The Mess that is Hockey Canada

Photo by Courtney Szto.

As a kid, I revered the Hockey Canada logo. I think it’s an objectively good looking logo but, more than that, it represented something good about Canada. I bought my first Hockey Canada hat in high school and it was my most prized possession for a long time because the people who I looked up to wore that crest. Suffice it to say, the logo has lost a lot of its symbolic lustre.

On June 22, 2022, the Canadian Minister of Sport, Pascal St-Onge announced that the government would freeze the federal funding provided to Hockey Canada as a response to the organization’s handling of a sexual assault lawsuit. St-Onge explained that the decision was made after Hockey Canada executives were questioned during a Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage hearing and they were unable to provide accountable answers for their handling of the sexual assault allegations against members of the 2018 World Junior team.

I was pretty surprised when the Minister made this announcement because in previous conversations with the Minister of Heritage’s office about how Hockey Canada has handled anti-racism, it was made clear that punitive measures would not be used as a way to hold Hockey Canada (or any national sport organization) to a particular standard. We (the team behind the Policy Paper on Anti-Racism) were told that the Minister’s Office prefers to incentivize national sport organizations than punish them for not meeting expectations. The fact that federal funding only makes up 6% of Hockey Canada’s total revenue sources was another reason why withholding funding was not seen as realistic, simply because the amount withheld wouldn’t really affect them. However, as we have seen with St-Onge’s announcement, the amount isn’t nearly as important as the principle and the statement it sends. It also opened the door for corporate sponsors to follow suit. I applaud the decision to withhold funding as a mechanism to hold Hockey Canada accountable for its conduct around sexual assault, and I hope that this is now an option for all national sport organizations with respect to any form of negligence and misconduct.

Now, to be clear, when we had our meetings with the Heritage Office, St-Onge was not the Minister of Sport. At that time, the sport portfolio had been folded under the larger Heritage banner with Steven Guilbeault as the Minister. Does this move prove the importance of having a specific Minister of Sport? Was this decision made because St-Onge is a woman? Or was the decision around funding made because there was a lawsuit involved? Perhaps all of these things were factors in the decision to freeze federal funding.

Then on July 22, more allegations of gang rape were raised but this time against the 2003 World Junior team.

Here’s what we know about gang rape and sports: they are not that uncommon. In Jessica Luther’s research on rape culture and college football, she found that almost one-third of sexual assaults that take place on college campuses are perpetrated by student athletes. Of all of the cases she examined from 1974-2016, 40% of those were gang rapes perpetrated by football players (but she was also only looking at football, so that’s not to say that they are any better or worse than other athletes). In 2015, Al Jazeera reported that student athletes are 3x more likely to be involved in gang rapes compared to the average population. As Luther explains in her book, Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College football and the politics of rape, the criminal act of gang rape serves as a bonding experience for male athletes. And, we would be mistaken to assume that women and girls are the only victims of this kind of “bonding” ritual because team hazing often involves sexual assault. See for example: St. Mike’s high school football team hazing; Plainfield Central high school hazing; OHL hazing; Fred Ledlin hazed by 4 different junior teams.

Rape culture does not mean that an environment actively promotes sexual assault, but it does mean that a particular culture is willing to turn a blind eye when sexual assault happens. This is what has become abundantly clear with Hockey Canada. Male bonding and sexual pleasure (and winning) are prioritized over the safety and dignity of anyone else. We found out today (July 26) that Sport Canada knew about the 2018 sexual assault allegations but “did not follow up with Hockey Canada at the time.” One would think that allegations of a sexual assault involving multiple members from a national team wouldn’t be something that just gets lost in the email inbox. To not follow up is to be complicit and enable rape culture.

Another example of how Hockey Canada has enabled rape culture is in the discovery of its “National Equity Fund,” which was a slush fund of $15 million (or more) pulled from registration fees to settle sexual assault lawsuits. The name of this fund: disgusting. The fact that this fund was so well funded: abhorrent. The fact that they foresaw these lawsuits as inevitable enough to prepare for them monetarily but not with any other type of meaningful prevention methods: criminal. The Globe and Mail found a second account called the “Health Benefits Trust” that was also “putting money toward liability coverage for its directors and officers.” This “health” fund has about $6 million sitting in it to help cover dental work, physiotherapy, and apparently lawsuits.

It really makes you wonder where in the reporting for its 2020-2021 Annual Report did Hockey Canada include the “National Equity Fund”:

Did they fold it under “administrative “costs? Is that part of the 16% that it costs to run the national teams? Or is settling sexual assault lawsuits out of court considered part of Hockey Canada’s everyday operations?

Yesterday, the Canadian National Women’s Hockey team released its own independent statement. Given that the women’s team perhaps wears the Hockey Canada logo more than any other players they are rightly disturbed by how these situations have been handled.

The National Equity Fund is a perfect example of how contingent organizational speak around gender equality can be. Hockey Canada funds the women who bring them national glory, recognition, and money with one cheque book and pays off other women who are marked as problematic with another cheque book. This, in fact, is the exact opposite of gender equality because the national women’s and girls’ teams, and the girls development programs, all become alibis for Hockey Canada while other women who have been victimized by their own players are nothing but a fudged line on the budget.

The solutions needed are nothing magical or mysterious. They are the same solutions to the problems of racism, homonegativity, and ableism. Get rid of all the people who created and maintained this culture because they have proven they are not up to the task. Welcome external oversight and be transparent about complaints received and internal problems. The stated mission of Hockey Canada is to “Lead, Develop and Promote Positive Hockey Experiences.” Everything that Hockey Canada has done to get to this point today should make us seriously question what these words mean to the organization and its vision to create “World Sports Leaders.” Leadership without character and honour is simply power mongering.

Joe Ehrmann, former NFL player and founder of the Inside Out coaching initiative, states in the documentary The Mask You Live In, he coaches to teach boys how to become men of empathy and to be a force for good, but this doesn’t happen unless you actively model and teach these values. It has become abundantly apparent that, as much as Hockey Canada has taught millions of young boys how to shoot, skate, and stickhandle, they have also taught them that being good at hockey can open doors to entitlement beyond the reach of the law and this needs to change immediately.

2 thoughts on “The Mess that is Hockey Canada

  1. Pingback: Out with the Old-School: A Series on Women and Hockey Leadership | Hockey in Society / Hockey dans la société

  2. Pingback: Out with the Old-School: A Series on Women and Hockey Leadership – CanucksBanter

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