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When Our Heroes Do Harms: A Call to Action for Hockey and Its Fans

When Our Heroes Do Harms: A Call to Action for Hockey and Its Fans

by Dr. Miranda Pilipchuk, Research and Evaluation Coordinator at the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters (ACWS)

Welcome to Edmonton, World Juniors players, families, fans, and sponsors. You’re in Oil Country now. This is a city that has for decades built its identity—the City of Champions—around its hockey victories. It’s a city that turns orange on game day. It exalts in success, but fiercely loves its team no matter the win/loss record. And it’s not alone.

Hockey has deep roots in Alberta. The history of organized leagues dates back at least 100 years,[1] and Indigenous peoples have been playing hockey far longer, since before the arrival of European settlers.[2] Hockey is thoroughly enmeshed in the culture of Alberta. It has become part of the provincial zeitgeist, a force that shapes the experience of living in Alberta, of being an Albertan. Hockey Alberta estimates that over 65,000 Albertans play in official events each year,[3] and countless others play in informal games. Even for those Albertans who don’t identify as hockey players or fans, there are times—say, for instance, during a classic Battle of Alberta—when hockey remains an unavoidable presence on the Albertan cultural landscape.

This special role hockey has in Alberta makes it particularly difficult when hockey players and organizations act in harmful ways. The reports that have come to public attention in the past weeks of sexual assaults perpetrated in 2018 and 2003[4] by Hockey Canada players raise two important questions, especially as we welcome the World Juniors into our physical and cultural space. What do hockey players and organizations owe to the communities that support them? And how should those communities respond to reports of harm committed by the players they admire and the sport they love?

At a minimum, hockey players and organizations owe their communities the very basics of human decency, the same thing all of us owe to one another: don’t hurt people. This point should be beyond obvious, and the fact that it needs to be stated in 2022 is mindboggling; hockey players who engage in acts of sexual assault fail to meet this fundamental standard. So too do hockey organizations that perpetuate conditions conducive to sexual assault and respond to reports of sexual assault in ways that create additional harm. The last weeks have both highlighted the serious problems in hockey culture and have demonstrated what happens when organizations do not address them. For decades, researchers, journalists, activists, and community members have all called attention to the problem of rape culture in hockey. For example, in 1998, journalist Laura Robinson published an extended account of how hockey leagues across Canada have institutionalized a culture of sexual abuse.[5] Over 20 years later, a 2021 study by researchers in western Canada reported that sexual assaults and the cover-up of sexual assaults are both “part of hockey culture.”[6] And earlier this year, an independent review panel commissioned by the Canadian Hockey League found that off-ice misconduct has become a “cultural norm” that is protected by a “code of silence.”[7]

The institutionalization of rape culture harms everyone involved in the hockey community, including players. For years, players have reported experiencing sexual violence, such as sexual assaults by team leadership and sexualized hazing rituals enforced by other players.[8] And although sexual violence survivors undoubtedly bear the greatest harms of rape culture, even players who do not directly experience sexual violence are still negatively impacted by its normalization. The American Psychological Association reports that attempting to live up to toxic images of masculinity—such as those that predominate rape culture—can lead to a range of mental, physical, and relational issues, including anxiety and depression, body image issues, poor relationship skills, substance abuse, stress, and violence.[9] These issues directly impede players’ performance on the ice and their well-being off it.

In failing to address the prevalence of rape culture in hockey, Hockey Canada has simultaneously failed to meet the bare minimum requirements of basic human decency, and it has perpetuated harm in its own community as well as the communities that support it. This harm calls for a response, both from Hockey Canada and from hockey communities at large. For as much as hockey struggles with the problem of rape culture, rape culture is also a problem that extends far beyond the arena, into Canadian culture more broadly. In 2021, sexual assault reports across Canada rose by 18%.[10] In Alberta, they rose by 21%.[11] We all deserve better than this. Hockey Canada has a responsibility to be better, to educate itself and its players to treat people better, and to become the change-makers their fans know they are capable of being. And the communities that support hockey players, hockey organizations, and hockey culture have a responsibility to make better behavior the norm, to create cultures of consent and ethical sex.

Some of this work is already well underway. Through our public education program, Leading ChangeTM, the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters (ACWS) has been working with sports organizations at both the junior and professional levels for over a decade to support players in better understanding the complexity and pervasiveness of gender-based violence, the fundamental concerns of consent, healthy masculinities, and the need for all to become active bystanders when we notice signs of abuse. Our program focuses on players as community leaders who can set a positive example for others in fostering a safer, more equitable society, but also calling out (and calling in) problematic behaviours when they see them. We help players learn how to be competitive in healthy ways that do not harm themselves or others. ACWS has been working with organized hockey leagues in Alberta since 2008 and has recently expanded this work to include junior hockey teams throughout the province. This work is an important beginning, and we commend our partners in the hockey community for undertaking it with us. But there is still much to be done.

In response to the ongoing problem of rape culture in hockey and the sexual assault reports that have come to public attention in recent weeks, ACWS calls on all hockey leagues and organizations operating in Alberta to step up to the task of being community leaders and to step into the work of directly addressing gender-based violence. This work is best accomplished by partnering with public education programs like Leading ChangeTM that have been developed with, and remain accountable to, gender-based violence survivors and the frontline organizations that support them. We also call on hockey fans, families, sponsors, and players to call out the rape culture that permeates the hockey community, call others into the process of addressing it, and to be an active part of the movement to end gender-based violence.

The last weeks have spotlighted some difficult truths about hockey culture, but they have also re-opened an important dialogue and created the possibility of moving forward into a new reality. Now is the moment to build a better future for the sport of hockey and everyone who loves it. Let’s make change together.

 

[1] History of the Alberta Amateur Hockey Association (hockeyalberta.ca)

[2] Origins of Ice Hockey | The Canadian Encyclopedia; Exploring hockey’s roots in Indigenous communities | CBC Radio; New documentary investigates the possible Mi’kmaq origins of hockey | CBC News.

[3] Hockey Alberta | Players.

[4] Crisis on ice: What you need to know about the Hockey Canada scandal | CBC News.

[5] Crossing the Line: Violence and Sexual Assault in Canada’s National Sport: Robinson, Laura: 9780771075605: Books – Amazon.ca.

[6] Showered in sexism: Hockey culture needs a reckoning (theconversation.com).

[7] Independent panel finds ‘code of silence’ exists in CHL over abuse – TSN.ca; ‘We haven’t learned a damn thing’: Sexual violence is embedded in junior hockey culture – The Athletic

[8] ‘We haven’t learned a damn thing’: Sexual violence is embedded in junior hockey culture – The Athletic; Graham James, convicted in junior hockey sex assaults, granted full parole | CBC News; Blackhawks scandal: Kyle Beach reveals himself as ‘John Doe’ victim of coach’s sexual assault – CBSSports.com.

[9] APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men.

[10] Reports of sexual assault jumped 21% in Alberta last year. Advocates aren’t surprised | CBC News

[11] Reports of sexual assault jumped 21% in Alberta last year. Advocates aren’t surprised | CBC News