Sexual assault revelations make Canada’s national game a national disgrace

EDMONTON, Alberta — The pandemic has pushed one of Canada’s longtime holiday rituals, the World Junior Championships, from December to mid-summer. But even allowing for that, the absence of fans before Team Canada’s first game this week was striking.

In the fan zone outside the NHL Arena in downtown Edmonton, a DJ entertained a crowd that never exceeded a dozen people an hour before Canada took on Latvia in the first game. On the long escalator at Rogers Place, the number of open gates often outnumbered the number of people passing through them. And when they got inside, the abundance of empty seats allowed the chants of eight excited Latvian supporters to be heard for all to hear.

In a country that many argue is defined by hockey, there have traditionally been three must-sees for fans: the Stanley Cup Finals, men’s and women’s Olympic hockey, and the men’s World Juniors. Several spectators who showed up for Canada’s opener said his transformation into a tournament shadow can only be partially explained by his offseason schedule. In May, TSN, the sports television network, reported that Hockey Canada, the national governing body, paid C$3.5 million to settle a lawsuit filed by a woman who accused eight members of the world junior team of sexually assaulting her in 2018.

While shocking, they are far from the first reports of sexual assault and abuse by hockey players. But the ongoing scandal appears to have shaken the faith some Canadians have in a sport that is almost as obsessive as the national pastime.

Outside the nearly empty front gate, Jen Rutledge, a civil engineer from the city of Edmonton and an Edmonton Oilers season ticket holder, said she was only using a ticket she bought long ago because a cousin from England wanted to catch the game.

“I’m a little conflicted, to be honest, even about my attendance at this tournament,” he said. “Hearing about the player’s fee paid into a fund aimed at silencing the victims of some teams is really disturbing. Hockey is an important part of Canadian culture. But, at the same time, a lot of brutality happened on the part of this organization.”

Rutledge is not alone in his concern and anger. All of Hockey Canada’s corporate sponsors, which include one of the country’s largest banks and the ubiquitous Tim Hortons coffee and donut chain, have dropped out, leaving the arena free of conventional advertising on the ice and on the boards. Edmonton’s tourism board is no longer promoting the tournament, and the federal government has also stopped funding Hockey Canada and ordered an audit to ensure its funds were not used to silence victims while Ottawa lawmakers hold hearings. The police also resumed the investigation of the events of 2018. After the story dominated the news, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called “The Real Reckoning” Hockey in Canada and condemned its leaders for “willful blindness”.

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

Many long-time critics of the sport say it’s time for Canadians to acknowledge that the sport that has defined their nation — accurately or not — is riddled with misogyny, violence, racism and homophobia.

“It’s like Hollywood and casting,” said Greg Gilhooly, a corporate attorney who was sexually assaulted by Graham James, a junior hockey coach who was a known sex predator. “People have known for years, decades, that casting was a very important part of content production in Hollywood. And yet it took a grotesque breach of trust for people to say, “Enough is enough.” I hope that eventually there will be a reckoning here. “

Exactly why the current revelations have begun to embarrass the nation’s national game in a way that the previous series of revelations has not fully understood.

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

Additionally, several younger players have been convicted of sexual harassment charges, spared prison time, and then signed with NHL teams. In 2021, the Montreal Canadiens drafted a junior player who shared photos of an arranged sexual encounter with a woman to teammates and was convicted and fined by a Swedish court.

Brock McGillis, a former Ontario Hockey League player who was the first professional hockey player to come out as gay, said he believed using the registration fee to pay the victim was seen as particularly egregious. (Hockey Canada officials told Parliament that the money went mostly to James’ victims.)

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

Hockey critics have long argued that the country’s player development system and national idolization of youth has created a culture of entitlement and hero worship that has become an incubator for bad behavior.

In the 2018 case, in which all names are sealed by the court, a woman claimed in court that she was repeatedly sexually assaulted in a hotel room in London, Ontario, by eight members of a national youth team. Hockey Canada fundraising golf game and dinner.

Like the players on the current team, most of them were broadcast by the elementary school on the elite sports channel. By age 16, they left home to play junior hockey in small towns, play with local families and become local celebrities. From there, they moved on to college or other minor leagues or were drafted by NHL teams. All this time, their only community was their hockey community.

“There’s a lot of privilege in being able to say or do what you want without any consequences or questions that come with it,” McGillis said. “You can say racist, sexist, homophobic things without real consequences.”

And Gilholly said the fans shared the blame.

“It’s one of those situations where people are put on pedestals and allowed to get away with things,” he said. “This will only be solved when society gets up in arms and teaches young people that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”

On top of that is the broken system that governs hockey in Canada. Hockey Canada’s jurisdiction is primarily limited to national and international events and teams. Most of the responsibility for organizing and managing the sport is divided between 10 provincial governing bodies and various leagues.

“Everybody’s kind of running their own autonomous show,” said Courtney Sto, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. “So we find ourselves in a situation now where it’s pretty easy for people to say, well, it’s somebody else’s responsibility.” There is a lot of finger pointing.”

But Hockey Canada’s authority over the junior boys’ team is supreme. And so far, its board of directors has continued to defy widespread calls to resign, although its chairman stepped down months earlier and was replaced by Andrea Skinner, a director, lawyer and the first woman in the position, on an interim basis.

Hockey Canada has hired a former Supreme Court of Canada justice to review its governance and operations and a law firm to investigate the 2018 attack. But Gilhooly said that without full autonomy, no investigation would be credible. He also wants Hockey Canada to suspend all national team programs until the current turmoil is resolved.

After Canada’s first game ended with the team’s first win, Dave and Lynette Jordan sat on a bench outside the arena and pulled sodas from a small cooler. The couple made the two-day drive from Virden, Manitoba to attend the 14th World Junior Tournament.

They have long claimed players for the Virden Oil Capitals, including some that Dave Jordan said he believed James abused.

While the latest revelation wasn’t enough to make them consider staying home, Jordan said he was still troubled by the state of hockey.

“Hockey Canada needs to fix it, but you have to respect and watch the players who go out there and do their best,” he said. “It’s going to be a major shakeup and hockey has to figure out how to survive it.”

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