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Five Thoughts: Hockey Culture Lets Us Down Again

Hockey Canada’s latest sexual assault cover-up is disappointing, but unsurprising

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Sweden v Canada: Gold Medal Game - 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Nicholas T. LoVerde/Getty Images

I had something a lot more fun planned for this week’s Five Thoughts. These aren’t the types of subjects that I like writing about. However, with this past week bringing racist incidents in the playoffs and yet another story of sexual assault in hockey - this one with a connection to the Sens - it didn’t feel right. So here’s your regularly scheduled post about hockey culture being Bad.

Content warning for discussion of sexual assault. No hard feelings if any of you don’t want to read this - take care of yourselves.

Sometimes it is hard to be a fan of this sport, part 1000

Yesterday afternoon, Rick Westhead of TSN published another installment in a seemingly endless string of stories about sexual assault in junior hockey.

I will not repeat the horrific details of this particular case. You can read it on your own time if you’d like, but please be careful if you’re sensitive to these kinds of things. I will say that it involved several unnamed CHL players, including members of the 2018 Canadian World Junior team. The roster for that team included several well-known and beloved NHL players, including current Ottawa Senators Drake Batherson, Alex Formenton, and Victor Mete.

I’m not accusing anyone of anything. I have no idea which of the members of that team were involved in this particular case. But that’s also the thing: I don’t know.

I don’t know if when I write silly jokes about the players on my favourite hockey team, there is someone reading it who sees me celebrating their assailant or abuser. I am not exaggerating when I say that that thought keeps me up at night. I am almost certain that every NHL player I write about has at some point played with a teammate who assaulted someone, because at this point it’s pretty clear that this happens at every level, in every league. Even the players who were not involved in this particular incident were on the team, were friends with the perpetrators, and it seems likely knew about this.

It doesn’t matter how often I remind myself that I should not idolize hockey players, that they are all products of hockey culture; every single one of these cases makes me rethink what I’m doing here. There is a lot to love about this sport, and about the community surrounding it, but it is really, really hard sometimes.

No, your team is not immune

Whenever we read about these types of horrific incidents, there is a tendency for hockey fans to make it about one team vs another. A lot of Sens fans bring up Auston Matthews’s history of sexual harassment when talking about the Leafs. People who dislike the Carolina Hurricanes smugly point to Tony DeAngelo and Max Domi as proof that the team is Bad and stands for Bad Things. Ditto for the Oilers and Evander Kane. At the same time, a lot of fans like to brag that their team has not been involved in any of these types of incidents, and must therefore be Good and stand for Good things.

I get it. I understand wanting to believe that your decision to cheer for one team over another is in some way rooted in morality, but it’s also long past time we let go of the idea that any team has any kind of moral high ground to stand on here.

That 2018 World Juniors team was very likable. A lot of those players are beloved around the league. Some of them assaulted a woman at a Hockey Canada event in 2018, and the rest probably knew about the incident. This stuff is everywhere in hockey. These issues do not exist to score points in petty rivalries with fellow fans.

Team First

After (perhaps inadvertently) injuring Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington in game 3, Avalanche forward Nazem Kadri was subjected to racist and Islamophobic harassment — including threats of violence severe and credible enough that he needed personal security while in St. Louis. Binnington threw a water bottle at him during a post-game interview, and several Blues players blatantly targeted him on the ice; David Perron’s flying elbow attempt was particularly egregious.

As horrific and infuriating as this all was, it was also heartwarming to see Kadri’s teammates stand up for him, and to see Kadri respond with a hat trick in game 4. I went into the series without any rooting interest, but soon found myself cheering for the Avs. Who wouldn’t? I wanted Kadri to win, mostly, but it was more than that: the Avalanche winning would feel like justice, like a giant middle finger to the racist Blues fans who did not deserve to see their team win after the way they acted.

But what would have happened if the roles had been reversed? Those Avalanche players who stood up for Kadri - would they have said the same things if Kadri had been on the other team? Would the Blues have handled things this badly if one of their players had been targeted with racist abuse, or would they have stood up for their teammate?

Remember, the same Avs organization now defending Kadri also defended Semyon Varlamov after he was arrested for domestic violence. Hockey players are taught to stand by their teammates no matter what, and they are often praised for that attitude. Sometimes sticking up for their teammates means standing up against racism. Sometimes it means standing on the side of abusers. It’s never really about the social issue. It’s always about who is and is not on their team.

Maybe that’s not the best way to do things.

Charges were dropped, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen

People who read the Rick Westhead article will surely be quick to point out that I have, up until this point, left out one key detail about the case: the lawsuit has been settled, and the allegations against the players were not proven in court.

This argument comes up often, actually, in discussions about sexual assault cases, because the alleged assailants are rarely found guilty. The reason for that is because it is incredibly difficult to prove sexual assault in court, and the process of pressing charges can be so humiliating and traumatic that many survivors decide that the best thing they can do for themselves is to give up and try to move forward with their lives. In 2017, the Globe and Mail found that Canadian police dismiss 5,000 sexual assault cases as “unfounded” every year. That doesn’t include the cases that don’t go to the police in the first place, or the ones that are taken to court but don’t result in any charges being pressed.

The article I linked is a good starting point toward understanding why so few sexual assault allegations are proven in court, but my go-to reading recommendation on this topic is actually Chanel Miller’s beautifully written memoir, Know My Name, which is all about the author’s experience trying to get justice for her sexual assault. Her particular case also involves an athlete and considerable media attention, which I think makes it relevant to the kind of stuff that happens in hockey. The thing that really struck me about that book was the extent to which Chanel’s trauma was tied to the trial and not limited to the assault itself. She doesn’t only describe being afraid to walk alone at night or needing to carry pepper spray; she writes about constantly making sure she has witnesses around her, or meticulously counting her drinks in case she has to describe her night in detail to a police officer, trying to mold herself into the perfect victim so that, should another assault occur, people will believe her this time.

We may never know which eight CHL players assaulted that woman, and chances are that they won’t face any consequences for their actions, but it happened, and it keeps happening in the CHL and other hockey leagues. More needs to be done to protect survivors and to make sure this does not happen again.

Moving forward

The last thing I want to stress about this topic is that it’s important to always center victims when talking about cases of sexual assault. I know it’s tempting to speculate about which players were involved, or what consequences those players should face, but please keep in mind that a woman was traumatized by this event, and that she does not wish to name the perpetrators.

What we should focus on is the fact that Hockey Canada was aware of the alleged assault and did nothing. How does this keep happening? How is it possible that anyone from Hockey Canada saw those allegations and wasn’t immediately concerned? How does any NHL team that employs a player who was on that team not look into this and try to figure out their players’ role in this?

Hockey is supposed to be Canada’s identity. We are sold images of kids learning to play on ponds or community rinks, of new Canadians being handed skates and sticks and taught how to play hockey. Players are expected to be role models in their communities. So what does it say that sexual assault is apparently so prevalent in locker rooms? What does it say about Hockey Canada that they refuse to do anything when their young role models assault people? At the very least, it says we have a lot of work to do.