Ever wonder how the chain of misbehaved Junior hockey players got started? I suggest that we look beyond Junior hockey for answers.
Every so often the media erupts with stories of Junior hockey players behaving badly. Over the past few years, these eruptions have gathered speed as social media facilitates our ability to share such stories and as the public makes it increasingly clear that certain activities associated with hazing and sexuality are unacceptable in ice hockey. These unacceptable behaviours are not new, however. Many of us can likely recall a scandal or two that either never made it to the media or did garner media attention and eventually blew over.
The most recent outcry occurred following three particular incidents from two Canadian Hockey League (CHL) teams in a short period of time: The Gatineau Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the Cobourg Cougars of the Ontario Junior Hockey League. Between February and March of this year, Olympiques players were being investigated for two separate events involving gross indecency and sexual assault respectively while Cougars players were also under investigation for sexual assault. Of course, these events occurred not long after the University of Ottawa had its hockey season terminated following allegations of sexual assault on a road trip to Thunder Bay. While some charges have been dropped and other incidents remain under investigation, we all seem to be asking what seems to have become an age-old question at this point: What is the problem with Junior hockey culture in Canada?
Between the media and things like the lifestyle branding of companies such as Gongshow Gear lifestyle hockey apparel, we have no trouble depicting Junior players as socially irresponsible individuals who make habits of alcohol consumption, sexual conquests, and general tomfoolery. In fact, this image of the players is virtually celebrated by companies like Gongshow, who tout a Junior hockey life code of “wheel, snipe, party.” But why has Junior hockey become a site for bad behaviour?
We need to take into consideration that not every individual engages in unacceptable behaviour by virtue of his identity as a Junior ice hockey player. The public often bases its opinions of Junior hockey players on a small group that has gone astray and received special attention for doing so. This, in turn, lumps otherwise stand-up guys into the same category as the bad boys.
Socially irresponsible activity at this level is often explained by the fact that these individuals are typically viewed as minor celebrities in their communities, meaning their actions are spotlighted more than those of other community members. This can result in over-representation of their misbehaviour. It is also often explained by the fact that Junior players tend to be living away from home for the first time, perhaps with less adult supervision (debatable), and therefore they are left to police one another, if at all. But this information isn’t new and hasn’t done much in the way of rectifying any substantial issues.
What I’ve discovered is that no one seems to be talking about what these players are like before they reach the Junior level. In order to figure that out, I’ve been conducting fieldwork with Major Midget AAA ice hockey—that is, males typically between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, some of whom move on to Junior—and am finding that their lifestyles are not altogether different from those found at the Junior level.
My research with an entire Canadian Major Midget League (ongoing) reveals that approximately 75% of the players self-report that they often discuss sex with girls and women amongst one another. Two of my key informants suggested that 75% was probably a low estimate and that their teammates were overly preoccupied with sex, referring to conquests as “kills” and even discussing me as a sexual conquest among themselves over the course of their participation in my project. I also often overheard them discussing the parties they would attend and the ridiculous things they did while intoxicated—keep in mind that every single one of them was a minor. So evidently, then, this is not just a problem at the Junior level.
We shouldn’t be so quick to accept that problematic behaviour is bred in Junior hockey. There needs to be more work done on the broader scope of the elite male hockey player identity and lifestyle in order to break the cycle of asking questions about the problems associated with Junior hockey and finding very few answers. This is not a troubled Junior hockey culture; the culture of elite male ice hockey in Canada is wrought with social problems at almost every level that are both created and maintained by players, coaches, parents, and others. It’s time that we look beyond the CHL—at coaches, families, and Bantam and Midget players—to get a better idea of the true inception and implications of inappropriate male hockey player behaviour. Only then can we get unstuck and obtain a more robust understanding of how this behaviour is played out on the Junior stage and, more importantly, what can be done to curb it.