When the Hockey Canada mess began unspooling in public, the NHL got on top of things sharpish.
It wrote a press release pepper shot with powerful adjectives like “abhorrent” and “reprehensible.” It promised to get to the bottom of things. Then it made sure to cover itself in case that turned out to be too much trouble – “… to the extent this may involve players who are now in the NHL, we will determine what action, if any, would be appropriate.”
That was two months ago. Since then, hockey’s de facto governing body has leaned hard on that “if any.” Because what it seems like it plans to do is pretend this isn’t happening for as long as possible.
Let us agree on this much – as currently organized, Hockey Canada is finished. The hits keep coming with these guys. Last week, it was paying sex-abuse victims out of a fund seeded in part with player registration fees. This week, it seems, it is using another fund – one set up to cover emergency medical and dental costs of member players – to defray other legal liabilities.
On Tuesday, Hockey Canada leaders past and present will be back on Parliament Hill getting hot-pokered by MPs.
So you know what that means, right? More official statements. On Monday, Hockey Canada released a 19-page eye glazer that aims to “shatter the code of silence” and “eliminate toxic behaviour.”
It’s only been a few days since the general public heard about another alleged sex assault nearly 20 years ago, and these guys are already into the clean-up phase.
The report ends with a bolded and capped promise to “Make Hockey More.”
More what? Hockey doesn’t need to be more anything right now. Hockey needs to be a lot less. A lot less entitled. A lot less shifty. And much, much less greasy.
Hockey is becoming synonymous with a sort of person we all grew up with – that guy who thinks he’s owed everything, and who doesn’t understand the word ‘No.’ People say it to him. He just doesn’t hear it.
Hockey Canada’s biggest problem isn’t that people are angry at it. It’s that no one has trouble believing the worst-case interpretation of any of what’s been alleged.
This isn’t a war for public opinion. Hockey Canada has already lost that war. If Hockey Canada had an iota of sense, it would be spending 24 hours of every day trying to figure out who to surrender to.
Instead, it’s putting out PowerPoint presentations that read like they were written by a personal-coaching algorithm.
Hockey Canada is so far gone, it can’t see what’s happening. No one here is weighing the evidence for and against it. What it’s doing is leeching the wound.
This is the people in charge making sure that the worst news has come out and we know exactly who’s to blame. Then it will be safe to start wrapping dynamite around the support columns at Hockey Canada HQ.
Once you blow that up, you can start over. Or not. What does Hockey Canada do exactly, why does it need to exist and why are you and I helping to pay for it? That’s something that could do with some investigating.
But first, we’ll spend a couple more days deciding how ugly and undignified the process of atomizing Hockey Canada will be. The answer right now – ‘very’ – suits the NHL.
As long as everyone’s looking at the people who were in charge when a couple of terrible things may have happened, they’re not looking at the people who then employed some of the involved parties.
Eventually, these names will come out. The possibilities are being steadily reduced as former Canadian world juniors release statements disavowing either alleged assault in 2003 and 2018.
This process will pick up speed once players start reporting to camp. Having been on either of those world junior teams has become the new mark of Cain. Everyone wants that taint off them.
The NHL might consider where it stands once the dam bursts.
By that point, Hockey Canada will be a smoking crater in the middle of the Canadian news cycle. With no one left to blame, the NHL will inherit the growing sense that there is something wrong with many young men who play hockey at an elite level. They will be put in the position of denying that there is something inherently perverse about the sport.
That is an existential threat to the NHL’s business. This is different than other recent existential threats to other sports. People didn’t really care if football players crack their heads straight down the middle mid-game. They don’t mind if soccer teams are owned by oligarchs and tyrants. The average fan just wants to be entertained. The details bore them.
But most fans do not want to be entertained by people they find repulsive. When you have a conga line of your employees putting out lawyerly statements that boil down to ‘I swear I wasn’t even in the room, man,’ you’re edging into repulsive territory.
This isn’t a Hockey Canada scandal anymore. It’s a hockey scandal. The bureaucratic walking dead at an office in Calgary don’t need to be the ones worrying about a culture change.
The NHL always was and always will be in control of hockey’s image, here and everywhere else. Though not of its making, this disaster is its problem now.
On that tip, how’s that NHL investigation going? As far as anyone knows, no one knows.
Normally, stringing something like this out to buy time isn’t a bad strategy.
But up here in Canada, we’re about to pass the point of willful ignorance and studied silence. You know in your bones that someone is going to say something spectacularly tone deaf on Parliament Hill in the next couple of days. Then this thing goes from Three Mile Island to Chernobyl.
What’s the NHL’s plan when that happens? What does it say when a reporter comes up with the name of a current NHL player before the conclusion of the NHL’s own investigation?
What is it going to say in defence of the brand? What’s its take on hockey culture? Is ‘toxic’ the word it would use? If so, why should people pay to watch something toxic? And if not, why? What’s its action plan for this year and the next and the five after that?
In a sensible world, the NHL’s brightest bulbs have been working on this file non-stop since May. In a sensible world, they’re getting out ahead of this thing rather than waiting for it to sandbag them on the front page.
But given the way things have gone so far, it sounds like ‘shattering the code of silence’ is something hockey people like in press releases, but not so much in their own day to day.