Roundtable: Jess Allen and the fragile nature of hockey culture

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Last week was…hectic, to say the least. First, Don Cherry started a statement with “You people…” on Hockey Night in Canada, and then all hell broke loose. It was headline news in Canada for days. After Cherry was released by Sportsnet, talkshow co-host, Jessica Allen, from The Social, weighed in on the situation with the following statement:

I don’t worship at the altar of hockey. I never have, and maybe it’s because of where I grew up, and going to a couple of different universities, but there’s a certain type of person, in my mind, in my experience, who does. And, they all tended to be white boys who weren’t, let’s say, very nice, they were not generally thoughtful, they were often bullies. Their parents were able to afford to put them through…you know spend $5,000 a year on minor hockey…and for me, Don Cherry is the walking and talking representative of that type.

Note, her statement was about those who “worship at the altar of hockey” and not simply those who participate in the sport. Still, despite all the ways that she tempered and qualified her statement, the entire hockey world went on the defensive attempting to prove that women play hockey, BIPOC play hockey, and that hockey players can do nice things. Many called for her job and called her the racist. As hard as it may have been for hockey’s disciples to hear Allen’s words, hockey players are not an oppressed group in this country — or in any country. In fact, they/we represent one of the most privileged subcultural groups you can find with respect to media coverage and resource allocation. Hockey players are revered in Canada, which is why we so rarely speak truth to power about the game in public arenas. Her statements carry some truth and we all know it:

  • Hockey players today tend to represent the upper-middle, and upper-class echelons of Canadian society: “Pretty good rich kids: Reaching the OHL takes more than talent.” [Hamilton Spectator]
  • Hockey culture participates in bullying through acts such as hazing: “The Full Cost,” [Sportsnet], and homonegative language, “Homophobia in hockey is real – regardless of the Morgan Reilly verdict,” [The Hockey News].
  • Hockey on the ice, behind the benches, in the offices, and in the stands is an overwhelmingly white sport: “Why the ice is white,” [Pacific Standard].

The difference is that Allen listed everything that is problematic in hockey culture on live television in the same breath, and that’s pretty taboo in Canada. But when it does happen, the reactions are pretty predictable (reminder of Nora Loretto’s statement about the whiteness of hockey). For more analysis on the #FireJessAllen debacle, I turn it over to our panel to inject some nuance into this discussion because, unsurprisingly, social media is where nuance generally goes to die.

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Matt Ventresca

In the smoldering aftermath of Don Cherry’s comments on Coach’s Corner this past Saturday, Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi commentator Harnarayan Singh offered a hopeful message in The Star that this controversy could offer a chance for Canadians to “reflect on who we are and to respect our differences.” This bizarre moment in Canadian sports has certainly provided ample opportunities for such reflection, mainly through the efforts of people such as Singh who have imparted valuable insight into the ongoing cultural frictions within hockey, while often sharing personal experiences illustrating how hockey is connected to forms of social injustice. I have learned so much this week from articles written by Shireen Ahmed, Jagdesh Mann, and Nathan Kalman-Lamb, Twitter threads by Aylan Couchie, Nora Loreto, Mike Morrison, Dan Carcillo, and Shireen again, as well as comments from our very own Hockey in Society contributors Courtney Szto, Cheryl McDonald, and Kristi Allain.

But I’m also dismayed by what has ensued since Wednesday’s episode of The Social. That Allen’s remarks instigated a rush to aggressively defend the inherent goodness of hockey tells us a lot about divisions within a sport so often celebrated as a unifying force in Canada. While the polarized reactions to Cherry’s firing (and the subsequent doubling-down of Cherry supporters following Allen’s comments) were rather predictable, I was more intrigued by a smaller subset of responses from seemingly liberal-minded folks who passionately condemned Allen because her statements portrayed hockey as something other than the inclusive cultural space represented through Canadian Tire ads and Hockey is for Everyone campaigns. The message of these comments seemed to be: hockey has already changed for the better and is great the way it is.

It is striking how this way of defending hockey’s ability to bring people together across genders, racial groups, and social classes conveniently overlooks the continued existence of barriers that can limit the participation of marginalized people in hockey culture. Doing so creates a context in which lived experiences of sexism, racism, homophobia, socioeconomic exclusion and, yes, bullying in hockey are positioned as outliers disconnected from hockey’s core values of community togetherness and character-building. Hockey’s destructive impacts can then be considered simply the responsibility of deviant individuals, “bad apples” whose behaviour doesn’t honour the game and all it stands for (we even seen this in Allen’s attempt to walk back her original comments in a statement further zeroing in on the bad behaviour of a few white hockey players and distancing herself from any broader critique of hockey culture writ large).

