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Photo Credit: Hockey Canada

Hockey Canada and Hockey Culture Needs to Change

Rarely is sexual abuse covered as publicly as we’ve seen with the case(s) involving Hockey Canada. Even when former CHL head coach Graham James’ history of abuse, which spanned decades, came to light, there was no House of Commons committee.

Maybe this is a sign that the hockey community, and society overall, is ready to face and discuss the rampant issue of rape and sexual abuse. Sadly, we have seen very little progress in how society views these deplorable events. Victims and survivors often live in silence and shame, while the perpetrators go on with their lives.

I desperately want to believe this hearing will change, in a positive way, how we view and discuss sexual assault and rape, and more importantly how we discipline and punish the offenders, but the problem is so widespread I’m not optimistic.

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How did we get here with Hockey Canada?

It stems from a lawsuit that was filed this past April by a woman who alleged she was sexually assaulted by eight former CHL players at a Hockey Canada Foundation event in London, Ontario in June of 2018.

Hockey Canada settled the lawsuit in May, but if Rick Westhead’s reporting hadn’t exposed this settlement, then we likely would have never gotten to the House of Commons Committee. It wouldn’t have led to the Globe and Mail’s report about the National Equity fund, which is generated by Hockey Canada membership fees and investments according to Hockey Canada Chief Financial Officer Brian Cairo. Cairo said this during his testimony to the House of Commons.

Without Westhead’s initial report, nothing inside Hockey Canada would have changed.

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At that same hearing Hockey Canada CEO Scott Smith told the committee he would not resign from his position and that he was capable of creating the change needed. I’m sorry, but the organization needs a cleansing. It needs new direction, new priorities and new leadership. The current regime didn’t want to change. They were forced to. A few months ago Smith and Hockey Canada paid for the problem to go away quietly. It didn’t.

Smith told the committee that they have paid out $8.9 million for sexual abuse settlements to 21 complainants since 1989. And $7.6 million for nine claims came from the National Equity Fund. Most of it, $6.8 million, was for settlements related to Graham James.

There was an additional $1.3 million paid through insurance to 12 other sexual misconduct claims.

“We haven’t used money to protect our image,” said Smith. “We’ve used money to respond and support victims … so we’ve used money to support families.” I don’t doubt they believe that, but how come none of their internal investigations uncovered as much as Westhead’s reporting? Smith and company might believe they are helping the families, but by asking for Non-Disclosure Agreements, it sure looks like they were trying to keep things quiet.

HOCKEY CULTURE…

Lately when you hear the term hockey culture, it is often in a negative light. I believe there are many great things within the game of hockey, but hockey isn’t immune to sexual abuse, sexual misconduct and other deplorable actions. Sadly, it exists in hockey circles just like it does in football, gymnastics, ballerina, tennis and virtually every sport. Just like it exists in every walk of life from teachers, lawyers, the church and many neighbourhoods.

Sexual abuse and rape are a major issue in society, and I’ve noticed some people in hockey get defensive when the term “hockey culture” is used to describe the allegations involving the 2018 and 2003 World Junior teams. It is okay to admit there is a problem within hockey. Instead of trying to deflect away from it, all of us involved in hockey need to recognize it exists and stand up and voice that it needs to change.

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Hockey touches most communities in our country. Many of us played it, are still playing it, are coaches or volunteers or have children involved. Instead of getting defensive by saying it happens everywhere, maybe hockey should become a leader to start change. If everyone in hockey decides we’ve had enough with protecting the perpetrators, or turning a blind eye to sexual abuse, and be the voice of change, then maybe the rest of society will follow.

Waiting for someone else to be the leader in change hasn’t worked. We are far from perfect when it comes to racism and homophobia, but at least we have made strides in recent years to get better. We still have steps to go, but at least we’ve taken a few in the right direction. There really hasn’t been any positive gains for decades when it comes to sexual abuse.

Child abuse is rampant and the scary aspect is that 95% of children victims know and trust their perpetrators. In Canada, 30% of women 15 years of age and older have reported experiencing sexual abuse at least once. Reports suggest 10-20% of men experience some form of sexual abuse or sexual assault in their life, but even now in 2022 male sexual assault is downplayed or mocked if they admit it. Sexual abuse impacts children, men and women.

Hockey has many very good aspects, but right now Hockey Canada has shown that the largest governing body in hockey has a problem. But Smith, and others within Hockey Canada, aren’t truly admitting it, because they are still there.

Smith did add, “Should our board (of directors) or the governance review that we’ve outlined in our action plan suggest that I am not the person, then I am prepared to accept that,” so he won’t resign on his own, but would if the board suggests it.

But how many people on the current board should remain there? Smith is only one person. He shouldn’t be the scapegoat for all of Hockey Canada. He isn’t the only one who felt their secrecy to pay out victims was the best plan. There should be more changes than just him.

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My main question is: Does anyone at Hockey Canada have the experience to lead the organization through the muddy waters of sexual abuse? How will they address it? What guidelines and rules will they put in place?

The truth is all of us involved in hockey need to have the uncomfortable conversations around sexual abuse. It can’t be yelling and screaming. It needs to be calm, open dialogue and discussions, and it can’t be a one-time online course that people take. That will do very little. This is a deeply engrained problem in hockey, and society, and it needs to be put on the front burner. No longer can we sit back and hope others will start the uncomfortable conversations.

Waiting around has done nothing. Change is needed within Hockey Canada, but also awareness and change within the hockey culture. Start there, and hopefully, the rest of society will notice and follow along.

PERSONAL NOTE…

I was scheduled to do play-by-play for the upcoming World Junior Championships on radio for all of Canada’s games. I was thrilled to do it last December, and enjoyed the two games I called before the tournament was postponed due to COVID, but with the recent events and my personal connection to sexual abuse I have opted not to call the games this month.

I made the decision because my mother, Pearl Gregor, was sexually abused as a young child. And two of my close friends were abused. One when she was a teenager babysitting — when the husband came home he raped her. My other friend was raped by a co-worker. Sadly, the statistics say I have more friends who have been abused, it just hasn’t been discussed.

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My mother has written books about her journey to healing, and that is why I can mention her name publicly. It isn’t my place to mention the names of my friends as they never went public. They had to live with the shame and fear for many years and that isn’t right. They did nothing wrong, but have had to deal with the trauma for the rest of their life. We need to do more to protect victims and support the survivors. And we need to punish the perpetrators.

My decision to remove myself from calling games was mine alone. I do not expect others to do the same, as they might not have the same personal connection to rape or sexual abuse. I respect their decision and I hope they respect mine.

I’ve worked with the Edmonton Women’s Shelter, and I’ve emceed events for Little Warriors. They are a wonderful charity that focuses on awareness, treatment, prevention and advocacy for child sexual abuse. I’ve met some of the survivors and heard their stories first hand. Their courage is inspiring, especially when you hear the details and pain of their stories.

I’ve spoken many times about the need to change and improve how we view sexual abuse. I didn’t want to talk about it on my radio show one day, and then they next day be calling games for Team Canada. I want to make it clear my decision wasn’t based on the players or coaches on this year’s team. They have done nothing wrong, and they deserve to play. I just didn’t feel it was the right time for me to be calling games.

If I want change, then I have to be willing to step away from a something that impacts my personal opportunity. I wish Team Canada all the best.

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