Out with the Old-School Part 2: The Leadership Culture

The ‘Out with the Old-School’ series is based on the findings from Donna Cumming’s MA thesis. The study involved interviews and focus groups with 11 Canadian varsity women hockey players about their hockey leadership experiences, perceptions, and intentions.

Today’s post is all about leadership. It’s safe to say that in the last couple of years, the state of hockey leadership in Canada has been tenuous, at best. In the last three years, we’ve heard incidents of racism and bullying at the hands of coaches, and seen multiple executive teams ‘resign’ at the national and professional level over mishandled, covered up sexual assault allegations. The accumulation of these events has caused widespread concern about the leadership culture in hockey.

Considering the lack of diversity in hockey leadership[1] and the deeply rooted sexism in the sport’s culture, it’s important to understand women’s perceptions of hockey leadership. What does hockey leadership look like to them? What kind of hockey leaders have created positive (or negative) team environments? These questions, along with their gendered implications, will be the focus of this post.

What is hockey leadership?

Now, this might seem like a straightforward question. But let’s keep in mind, leadership doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to everyone. Case in point, I went into my master’s research thinking that I’d be talking to athletes about organizational leaders – think coaches, managers, and other team staff. Once I got started, it became pretty clear that their concept of hockey leadership had a much bigger focus on team leadership – captains, teammates, alumni, and of course, coaches. As Participant 5 thoughtfully articulated, hockey leadership is “a very multifaceted concept [that] looks different to everyone, and everyone has a different role.”

So, before we get into what hockey leadership looks like to the women in this study, we need to look at who they identify as leaders in hockey. When asked who comes to mind when they think of hockey leaders, almost everyone started by talking about coaches and team captains. What’s interesting is that a wide variety of leadership roles were identified as we went along, including managers, sport psychologists, athletic trainers, high-profile women athletes, sports agents, organizing committees, scouts and broadcasters. But most of these roles came as almost an afterthought – the athletes had to be prompted to think about these roles and even then, sometimes struggled to come up with them.

This relatively narrow focus on coaches and captains is not necessarily surprising for a group of athletes that spend every day with their teammates and their coaches, while they have less exposure to other leadership roles in hockey that are a bit more ‘behind the scenes’. At the same time, nine out of the 11 varsity hockey players were enrolled in sport-related university programs such as Kinesiology or Human Kinetics. You might think that between their sport and their school programs, someone would be educating them on the type of hockey leadership roles that they might consider after the end of their varsity hockey careers (I’ll come back to this in a later post!).     

The hockey leadership environment

With this background in mind, we can explore what these athletes believe the hockey leadership environment should look like. In other words, what makes a good hockey leader?

Most of the athletes in this study advocated for an interpersonal and athlete-centered leadership style. They highlighted the importance of “valuing athletes as people” (Participant 4): leaders who get to know their athletes or teammates, and that have the ability to adapt to the needs of each individual and the team as a whole. Their preferred leadership style was built around open and honest communication, and several participants explained how the positive personal characteristics of a sport leader was connected to the overall performance of the team on and off the ice.

On the other hand, the athletes often associated their negative experiences with leadership styles that were authoritarian and impersonal. For example, one participant talked about how coaches who had the attitude of “this is how it is, this is my way” (Participant 9) were often less effective than those who consulted their players and asked for their input. Another athlete identified the stereotype in hockey that players need to be able to “deal with the coach being an asshole to you” (Participant 6). And people wonder how hockey landed the reputation of having a toxic leadership culture…

In sport management research, these different leadership styles are often described in terms of the transformational-transactional framework. The former describes leadership that appeals to the needs of the individual and makes them feel valued, while the latter operates on a system of punishment and reward, focusing on rules and procedure over vision and relationships. The participants in my research demonstrated a clear preference for transformational leadership, which several studies have found to be more effective than transactional leadership (Peachey & Burton, 2011). But apparently, some people missed the memo. Transactional leadership has historically been the dominant or traditional leadership style. Particularly in male-dominated environments like hockey, many still believe this leadership style is superior because of the longstanding acceptance of traditional gender roles, and the assumption that sport is centered around male leadership (LaVoi, 2016).