Meanwhile, life-affirming testimonies about hockey’s positive social influence are easily positioned as the unquestioned norm, a product of a multicultural national community forged through sport and shared across countless “Hometown Hockey” landscapes from coast to coast.

This contrast draws clear boundaries around whose stories get to matter as part of our national imaginary. Positive, empowering experiences in hockey are born out a proud history of an increasingly diverse, inclusive nation; negative ones are then dismissed as isolated incidents, not representative of any broader historical trends or forms of injustice.

But here’s the kicker: hockey can be multiple things at once. It can build community togetherness and enable destructive or hurtful behaviours. Hockey can promote health and positive self-esteem while also encouraging physical violence and psychological turmoil. Hockey’s multiplicity can even emerge through one individual’s life experiences. Both Singh and Ahmed offer powerful narratives of how hockey helped them cultivate a sense of belonging to their communities, but that the sport remains a site of discrimination and exclusion. In my own life, hockey has given me so much: family traditions, lifelong friendships, a job at the Hall of Fame, a friendly rivalry that sparked my relationship with my partner, and unforgettable experiences playing and watching the sport. Yet, at the same time, I continuously struggle with the sport’s excessive violence (I research brain injuries, after all!) and regret how actions throughout my life were informed by a desire to live up to gender norms that I largely learned about through hockey.

So if hockey has been a positive force in your life, that’s great! Recognizing that this might not be true for everyone else does not cancel your experience and isn’t automatically a threat to hockey’s place in Canadian culture. Instead, understanding that there are problems within hockey culture is an invitation to embrace changes promoting inclusivity and actually do the thing that we like to celebrate most about sports: bring people together.

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Kirsten Whelan

Let’s get one thing out of the way: we’re all here because we love hockey. Some of the greatest people I know are folks I met through this sport; incidentally, the vast majority of them don’t fall into the category of well-off white men, and certainly aren’t bullies. So yes, as person after person has made very clear over the course of the past few days, there are plenty of people in hockey who do not fit the archetype that Jess Allen described on The Social. It’s a good thing that in highlighting the alienating nature of hegemonic hockey culture (as represented, in context, by Don Cherry), she never claimed that they ― we? ― all do!

The reaction that’s struck me the most in this fallout isn’t simply the massive amount of (mostly white, largely male, likely well-off) people listing token women, or people of colour, or rags-to-riches stories in order to ward off what they took to be an accusation, because I think we’ve all grown to expect that particular defence mechanism. Instead, what stood out was the volume of people (from what I saw, mostly women, mostly white) highlighting their own presence in hockey as though their exclusion from the national narrative began and ended with a couple quick comments on a weekday morning talk show.

Personally, I grew up around hockey. It’s the first thing I remember ever watching on television, and I’m pretty sure that first Koho stick my dad brought home one day is still tucked away somewhere in my parents’ garage. I spent seasons shooting pucks in the back alley and attempting to crash the net at the outdoor rink without toe-picking in my hand-me-down figure skates, but never formally played because, as Allen mentioned, hockey is expensive. When my little brother, who spent fully half of his now-adult life begging to play on a team, finally joined a “discount” program as a peewee, it still cost nearly a thousand dollars just to register, plus ten volunteer bingo shifts and two lengthy casino nights that were mandatory to offset the reduced rate. Not to mention the price of equipment.

My classmates who played growing up were certainly mostly white, and mostly boys, and mostly well-off, though they were also perfectly nice kids. But I think we’re all aware that not every individual involved in the sport is a bad person, and I hope we’re all, on some level, aware that that isn’t the point.

I suspect that a lot of the reaction I’ve seen has been a result of folks wanting to insert themselves into the notion of what hockey is in this country. And on that note, they’re not wrong. People who aren’t wealthy white men have been playing this sport for as long as it’s existed, whether popular history has chosen to acknowledge that or not. And I’d even argue that most of the people I’ve seen peddling a sort of defensive tokenism are people who are personally investing a lot of time and effort into making this sport, and its culture, better.

