Imagining Otherwise: What could a new normal look like for hockey?

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The “new normal” at Burnaby Winter Club in Vancouver, B.C. Photo by Ben Nelms (CBC).

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What is it that we’re reaching through this black hole to imagine on the other side? The work of imagining otherwise could not be more important.

~ Kimberle Crenshaw

Most of us didn’t really understand the threat that Covid-19 posed until the NBA suspended its season on March 11th when one of the Utah Jazz players tested positive in a preliminary test. That moment was the red light that Canada and the United States needed because on any other day, sports stops for nothing. Sure, there’s the occasional snowstorm or hurricane but, on the whole, the $500 billion industry answers to no one. And, as we have seen in recent weeks, despite rich powerful men trying to make their own rules, this has proven to be one circumstance that they can’t buy their way out of (except apparently Dana White).

The NBA would like to open its practice facilities on May 8th with limited access and strict guidelines, such as not allowing more than one player to shoot on a hoop at the same time. The CBC also pointed out that for the Toronto Raptors, many of their players returned home to the United States and (according to Prime Minister Trudeau) there are no plans on opening up the Canada-U.S. border any time soon. Athletes usually get fast-tracked for visas and permits, but in the era of Covid-19 it is hard to imagine that “basketball,” “hockey,” or “football” will be acceptable answers to the question: Reason for your travel? Similarly, varsity athletes are usually some of the most privileged students on university campuses but they may find themselves as “just students” for the foreseeable future with universities cutting spending, turning to remote learning, and needing to practice social distancing until a vaccine is widely available. Sports does not align with any of these priorities at the moment.

Our new normal at rinks might involve us having our temperature taken before we enter, or maybe we’ll all have to buy this new medical grade fishbowl that Bauer is working on:

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Darren Dreger of TSN tweeted the above statement on April 30th, 2020.

The Orca, an independent news site in British Columbia, published a piece looking at what might have to change to get minor hockey players back on the ice including: adding separate entrances to each ice sheet in multi-rink facilities, offering video streams for parents etc. to reduce the number of people in the rink, no out-of-town tournaments, coming to the rink in all your gear except skates to minimize time in communal spaces, and moving from 5-on-5 to 4-on4 (or 3-on-3!).

I’ll say it: All these changes suck!

If you generally have positive feelings towards hockey, it’s likely because you enjoy the locker room banter. 3-on-3 is certainly better than no hockey, but obviously we want 5-on-5. And, who wants to watch their kid on a video stream from the parking lot? But, if this is what we have to do to play hockey, obviously we’ll do it.

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Remember when we could sit next to people? What will social distancing look like on the benches? Photo by Courtney Szto.

The only thing that is certain is that things will change; still, they don’t all have to be changes that are out of our control. What could a new era of hockey look like? I rounded up ten ideas from the Hockey in Society team and the Twitterverse that range from minute changes to the silly and radical for us to mull over during this time of reflection.

1.)  No more spitting on the benches (or in locker rooms).

Let’s start off easy. Everything needs to be clean, clean, clean, clean from now on, which means no more phlegm and snot rockets on the bench. They have ALWAYS been gross. I think one of the saddest days I have had at the rink was the day my glove rolled off the top of the board into a big gob of spit 🤮 It was like a slow motion NOOOOOOO! You don’t actually need to spit, at least not on the FLOOR/ICE to play hockey. Are there some studies that argue people create more mucus when exercising? Yes. And, I find my nose tends to run depending on the temperature of the rink. But we know it’s possible for athletes of all calibers to NOT shoot bodily fluids onto shared surfaces because you aren’t allowed to spit when playing tennis or basketball. And, when you’re getting “swol” at the gym you don’t just spit off the side of the treadmill or in the squat rack.

2.) Pipeline for women in coaching.

According to the Coaching Association of Canada, women athletes make up almost 50% of the national team programs but this representation drops off steeply in the coaching ranks. On the last day of 2019, the New York Times ran a piece asking, “Where are all the women coaches?” It identified that 40% of NCAA women’s teams are coached by women and only 3% of men’s teams are led by women. In 2010, 31% of head coaches in Div I women’s hockey were women. USports only has about 16% women in head coaching positions across all sports. Not only do men take up a lot of space in the coaching ranks but in women’s hockey it is a common occurrence for men to coach elite women despite never having coached any previous girls or women’s hockey (e.g., Randy Velischek – Riveters; Perry Pearn – Canadian National Team; Bob Corkum – USNWT; Rob Stauber – USWNT; Ken Klee – USWNT). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying they are bad at coaching women or not qualified for the position but as, the newly retired and legendary women’s basketball coach for Notre Dame, Muffet McGraw stated unapologetically:

All these millions of girls that play sports across the country, we’re teaching them great things about life skills, but wouldn’t it be great if we could teach them to watch how women lead? When you look at men’s basketball, 99 percent of the jobs go to men, why shouldn’t 100 or 99 percent of the jobs in women’s basketball go to women? Maybe it’s because we only have 10 percent women athletic directors in Division I. People hire people who look like them. That’s the problem.

