Two weeks from the scheduled start of the 2021 world junior championships in Edmonton, junior hockey’s insidious underbelly is being exposed once again.
As first reported by TSN’s Rick Westhead on Wednesday, 14 former Canadian Hockey League players filed affidavits with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice this week, detailing disturbing allegations of the alleged abuse – much of it sexual in nature – and hazing that they experienced during their junior careers.
The affidavits are part of a class-action lawsuit following the original statement of claim filed in June by former NHLer Daniel Carcillo and Garrett Taylor, who played in the WHL from 2008-10.
James Sayce, a partner with Toronto’s Koskie Minsky LLP, and one of the lawyers representing the two plaintiffs, says he is confident that the affidavits will help show that these abuses are “systemic issues” that can be litigated together and that this is amenable to class-action treatment. He says this can take time, but is hoping the motion will be heard sometime in 2021.
“They’re essentially stepping up to tell their stories, which I think requires a good deal of courage in these circumstances and they should be lauded for agreeing to put their stories out there,” Sayce told The Globe and Mail in an interview. “They’ve sort of come forward and said, ‘Yes, we’ve experienced similar things to what are being alleged in the statement of claim.’ "
The CHL, its three member organizations (the OHL, the QMJHL and the WHL), and all 60 junior clubs are listed as defendants.
The 14 former players all detail alleged abuses that occurred in a 35-year period, between 1979 and 2014.
In an e-mailed statement, the CHL said that it has taken numerous steps to end the practice of hazing, which included putting together an independent panel chaired by former New Brunswick premier Camille Thériault and which included former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy.
The league added that it is in the process of reviewing the legal documents, and finds the allegations “deeply disturbing.”
“Most of the allegations are historic in nature and we believe are not indicative of the experiences of current CHL players,” the statement said.
However, Jay Johnson, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Manitoba who has studied hazing and initiations, wrote a report that was submitted to the court along with the affidavits detailing what he describes as a continuing culture of hazing.
“Hazing and abuse are ingrained in this culture,” Johnson wrote in his report. “Both the severity of the abuse and the commonality of the practices are particular to junior hockey in the CHL.
“The same types of rituals are practised across Canada from Halifax to Quebec City to Vancouver Island over years and decades. … Hockey hazing continues to this day with management fully aware of its presence.”
Sayce says that the spans of the junior hockey careers of the players giving the affidavits is telling in this instance. It’s not just a year or two, but a large time frame covering almost 40 years, illustrating the continuing nature of the abuse.
“Our job will be to show the court that there is a period of time when this was a systemic problem and one of the real goals of the class action is if this is still systemic in nature then it needs to stop right away,” he says. “Children are playing in these leagues so we’re not alleging that it was worse at one point or another, I think that the point is just to make sure that it never happens again.”
Despite their own experiences of abuse, both Carcillo and Garrett love hockey, Sayce says, and although what happened to them changed their lives, their ultimate goal is to change the culture of hockey for the better for future generations of players. Drawing on some of the experiences listed in the lawsuit, Sayce says that if parents knew what was going on with their sons they would have immediately driven to whatever town they were playing in and brought them home.
But also ingrained in hockey is what he describes as “a culture of silence,” in which anyone who speaks out faces possible repercussions, such as being cut from a team or being passed over for a position.
“So if you come forward to tell your story, you’re out, so you can’t really tell your story until your time in hockey has come to a close and that is one of the allegations that we’re making and one that we intend to prove,” he says. “So I think if you look at the timeline of these affiants, all or most of them have really left hockey.”
Ultimately though, for Carcillo, Garrett, or the other 12 who filed affidavits, the vindication will be to pave the way for a better version of the sport that is so ingrained in Canadian culture.
“I think the primary goal is just to ensure that there is some level of protection going forward because junior hockey is a big part of Canada,” Sayce says. “The junior hockey championships are coming up and it’s all people are talking about because we’re all sports starved, right? The goal is certainly not to end junior hockey, it’s to protect people who are in this system.”