When parents first consider the dangers of their kids playing hockey they may envision flying pucks, elbows and sticks — not a toxic culture.
But recent revelations about how sexual assault allegations were handled by Hockey Canada, the body that governs the sport in this country, have left some hockey families in turmoil over repeated black eyes to their beloved sport.
Hockey Canada is under intense fire for how the organization handled allegations of sexual assault by former players and the funds it used to settle related lawsuits.
“The more that comes out, the more frustrated people are getting,” said Theresa Bailey, a hockey mom who has shepherded her own three players in Madoc, Ont., for 17 years.
Now, a poll from Angus Reid suggests most Canadians — 58 per cent — said they think sexual harassment and sexual assault are a “major issue” in youth hockey, and they have weak confidence that Hockey Canada’s culture will change.
Sexual misconduct ‘major issue’ in youth hockey
The poll of more than 2,000 Canadians taken between Aug. 8 and 10 found those with a connection to youth hockey were just as likely — 56 per cent — to respond that sexual misconduct was a major issue, “something that happens all the time.” Only 17 per cent polled called it a “minor” problem.
Communications staff at Hockey Canada declined CBC’s request for an interview with new interim executive director, Andrea Skinner.
The organization posted an open letter on July 18 promising change and outlining new complaint mechanisms and a review plan.
“We know you are angry and disappointed in Hockey Canada – rightfully so. We know we have not done enough … to end the culture of toxic behaviour within our game. For that we unreservedly apologize.”
But many aren’t convinced.
The summer edition of the World Junior Hockey Championships opened last week with a message to young players from Canada’s Minister of Sport, Pascale St-Onge, addressing the sexual assault scandals and calling them “unacceptable.”
Fans have not flocked to the tournament.
Some blame summer heat, but others say it’s the taint of scandal.
“I wonder if it puts a bad taste in the mouths of parents who haven’t yet enrolled their kids or are concerned about the culture. The stands are empty at the World Juniors,” said Bailey, who founded an online advice site called Canadian Hockey Moms.
People are conflicted about going to watch some of those games because they don’t want to condone what’s going on.”
More than $7M paid out to settle cases
Hockey Canada says it paid out $8.9-million in sexual assault settlements since 1989, with $6.8-million of that related to serial abuser Graham James.
That does not include the undisclosed settlement in a lawsuit filed by a woman who alleged she was sexually assaulted by eight former CHL payers after a 2018 event in London, Ont.
The government body of hockey has been under fire since the settlements were revealed, especially because it used $7.6 million from its National Equity Fund to compensate sexual assault victims — money that comes from player fees.
That same fund was also used to pay for the services of a law firm investigating the alleged London, Ont., group sexual assault of a woman by members of the men’s world junior team.
Canada also learned that Sport Canada – a government agency that develops safety policies – was informed of allegations in 2018 and failed to act.
In June, Canada’s Minister of Sport called for an financial audit and froze Hockey Canada’s government funding – effective immediately.
This came days after outgoing CEO Tom Renney and president Scott Smith, testified before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage.
All this is firing up critics who have long called for changes.
Greg Gilhooly, a lawyer who survived sexual abuse by Winnipeg minor hockey coach and convicted sex offender Graham James, told The Current host Matt Galloway that Hockey Canada’s leadership needs help.
“They are in over their heads. A lot of these senior executives were regional hockey coaches. They can implement the neutral zone trap phenomenally well, but they are ill-equipped to manage a national organization’s response to a crisis with sexual assault,” said Gilhooly.
Critics pushed out
Brock McGillis, a former Ontario Hockey League goaltender, says hockey’s “insular” culture is also a big problem.
“It’s wild that I can go into any school in Canada and speak and I can point out the hockey kids. They dress the same. They talk the same. They walk the same,” he said.
As one of the first openly gay professional men’s hockey players, McGillis fought against slurs and abuse.
“The disrupters of the culture have never been allowed in this space. We were pushed out from the get-go,” he said.
Two-time Olympian Allison Forsyth, a safe sport advocate and sexual abuse survivor, says she is “saddened” over what she describes as an active coverup of “horrendous abuse.”
The mom of two hockey players says Hockey Canada needs to be transparent to win back parents who may just opt for a different sport.
“I strongly believe that sport can still be a great place to raise your children — but you need to go in with awareness of the current situation and ask your local organization critical questions,” Forsyth told CBC.
The current sex-abuse scandal is no shock to Carey Durrant.
The 55-year-old Trenton, Ont., hockey coach has long been critical of Hockey Canada and the mechanisms in place for player safety. It’s always made him anxious when he sees parents at any rink oblivious to where their children are.
He kept a close eye when his own son still played.
As a boy, Durrant was abused by former Toronto Maple Leafs equipment manager Gordon Stuckless, who was sentenced in 2016 for more than 100 offences related to the sexual abuse of boys over three decades.
“It was real important for me to come out and speak about the abuse that I had suffered,” said Durrant.
“As a parent myself, I paid money to Hockey Canada for my son, for the development of my son as an athlete. That money went to pay somebody else off or if you want to you want to call it ‘hush money.’ I just think that’s absolutely wrong,” said Durrant.
Despite his own ordeal, Durrant spent the past 38 years coaching and credits hockey for saving him from suicide.
“It saved my life probably time and time again. It gave me something to live for,” said Durrant.
But he has long challenged the toxic parts of the sport’s culture, and governance.
“I was a little bit let down by Hockey Canada. This isn’t the first time that they’ve let me down and let, basically, our country down. Obviously there’s more ugly things rearing their heads. And I think more are going to come out, too. It’s just going to take people that are brave.”
The online survey by the Angus Reid Institute surveyed a representative randomized sample of 2,279 adult Canadians between Aug. 8 to 10 of this year. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of +/- two percentage points, 19 times out of 20.