Towards a shift in hockey leadership culture   

So, what does this tell us about the future of hockey leadership and by extension, hockey culture as a whole? First and foremost, it characterizes a shift in perception of what hockey leadership should look like. In this case, it suggests that women in hockey are less inclined to tolerate the ‘old-school’ authoritarian hockey leadership style that has contributed to the labelling of hockey culture as toxic. But that doesn’t mean the implications are exclusive to the women’s side of the sport. In recent years, we’ve heard more and more men speak out for a change in hockey culture, often when they’ve been subjected to discrimination in hockey themselves.

St. Norbert Women’s Ice Hockey” by stnorbert is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

This points to the importance of diversifying hockey leadership in order to create a more inclusive culture. Diversity can come in many forms: diversity in demographics is the most obvious, hiring more women and gender diverse individuals, racialized folks, members of the LGBTQ2S+ community. But it can also mean diversity in thought. One of the most concerning things about the recent parade of ‘resigning’ hockey leaders, is the rate at which these coaches and executives get hired to a new team within months of being let go for bullying, physical abuse, racism, and the list goes on. Unless the hiring staff are straight out of ‘Finding Nemo’, there is no reason for these hockey leaders with highly questionable reputations to be selected over the countless aspiring leaders in hockey. Put simply, hockey organizations can contribute to a positive culture shift by hiring and promoting leaders who demonstrate transformational leadership qualities, rather than recycling the same leaders who may have years of experience but would rather lead by fear than empowerment.   

It is also worth mentioning the persisting gendered assumption that associates interpersonal leadership styles with women, and authoritarian leadership styles with men. This came up in my research where the participants explained the need for a more relational leadership style in girls’ and women’s hockey based on the belief that men’s and women’s “brains work a little bit differently” (Participant 7).

It’s important to recognize the social and historical implications (and downright inaccuracy) of this assumption, coined as “neurosexism” by professor of neuroscience, Lise Eliot. Participants who had played boys’ hockey described the men’s side of the sport as more business-like, due to the increased professional opportunities for men in hockey. Other participants suggested that the socially constructed gender roles had an impact on how girls and boys reacted to different leadership styles. Some even speculated that boys and men in hockey might not thrive off of an authoritarian leadership style, but that they are able to handle it because it’s what they are used to. It’s what they grew up with, so it’s all they know.  

This demonstrates the importance of diverse role models and men allies. It’s clear from speaking to these women hockey players that having more women in leadership roles will more than likely lead to a shift in hockey leadership culture. But this is only half the battle. In order to truly change the culture and re-define gender narratives, it’s important to increase the number of men in hockey leadership who embody an interpersonal and transformational leadership style. If enough leaders in the sport commit to this leadership style, it has the potential to change the culture from the ground up – but more on that in my next post!

Keep an eye out for the next installment of the ‘Out with the Old-School’ series, which will explore how leaders in hockey impact athletes’ beliefs, attitudes, and values. Read Part 1 [Here].


[1] As of the most recent available numbers from the 2019-20 Hockey Canada Annual Report, only 5% of hockey coaches in Canada were women.

Works Cited

LaVoi, N. M. (2016). A framework to understand experiences of women coaches around the globe: The ecological-intersectional model. In N. M. LaVoi (Ed.), Women in sports coaching (pp. 13-34). Routledge. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/10.4324/9781315734651

Peachey, J. W., & Burton, L. J. (2011). Male or female athletic director? Exploring perceptions of leader effectiveness and a (potential) female leadership advantage with intercollegiate athletic directors. Sex Roles, 64, 416-425. doi: 10.1007/s11199-010-9915-y


3 thoughts on “Out with the Old-School Part 2: The Leadership Culture

  1. Pingback: Friday FTB: Mitch Marner NHL’s third star of November

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  3. Pingback: Out with the Old-School Part 3: Focus on Hockey or Fight for Equality? | Hockey in Society / Hockey dans la société

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