Brock McGillis is the first openly gay men’s professional hockey player and a leading LGBTQ+ activist.
Rogers Place arena sits empty after the cancellation of the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in Edmonton on Wednesday, December 29, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason FransonJASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press
Hockey is the greatest sport in the world. In order for it to be the best version of itself, however, we must fix the culture.
The Hockey Canada scandal – which includes an alleged sexual assault and the existence of a hidden slush fund – is yet another example of a culture in deep need of repair. The problems will continue to exist until radical changes are made.
“Radical” because moving the needle slightly isn’t enough, it’s performative. It gives the illusion of change without actually doing the vigorous work necessary to create safe and equitable environments within the sport.
Hockey has massive influence over Canadian culture. The attitudes and behaviours within hockey culture have a considerable impact on mainstream society.
From the beginning of their hockey journey, players are split up by age and skill set, and then isolated, for as many as five or six evenings a week, in locker rooms – solely with their peers. Then at the age of 16, we send players deemed good enough to maybe one day play professionally away from home to play junior. They move to new communities where they know nobody except for their teammates, who have been immersed in similar hockey cultures.
Beyond the players, coaches play an integral role in the culture. Many coaches, are ex-players, who were influenced by a similar culture in their youth, which they continue to reinforce – leading to a vicious cycle that perpetuates itself generation after generation.
This culture fosters extreme insularity and conformity. Most hockey players dress the same, walk the same and talk the same. Couple that with an undeniable lack of diversity, and before you know it players are able to say what they want and do what they want with little to no repercussions. Language (whether racist, sexist and/or homophobic) and behaviours permeate locker rooms and become normalized and ingrained in players.
The cases of racism, homophobia, abuse, assault and hazing we have seen in this sport have not gone away, even though training and programs have been implemented in order to eradicate or limit them. If Hockey Canada believed their programs were effective why would they have a slush fund for potential victims?
I do see a way forward. I believe this culture can evolve, and match the on-ice product we love.
Step one is to redefine hockey culture and put in new screening methods for board members, management and coaches. This starts at the top with Hockey Canada. We have to go beyond hockey knowledge; the people in charge need to have more depth and substance.
Parents say they put their kids in sports to learn work ethic, discipline and valuable life skills. They should also be learning inclusion and accountability. They shouldn’t be learning misogyny, racism and homophobia. It’s time to weed out the people in power who are reinforcing a toxic culture and instead hold people accountable for their words and actions.
Once people in charge are vetted, I’d focus on three main things: humanization, education and reform/accountability.
We have to humanize the issues. People with the lived experience in hockey culture need to be brought in to share the impact of language, attitudes and actions. Putting faces to the issues is powerful. Sharing stories from those who have experienced bigotry within hockey is how current and future players will learn and evolve.
Humanization lays the foundation for education. Everyone in hockey will be far more willing to learn how to do better when they realize it impacts their lives, their friends, their locker room and their sport.
Who creates the education matters as well. There are many brilliant minds who have studied different protected groups under the human-rights code and they’ve done it through a hockey lens. Those most educated on these topics rarely, if ever, are part of the education delivered.
Typically in hockey, the humanizers and the educators don’t have a seat at the table. It appears governing bodies see them as disruptors and feel that by bringing people in with more extensive knowledge it would limit the power and control of those in charge. It seems they believe it’s safer to bring in groups with little formal comprehension of the culture so that the hockey people can remain in control.
It’s crucial that everyone from Hockey Canada down to the local minor association holds all people associated with the game accountable. Accountability should be immediate – not after being called out and getting funding cut off by the government and major sponsors. This means not protecting players and not silencing victims.
I’ve spoken to Hockey Canada in the past about how to be proactive as opposed to reactive and have been met with resistance. That resistance can no longer continue.
It’s a watershed moment for hockey in Canada and there’s only one choice – fix the culture.
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