The ideal situation is obviously to have a natural ebb and flow of women and men in all positions and across sports but we simply do not have enough women in the structures for that natural flow. Therefore, in an attempt to equalize opportunities, positions for coaching women and girls should prioritize the hiring of women/non-binary folks. And, in order to get more women into grassroots coaching there needs to be childcare subsidies and/or in-rink childcare facilities made available.

3.) Lower the cost of participation.

This has long been a discussion for hockey and the pandemic could be a real turning point IF we can gather enough political will. With a large percentage of parents forced into unemployment/underemployment, the reality is that many children may not be returning to rinks regardless of what safety protocols are put in place. Even before the pandemic hit, I knew a mother who had made the decision to quit her own hockey so that her child could continue playing. These are not decisions that families should have to make to play “Canada’s game.”

Burnaby Winter Club in Vancouver, British Columbia is the first hockey program to open its doors to members and the only option available right now are private lessons. Thus, an already exclusive private club has become even more exclusive and inaccessible with less ice time, restricted numbers, and more expensive options. If this is the “solution” we are coming up with then we’ve sealed our own fate and effectively made hockey a country club sport.

Government subsidies to help bail out sporting organizations is necessary but you also need to bail out the participants. France recently announced that it would provide 50 euros to help citizens pay for cycling training and to get their bike tuned up to aid with physically distanced transportation. Covid-19 has presented us with an opportunity to re-align our priorities back to participation and away from high performance sport. If there is no one in the pipeline then a high performance sports system will collapse on itself anyways. A focus on “owning the podium” has worked but, as Donnelly and Kidd (2015) have identified, as medal counts have increased overall participation has consistently been on the decline since 2002 in Canada. This is the moment to intervene in that decline.

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Burnaby Winter Club members waiting to enter the rink under Covid-19 guidelines. Photo by Ben Nelms (CBC).

4.) Telling stories beyond the score.

The world hasn’t stopped but there are many sports writers twiddling their thumbs because they only know how to write about the game sheet. Those sports journalists who are able to write about the game and its implications are faring better during this pandemic. Let this be a lesson in diversifying your skills and content.

5.) Equitable gender representation.

The pandemic coverage has done a better job of highlight women’s hockey in Canada with TSN and Sportsnet digging deep in their archives for old CWHL and World Championships games. But the inequality that exists in non-pandemic times carries through in replays because you can’t show what you never recorded in the first place. There has been, unsurprisingly, far more World Junior Championships games shown on replay than women’s hockey. So, while you are re-configuring your budgets this is the perfect time to allocate a media team to build an audience for women’s hockey. Build! An! Audience! Not just cover it. Don’t just throw a scoreline on your crawler and pretend like you’re some great ally to women’s hockey. Maybe, just maybe, you could even move women’s hockey highlights with the men’s games instead of filling that last 30 seconds of the show. If you’re feeling really crazy, put them first in the package from time to time. You could also change your websites to make “HOCKEY” one of the tab options and from there it would split it into “NHL” and “Women’s Hockey.”

6.) Player safety actually becomes a priority.

You can have all the departments of player safety that you want but as long as management keeps proposing return to play plans that require players to assume the majority of the risk, you don’t actually care about player safety. It is very easy for owners and GMs to come up with plans that do not require them to travel or unnecessarily expose themselves to Covid-19 because they know that there really is no shortage of players. Bundesliga soccer in Germany is planning to re-start play on May 15th even though 10 players just tested positive with no symptoms.

The following is Mark Norman’s contribution to re-imagining hockey:

Hockey has spit up and chewed out numerous players over the decades, and done little to provide them with any meaningful support for the physical, psychological, and social trauma they have endured. If there was ever a moment to reflect on the importance of health and wellbeing, the current moment seems as good as any. Imagine if leagues and organizations, from amateur to junior to professional, took seriously the science around brain injury, the lack of athlete agency in the face of hierarchical team structures, and the lingering presence of misogyny, homophobia, hazing, and bullying. Imagine how much more positive an experience hockey could be if athletes were empowered to advocate for positive cultural and structural changes that could improve their health. And imagine how much healthier hockey participation could be for those athletes if these changes were made. Hockey can be wonderful, inspiring, invigorating, and downright fun. But too often it is damaging to the health of those who play it – now, more than ever, seems a good time to contemplate how this situation could be changed.

