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Where Do We Go from Here?
League needs to do better in addressing Kyle Beach issue
11/3/21 - By Ryan Hall
A couple weeks ago I wrote an article 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 Hockey League.

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 winning.

It's a league that keeps making it harder and harder to love.

That always leaves you asking, "Where do we go from here?"

On 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.

Of 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 structures.

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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