Hockey Canada, back on its heels over allegations that players in its charge were involved in group sexual assaults in 2003 and 2018, and facing a second round of grilling from a Parliamentary committee this week, on Monday did what organizations often do when cornered. It released an “action plan.”
Its plan to “shatter the code of silence and eliminate toxic behaviour in and around Canada’s game” is one of those glossy documents designed to focus the public’s attention on some brighter future, and take it off the many failings of the organization whose public relations team scrambled to put it together.
No one should fall for it. It is meaningless for Hockey Canada to acknowledge that there is a harmful code of silence and a “toxic” culture in the elite levels of hockey development in Canada, if the organization is not prepared to admit that it has for decades perpetuated that culture and that code.
The Canadian Hockey League, which runs major-junior hockey and is an unavoidable stepping stone for most Canadian players hoping to make the National Hockey League, needs to face the same reckoning.
In fact, it is time for all of hockey-mad Canada to face the truth that the two bodies most responsible for the development of elite players in this country are doing a terrible job.
On the ice, fewer and fewer Canadian players are considered top prospects by an NHL increasingly focused on skill and speed. Back in the 1970s, virtually every player chosen in the NHL draft was Canadian, and a product of this country’s junior system. In contrast, in the 2022 entry draft, only nine of the 32 players taken in the first round were Canadians.
Maybe this has something to do with what goes on off the ice. In 2020, two former major-junior players filed a class-action lawsuit against the CHL alleging they witnessed and were subjected to “systematic physical, mental and sexual abuse of teenage players” while playing for the Sarnia Sting in 2002-2003.
The allegations described ritualized humiliations of new recruits that involved anal rape and the forced consumption of other players’ bodily waste and fluids. None of the allegations have been proved in court. The CHL at the time said it was shocked by the claims – though stories of abusive hazing of rookie juniors have long been a dime a dozen – and it ordered an independent review.
The review, released in January, found that “off-ice misconduct” was a “cultural norm” in the CHL, that it was protected by a “code of silence” enforced by owners, coaches and older players, and that recruits feared harming their careers if they spoke up.
This potential for abuse is compounded by the CHL’s archaic draft system. 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, star Canadians in their mid-teens who want to play at the highest level in Canada are drafted onto CHL teams, which often means being forced to move far from their homes and families and becoming indentured, underage labour for the owners and coaches who control their futures.
Hockey Canada, meanwhile, is under scrutiny for settling a $3.55-million lawsuit in May with a woman who alleged that she was sexually assaulted, while intoxicated, by multiple players – including members of Canada’s 2017-18 World Junior gold-medal team – in a hotel room in London, Ont., after a booze-fueled Hockey Canada fundraising event in 2018.
It subsequently came to light that Canada’s national governing body of hockey was using the fees paid by its 650,000 registered players to settle lawsuits and pay for liability coverage for its executives. It has never disciplined the players involved; it says it doesn’t even know who they are.
Hockey Canada’s handling of the 2018 incident reinforced the culture of silence that protects abusive people in Canada’s hockey development pipeline. And now it is faced with another allegation of a group sexual assault by multiple players in Halifax in 2003, including at least six members of the 2003 World Junior team.
There is indeed “toxic behaviour” in and around some parts of hockey culture in Canada, as Hockey Canada’s action plan says. But it won’t be cleansed until Hockey Canada and the CHL admit that, when it comes to developing the next generation of Canadian professional players, they are hockey culture.
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