The thing is, we can’t make the dominant culture of hockey better by denying its problems, or the fact that hockey culture extends far beyond the players on the ice. The only way to build a new model of what hockey means in Canada is by reckoning with the racism, colonialism, misogyny, classism, and more that have been built into the fabric of how we teach and celebrate the sport. It means acknowledging that for every high-profile case of sexual assault ― every Boston University, every Gatineau Olympiques, every Ben Johnson ― there are dozens, if not hundreds, more that go untold. I could name a half-dozen stories off the top of my head that never left a small circle of trusted friends; the evidence I saw and messages I read that, by age 16, thoroughly changed the way I saw the game and how we worship those who play it.

A hockey culture that provides no viable professional opportunities to women is not one that is inclusive of young girls. A hockey culture where racist vitriol targeted at high-profile players of colour and Indigenous athletes gets reframed as inspirational fodder of individuals overcoming adversity is not one that is inclusive of the kids who hope to follow in their footsteps. A hockey culture where large segments of the population cannot even imagine organized hockey as an option because it’s so far out of reach is not one that is accessible. And if this isn’t what we want hockey culture to be, then we need to continue the work of changing it. Simply saying it’s not true won’t make it not real.

Those defending the sanctity of the game and their place in it have seen firsthand the best hockey has to offer. I trust that they want to share that side of the sport, to see the communities they’ve built through and around hockey reflected in the mainstream narrative. I do too. It’s absolutely exhausting having to constantly justify your presence in this sport, and I understand the desire to assert that we are all already here. However, the very fact that so many people feel the need to insist that they are indeed here, in relation to a clip that I doubt most have even watched, speaks to the many ways in which they ― (again, we?) ― are already excluded.  We all want a hockey culture where our value isn’t up for discussion, but we won’t get there by denying the barriers that exist. We get there by breaking them down.

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Brett Pardy

I love hockey. But I also hate it. As a kid, I would have loved to play. There’s such a joy to goaltending, an almost trance-like state of trying to figure out how to move yourself to stop the puck. But I never could stand the culture around the rink, being surrounded by the rather obnoxious machismo pre-teen and teenage boy hockey players, while also having to have absolute deference to a coach, regardless of how they treat you. We may wish these players were like the characters of Roy MacGregor’s Screech Owls or Gordon Korman’s Slapshots series (though even in these books, there’s “bullies” who play hockey) but that is not many people’s experience. Anecdotally, the only person who ever bullied me was a rep hockey player. Obviously not every hockey player is a bully, but I think the insularity of hockey distorts the idea of what being nice (or not) really is. The hockey rink is an intensely hierarchical space. Hockey does teach manners and deference to authority, but politeness is not the same as goodness. Leo Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina that “respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be”. I’m not being so liberal here as to suggest hockey should teach love, I think it is necessary to understand the limitations of respect. Mandated manners seem to distort the perception of how these kids and teenagers interact with people that they are not required to respect.

One of the things I often include in my writing on hockey is about how insular hockey is, as if the world consisted of just the rink. This insularity is on full display in very idea that Allen’s comments are in some way “offensive,” even “racist” because it was targeted at the specific group of “hockey families”. Consider how many people upset at Allen identify as “a hockey parent,” reducing their identity to this insular world. Perhaps if the hockey world was not so insular, some white people would learn racism is not the simple fact of naming race – though this would not explain why they so comfortably name racialized players as an alibi that hockey is not all white boys, an all that was absent in Allen’s comments. Even more infuriatingly, when racialized players do face racism on the ice, they are often told to develop a thicker skin. Yet some white people view the description of some hockey players as “white boys” as unacceptably offensive, something that can not be tuned out.

It’s a bit mysterious to me why this statement resulted in such defensiveness with some white hockey parents and players. My current theory is returning to the idea of the rink as a hierarchical space. Some white “hockey parents,” spurred on by Hockey Night in Canada and Tim Hortons commercials, often understand themselves as the best citizens of our nation. Because this insular world lacks a social-historical understanding of why something might be offensive, and if white people’s identities all align with the other dominant groups in society, they often understand “offence” as simply “speech I don’t like.” When someone, particularly someone who could be a “hockey mom,” questions the sacred space that is supposed to be the best of Canada, there is a strong feeling they must face consequences. Hockey’s goodness must be loudly reaffirmed and protected in the national imagination.

 

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