In the current NHLPA CBA, players can only buy into health coverage for life after playing 160 NHL games. And, you only have 120 days to buy into that coverage. Putting player safety first, as an example, means that life time health care coverage should start the moment you play your first NHL shift. If there is a possibility that you could sustain a long-term injury like a concussion or back injury from that 45 second shift then leagues should be willing to compensate players for that risk.

7.) Mandatory empathy training for coaches and players.

A few months ago, multiple press outlets asked me if hockey was facing a moment of “reckoning” with the firings of Don Cherry and Bill Peters. My answer was that only time will tell. If you think that extricating two people from your institution is enough to be considered a “reckoning,” that would be your first mistake. USA Gymnastics is a perfect example of how it’s never just a moment of reckoning because, as much as Larry Nasser was the problem, an institution that enables and protects such a person is equally “the problem.” This is also hockey’s issue: it is an institution that shook its head and turned a blind eye for years while people like Don Cherry and Bill Peters did their thing.

Joe Ehrmann, former NFL player, runs the Inside Out Initiative for transformational coaching. He has a beautiful line in The Mask You Live In that I will trot out any chance I get: “I coach to help boys become men of empathy and integrity.” He happened to tweet it out recently with an even better follow up:

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These are the kinds of coaches that we need throughout our coaching systems. You change a culture by changing its people. So, when I say “empathy training,” I’m referring to the gamut of intersectional issues: sexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism, classism etc. Depending on the level of play, young minds can spend more time with their coaches than with their own families. Who we put into coaching positions should not simply be about those who know the game, they should also be shining beacons of our society. And, if you make in-person empathy training mandatory for every coach then that could help weed out a lot of people who don’t believe that empathy should be part of their job description.

Coaches who violate harassment/abuse/discrimination policies should be put on probation so that they can re-do the necessary training. Players should also receive empathy training from third party organizations but starting with the coaches sets the appropriate leaders in place to create a culture where such training for players would simply be supplemental. The UK just released a report of their national Athletics program identifying a need for changes to its cultural and ethical approaches, and abusive coaching has been identified as a problem in Canadian universities. It’s not just a hockey problem. This is an opportunity for everyone to clean house.

8.) Reporters need to stop asking players: “How important is it…”

This is a personal pet peeve because I find that in-game interviews and post-game interviews aren’t usually very enlightening. Players have to keep any real strategies and emotions close to the vest so they can’t really say much. When someone goes off script, it goes viral, but even those moments are usually more dramatic than they are educational. It drives me BANANAS when in-game reporters ask players something like, “How important is it that you guys come out with a strong third period?” Or, “How important is it that you guys killed that late penalty?” I would love for a player to mix it up one day and say, “Not that important,” but alas, they never do. The answer is always “really important.”

9.) All the players sign autographs after games.

This is a norm for women’s hockey that requires time and labour that they don’t necessarily have, but they do it anyways. It’s time for the men to earn those paycheques by engaging with their fans on the regular. I don’t think that every player has to come out after every game to sign autographs but it should be an expectation that part of the NHL game experience is a free autograph signing session with some of the players on rotation.

10.) Make it a real physical education, with the emphasis on education.

In the last decade or so, Canadian sport has been all about a shift to physical literacy. This was really about getting us away from old-school physical education classes where we teach people the rules of badminton or football and how to throw a ball, but the fear of being laughed at while being tested or during class completely undid any education they might be receiving. Physical literacy is about teaching the fundamentals of movement and fostering confidence in one’s body so that whatever situation one might find themselves in down the line, be it a yoga class, skating rink, or bubble soccer game, people can feel relatively confident in their participation. This has generally been a positive shift but we still leave so much learning on the table with respect to physical culture. Drawing from the wonder that is Muffet McGraw again, she used to incorporate women’s history into her basketball practices:

There is no reason why something like this couldn’t become the new normal for hockey, with respect to hockey history, important figures, and policy changes. But, for this to work, you need coaches who believe in the importance of training both the mind and body. We talk a lot about using sport to create productive citizens for broader society without a whole lot intentional practices to back that up.

As professor Kimberle Crenshaw advises us, “Let’s start telling the narrative from this moment.” The hockey of yesterday does not need to be the hockey of tomorrow. Let’s take the things with us that worked and scrap the things that didn’t.

It would seem that a lot of this re-imagining hinges on the coaches we empower to lead us into a new normal.

Works Cited

Donnelly, P., & Kidd, B. (2015). Two solitudes: Grass-roots sport and high-performance sport in Canada. In R. Bailey & M. Talbot (Eds.), Elite sport and sport-for-all: Bridging the two cultures? (pp. 57–71). London, UK & New York, NY: Routledge.

 

One thought on “Imagining Otherwise: What could a new normal look like for hockey?

  1. Pingback: Imaginer autrement : Qu’est-ce qui pourrait être un nouveau normal pour le hockey ? | Hockey in Society / Hockey dans la société

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