Sexual Assault Revelations Turn Canada’s National Game Into the Nation’s Shame

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The pandemic shifted one of Canada’s longstanding holiday rituals, the World Junior Championships, from December to the middle of summer. But even taking that into account, the absence of a crowd for the Canadian teams’ first game this week was striking.

In a fan zone with sprawling television screens outside the NHL arena in downtown Edmonton, a DJ entertained a group never larger than a dozen people in the hour before Canada took on Latvia in its first game. On a long escalator, the number of open gates to Rogers Place often exceeded the number of people passing through. And once inside, a plethora of empty seats ensured that the chants of eight enthusiastic Latvian supporters could be heard by all.

In a country many claim to be defined by hockey, there are traditionally three mandatory rituals for fans: the Stanley Cup final, men’s and women’s Olympic hockey, and the men’s junior world. Several of the spectators who did show up for Canada’s opening game said the transformation into a tournament shadow was only partly explained by its unusual rearrangement. In May, TSN, a sports television network, reported that Hockey Canada, the national governing body, has paid USD 3.5 million to settle a lawsuit against a woman who accused eight members of the junior world team of sexually assaulted her in 2018.

While shocking, they are far from the first reports of sexual assault and abuse by and against hockey players. But the current scandal appears to be shaking some Canadians’ confidence in a sport that is almost as obsessive as a national pastime.

Just outside the largely empty entry gates, Jen Rutledge, a civil engineer with the City of Edmonton and an Edmonton Oilers season ticket holder, said she only used the ticket bought long ago because a cousin visiting from England wanted to watch a game.

I’m honestly a bit confused about me even attending this tournament, she said. It’s really concerning to hear that player fees are being deposited into a fund that aims to silence victims of some of these teams. Hockey is an important part of Canadian culture. But at the same time, many atrocities have been committed by this organization.

Rutledge is not alone in her dismay and anger. All of Hockey Canada’s corporate sponsors, including one of the nation’s largest banks and ubiquitous coffee and donut chain Tim Hortons, gave up, leaving the arena free of the usual advertising on the ice and rink signs. The Edmontons Tourism Bureau no longer promotes the tournament, and the federal government has also cut funding to Hockey Canada and ordered an audit to ensure the funds were not being used to silence victims while lawmakers in Ottawa hold hearings. The police also have resume investigating the events of 2018. As the story began to dominate the news, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau . said called for a real reckoning at Hockey Canada and condemned its leaders for their willful blindness.

All of this comes at a time when participation in and interest in hockey has declined in an increasingly ethnically and racially diverse Canada in favor of football, basketball and other less expensive and more global sports.

Many of the sport’s longtime critics say it’s time for Canadians to accept that the sport that has come to accurately define or not define their country is ingrained in misogyny, violence, racism and homophobia.

It’s like Hollywood and the casting couch, said Greg Gilhooly, a corporate lawyer who was sexually assaulted by Graham James, a junior hockey coach who was a notorious sexual predator. People had known for years, decades, that the casting couch was very much a part of content production in Hollywood. And yet it took a grotesque breach of trust to get people to say enough is enough. I hope there is finally a reckoning here.

Exactly why the current revelations have begun to turn the national game into a nation-shame in ways a series of previous revelations are not entirely clear.

In 1997, in the most high-profile case, Sheldon Kennedy, a former National Hockey League player, accused James of sexually assaulting him for five years when he was a teenager playing junior hockey for James. Since then, James, who was named Man of the Year by The Hockey News in 1989 (although he was) deprived of honor in 2013), has been convicted twice, served a time in prison and was also charged a third time.

In addition, several youth players have been convicted on sexual misconduct charges, spared jail time, and then signed by NHL teams. In 2021, the Montreal Canadiens fielded a junior player who had shared with photos of teammates of his consensual sexual encounter with a woman and was convicted and fined by a court in Sweden.

Brock McGillis, a former Ontario Hockey League player and the first professional hockey player to come out as gay, said he believed using registration fees to pay off victims was considered particularly blatant. (Hockey Canada officials told Parliament the money went primarily to James’ victims.)

In the past, people were defensive because their sibling, child or their husband or wife, someone was involved in the sport, McGillis said. So people felt it was an attack on their identity. But if you find out that your dollars are being used to silence victims of sexual assault and to pay for the crimes and mistakes of others, you will now feel guilty.

Hockey critics have long argued that the nation’s player development system and the national adulation of young men have created a culture of rights and hero worship that has served as a breeding ground for bad behavior.

In the 2018 case, in which all names have been sealed by a court, a woman in a lawsuit said she was repeatedly sexually assaulted in a hotel room in London, Ontario, by eight members of the junior national team after a Hockey Canada fundraiser, golf game and dinner. .

Like the current team’s players, most had been streamed to the elite sports channel through elementary school. By the age of 16, they had moved from home to play junior hockey in small towns, billeted with local families and become local celebrities. From there, they entered college or other minor leagues or were drafted by NHL teams. All the while, their only community was their hockey community.

There’s a lot of privilege to say or do whatever you want without any ramifications or questions that come with it, McGillis said. You can say racist, sexist, homophobic things with no real consequences.

And Gilhooly said fans shared the blame.

This is one of those situations where people are put on a pedestal and allowed to get away with things, he said. It will only be solved if society steps in and teaches young men that just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to do it.

In addition, there is a broken system overseeing hockey in Canada. Hockey Canada’s authority is usually limited to national and international events and teams. Most of the responsibility for organizing and running the sport is divided among 10 provincial governing bodies and several leagues.

Everyone runs their own autonomous show, says Courtney Szto, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. So we’re now in a situation where it’s pretty easy for people to say, Well, that’s someone else’s responsibility. There is a lot of finger pointing.

But Hockey Canadas authority over the junior men’s national team is supreme. And so far, the board of directors continues to resist widespread calls to step down, although the chairman stepped down a few months earlier and was replaced by Andrea Skinnera director, lawyer and the first woman in the position, on an interim basis.

The board of Hockey Canada has hired a former Supreme Court judge of Canada to review how it is governed and operated, and a law firm to investigate the 2018 attack. But Gilhooly said that without full autonomy, no investigation would likely be credible. He also wants Hockey Canada to suspend all national team programs until the current mess is resolved.

After Canada’s first game with the teams first win, Dave and Lynette Jordan sat on a bench outside the arena and pulled soft drinks from a small cooler. The pair had made the two-day ride from Virden, Manitoba, to attend their 14th World Junior Championships.

They have long billeted players for the Virden Oil Capitals, including some that Dave Jordan said he thought had been abused by James.

While the most recent revelation wasn’t enough for them to consider staying home, Jordan said he was saddened by the state of hockey nonetheless.

Hockey Canada needs to set itself straight, but you need to honor and watch players who go out and give their all, he said. It’s going to be a big shock, and hockey players will have to figure out how to survive this.

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