I worry what kind of person ice hockey will turn my son into

·5 min read

Earlier this spring, a woman filed a statement of claim detailing an alleged sexual assault that took place in June 2018 at an event hosted by Hockey Canada, the governing body for the country’s national sport. She said in the claim that she had been forced for hours to perform sexual acts against her will for eight men, including players from that year’s under-20 junior men’s championship team. In April, she asked a judge to award $3.55m in damages. Hockey Canada settled. (The allegations were never proven in court.)

Reassuring everyone that the settlement had not been paid with taxpayer money was part of the reason Hockey Canada executives were in Ottawa this week to testify at a parliamentary committee. And they wanted everyone to be reassured of something else, too: that hockey culture is changing for the better. “Hockey Canada is on a journey to change the culture of our sport and to make it safer and more inclusive,” Tom Renney, the CEO of Hockey Canada, told parliamentarians.

Renney later explained that Hockey Canada had quickly contacted the police about the allegations and hired a third-party investigator to issue a report – both of which were arguably the right steps. But the investigations didn’t get far. The woman who had made the allegations declined to speak with investigators, Renney said, and did not wish to identify the players involved.

Did anyone else try to identify them? The committee members asked this, repeatedly, in different ways. Each time, the answer was the same: Not really. Hockey Canada “strongly encouraged all players to participate” in the third-party investigation. Some players did – perhaps a dozen – but it’s not known who. And the law firm heading the investigation hasn’t been able to conclude its work, offering Hockey Canada only an interim report. Had the woman not filed her claim this spring, it seems we’d know nothing about this.

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“I don’t understand why Hockey Canada did not enforce a rule that every single member of that team had to be part of the investigation,” MP Peter Julian said during the meeting. The answer might be that there wasn’t a rule to enforce. There still isn’t. “It was not acceptable that they told the players that participation in their investigation was optional and that they still have not changed the requirements to join a national team – four years later – to require each and every person who joins …to participate in any investigation,” MP and committee member Anthony Housefather told the Guardian.

On Wednesday, the government froze Hockey Canada’s federal funding (it received $14m last year), pending disclosure of the advice the organization received in the interim report and its sign-on to the government’s Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner, an agency that could independently investigate allegations of abuse and issue sanctions.

A couple of times during their committee appearance, Hockey Canada’s executives tried to put this latest alleged assault into a broader social context. There are more than 650,000 registered hockey players in Canada, Scott Smith, its chief operating officer noted. “Unfortunately, we’re a microcosm of society. We’re a microcosm of this country,” he said. It may be that hockey culture is shaped by Canadians, but let’s not pretend it doesn’t also work the other way around. Because behind all those players are hundreds of thousands more – family members, coaches, officials, league administrators, rink supervisors, fans, you get the idea. This is Canada. This sport makes us who we are, too.

For his part, Housefather says he believes Hockey Canada is “in good faith when they say they wish to change the culture.” But if it is on such a “journey,” as Renney put it, then we deserve to know where it is on that path. I asked Hockey Canada this week, but they didn’t get back to me. So your guess is as good as mine, but it sure feels pretty circular. After all, this is far from the first time something like this has happened.

In fact, it feels like we’re right back where we were in September, before the latest NHL season started, when former Chicago Blackhawks player Kyle Beach identified himself as the victim of alleged abuse by former team video coach, Brad Aldrich. The Blackhawks didn’t launch an investigation into the incident for a decade. This past fall, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman hinted at a culture change taking place during that time, suggesting the incident would be treated differently now, “because we wouldn’t tolerate this.” The NHL has launched its own investigation into the Hockey Canada allegations, in case some of those former youth players are now in the league. So we’ll see.

As The Athletic put it this week, summarizing previous high-profile abuse allegations, this is “a hockey story, decades old.” Here we are again, reading every chapter. Players being objectified or objectifying someone else. Silence in the aftermath. A report is compiled. Cultural change is promised. Then play continues and more trivial issues take over, debates about rules or salary caps – things that feel, in the moment, like they’re important to the game’s health.

But meanwhile, youth hockey registration stagnates and a sport, a social institution, decays. Maybe for parents, the financial costs for hockey are too high. Or maybe it’s the mental and physical tolls. Take me, for example. Here I am wondering how my kid will be able to play a sport he loves without either being mistreated by some asshole or letting hockey turn him into one. Wherever Hockey Canada thinks it is on its journey, it feels like we’re still at a point where both seem possible.