a first step, commit to thoroughly investigating and punishing the abuse of players.
But the underlying problem is that the system enables abuse. It’s time to get rid of a draft that treats children as chattel, and which allows a hockey league to operate under prehistoric notions of labour relations.
Major junior hockey has to change, because hockey has changed. The NHL now prizes skilled players far more than the grinders and cement-handed role players of the past.
It wasn’t so long ago that virtually every player in the NHL was Canadian. That percentage has been steadily falling since the 1980s; by 2017-18, it had fallen to just 45 per cent. Of the first 20 players chosen in the 2019 NHL draft, only four are Canadians from CHL teams.
Many of the most sought after players these days are coming from Europe and the United States – including Canadians skipping major junior altogether, in favour of the U.S. college route. Mr. Carcillo’s lawsuit is just the latest reminder that Canada’s major junior hockey system has run its course.
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