A couple weeks ago I wrote an
praising the NHL for becoming a safe space to discuss
Mental Health. That piece lauded the league for taking a bold, progressive
stance and embracing one of the largest health crises of our time. I was
hopeful and optimistic that this was the start of a new, more humane National
Then all hell broke loose with the Kyle Beach story.
So, I sit here trying to put together my thoughts and feelings on what
is a horrific situation.
How is it possible that no one, not a single
person, did anything? How could the pursuit of winning be worth more than a
person who was being abused? How can any individual whether in management, a
player, or support personnel excuse doing nothing by saying "I thought it was
only sexual harassment"? (See Ken Cheveldayoff)
The roots of hockey
run deep in my family. We've had NHLers, International Pros, GM's, and
generally been around the 'game' for generations. It's a sport that I genuinely
love. That's hard to reconcile with the discomfort and unease I feel as more
and more layers of this story are peeled away. Maybe you feel the same way.
Maybe you don't. However, each one of us has to confront the inarguably dark,
malevolent, and sinister side of the hockey world yet again. And which speaks
to a culture problem.
If you need more proof, I offer the nauseating
Press Conference run by Gary Bettman earlier this week in which he answered
questions about the league response to the situation. Let's move past the fact
that Arizona and New Jersey paid steeper penalties for draft/scouting
violations than Chicago will for covering up a Sexual Assault.
Instead, let's focus on the directly personal, humane, side of things.
When asked if the NHL would be willing to provide counselling services to the
boy who was abused by Brad Aldrich the commissioner was non-committal. He
wanted to do his own research on the situation before deciding. Of course he
does. Why trust the courts? Why trust all the reporting the journalism already
completed? Why err on the side of decency? Why, when you can instead close
ranks and hide?
The answer is that the NHL is once again stuck being
reactive. The situation is out of their control and so they are in damage
control mode. I'm sure they've been advised by legal counsel, PR firms, and the
Owners have all had their say. The result though is a league that is out of
touch with reality, uncaring, and wholly rotten. One in which the players
aren't seen as human beings, only a resource to be used up in the pursuit of
It's a league that keeps making it harder and harder to love.
That always leaves you asking, "Where do we go from here?"
that last question there is one step the league can take immediately, and one
that will take longer to implement.
To begin with, the NHL needs to
realize that if they want to be the 'keepers of the game', then that extends
beyond the Stanley Cup, Hockey Hall of Fame, and marketing. It has to extend
ensuring the game is accessible - and safe - for everyone at all levels.
One way to do that is to partner with Sheldon Kennedy, himself a
Sexual Assault/Abuse survivor who has been working to raise awareness, empower
players, support survivors, and expose perpetrators. Doing so would add
credibility to the league's stated desire to change. Unfortunately. it would
require a different mind set from the league office. When asked about such a
partnership, Bettman said he would wait for Kennedy to make the first move
rather than proactively reaching out to him. That kind of leadership simply
won't cut it.
Finally, and this is the big one, the NHL needs to
be an active partner in changing the culture of hockey from the grassroots up.
It's a well-known problem that ice hockey is increasingly becoming unavailable
for the majority of families. Not only is the cost prohibitive, but the demands
on time are locking the game away from more and more children who would dearly
love to play it. While the NHL doesn't set the price of equipment, nor do they
rent out ice time, they do control the narrative that is sold to parents:
hockey is the way for your kid to become a millionaire. All that money and time
you invest will someday pay off when they sign that big deal.
course, we know that the majority of players never earn a dime, but it's the
allure and promise of the professional paycheque that drives the economic
engine of the game. Summer clinics. Early morning practices and weekend long
tournaments. Thousands of dollars on equipment. All to chase the NHL dream,
which the league benefits from in merchandise sales, sponsorships, and grooming
the next generation of fans.
However, the most insidious aspect - and
one most in need of change - is the damage done to the development of the
players as adults. By teaching them from a young age that the only way they can
succeed is by being cutthroat, that they need to make hockey their lives, that
opponents are roadblocks to personal success, and by taking them away from
their parents and homes during their formative teenage years, they've created a
toxic culture. Kids grow up feeling entitled, but at the same time completely
indebted to their coaches who can make or break their careers. That power
dynamic is what created the environment where Kyle Beach could be abused. At
the same time, the intense pressure of trying to 'make it' negatively affects
young players' mental health leading to addictions and substance abuse. And all
of this happens away from home, their parents, and a network of support
Change will be hard, but it can begin at the top by
ceasing to focus only on winning and the financial benefits it brings. Right
now every decision in every front office is influenced by the effect it will
have on the bottom line. Rosters are constructed to maximize the relationship
ratio between profit and success. And if you're talented enough, if you can
help drive the economic engine of a team or the league, no indiscretion will
stand in your way.
Need proof? Consider the most recent NHL draft and
the case of Logan Mailloux. He was tried and convicted of taking and spreading
a sexually explicit photo of a girl without her consent. We can discuss second
chances and youthful indiscretions, but when he was drafted by the Montreal
Canadiens it only reinforced the narrative of 'winning at any cost'; to hell
with the consequences. That's the same mentality that allowed Joel Quenneville,
Stan Bowman, and the Blackhawks organization to look the other way in 2010.
To change this culture requires the NHL. and all it's partners. to
understand that the responsibility is theirs. Sure, it's more fun to have Hall
of Fame games and host Winter Classics, but if they want to be 'Keepers of the
Cup', then they also have to accept the narrative that they have built around
the pursuit of it. Real, meaningful progress will require more than setting up
a hotline or removing a few troublesome executives and coaches. It will mean
rewriting the story of hockey from the ground up.
They'll be pushback,
some of you reading this right now may not agree. But even having that
conversation will be a step in the right direction. To me, the NHL, and we as
fans, cannot simply pretend this is a one-off, a terrible situation perpetrated
by a few bad individuals. If we don't change there will be more lives
destroyed, more Kyle Beaches, and more avoidable pain.
Where we go
from here is up to us.
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