The Manitoba Junior Hockey League is trying to crack down on something it's having a hard time even defining – hazing.
The league has been reeling from a hazing scandal that occurred last October when a group of players with the Neepawa Natives forced a 15-year-old rookie to perform a "tug" – tying a water bottle to his scrotum and dragging it across the floor. The incident, one of several hazing initiations that occurred on the team, initially resulted in the league handing out multiple game suspensions for 16 players. The league also suspended Natives head coach Bryant Perrier for three games and fined the team $5,000. Assistant coach Brad Biggers also received a five-game suspension.
But public outcry quickly mounted over the hazing as conflicting accounts of what happened surfaced and the team issued a lackluster apology. That prompted the league to hire retired Winnipeg detective Ron Bell to conduct a further investigation. Perrier and Biggers also resigned and the 15-year old player, who turned 16 in November, quit the team. The police were also called to investigate but no charges were laid.
On Wednesday, the league announced that Bell's investigation had been completed. It refused to release the report publicly, citing confidentiality concerns, but said the suspensions against Perrier and Biggers would run until April 1 and July 1, respectively. And the league said the sanctions would be honoured by every league run by Hockey Canada, meaning the coaches can't work anywhere else in Canada this season.
Officials with the Natives declined comment.
"What we've tried to do with the announcement [Wednesday]is to try to convey a message that, first of all, hazing is not acceptable," MJHL commissioner Kim Davis said in an interview.
"It's not going to be tolerated by our league. We don't condone it in any fashion. The second point is that individuals, like the assistant coach and the head coach in this case, are the ones who are responsible for their players and for the conduct of their players."
Davis added the league plans a new crack down on hazing, including compulsory team meetings to discuss the issue and signs in locker rooms.
He also said he is convinced this type of hazing is common and that teams, players, coaches and league officials have become far too complacent. "I'm sure that some form of, whether it's this exact activity or some form of unacceptable hazing, has likely been going on, yes, virtually in every league in the country," he said.
But Davis struggled to define exactly what conduct the league is hoping to stop and what specific sanctions will be incurred. Rookie initiation is common in all leagues, including the NHL, with players often asked to clean locker rooms, pay for meals or perform other menial tasks. Davis said problems occur when the initiation rites become degrading or demeaning. But even that is unclear, he added.
When asked if defining hazing will be difficult, Davis said: "I guess I would answer that by saying, if I don't get a complaint then I guess it's a good thing."
He added that he may give players examples. "Don't force players to drink a 24 [case]of beer, for example, or a 40 [ounce bottle]of vodka. Don't tie a skate lace around his balls. Things like that. We may give those examples in these meetings that I was referring to. But the key part, though, is that anything that's demeaning or degrading. Asking someone to wash the floor with a toothbrush is not necessarily demeaning, it's probably not pleasant, but it's not necessarily demeaning."
Davis said the key test will be what's reasonable. "Dressing up as a woman and going to mall, I don't like it, but what's the harm? I don't know."
"We don't want to put parameters on it because I don't know that we can have a list long enough. So I think our focus is going to be on telling players, 'Look, degrading, demeaning things are off base. Don't do them,'" he added. Sanctions will be significant, likely more than three-game suspensions, but Davis did not get specific.
The key is also getting players to come forward, he said, which is not easy. "Our responsibility is to provide that information and that avenue so that players know that they are not alone and that we will support them," Davis said. "There is not much more that we can do in my view."