Content warning: Mentions of sexual violence, hazing, and sexism
On Oct. 11, Hockey Canada CEO Scott Smith and the entire board of directors resigned from their positions after weeks of scrutiny over the organization’s handling of sexual assault allegations. Several major sponsors like Tim Hortons and the Bank of Nova Scotia have suspended their endorsements, while other companies like Canadian Tire have permanently ended their relationship with the governing body. Some of these sponsors welcomed the group resignation as a first step in amending the culture of sexual violence and silencing of survivors, but this occurrence is no more than an exodus of shame. To truly address the violence that takes place under Hockey Canada’s purview, the organization, as well as hockey fans, must reckon with their role in encouraging, excusing, and covering up toxic male behaviour. Rebuilding hockey culture must be an effort from the bottom up.
Despite pleas from fans to keep sports separate from politics, it is impossible to insulate hockey from the outside world for the simple reason that players are real people and do not live in a vacuum. Canadian identity is deeply entwined with the culture of ice hockey. This culture, however, has long served as a determinant of insiders and outsiders within Canadian society— it excludes racialized minorities and women and, ultimately, promotes a code of silence between white cisgender men.
It is no surprise that a sport that prides itself on its exclusivity functions like a boys’ club. The narrative of the hometown hero thrusts young players into local stardom, and often protects them from the consequences of their actions. In hockey, the most praised players are often those who play aggressively, and it is apparent that this attitude travels far beyond matches. Championing players as commodities—characters who exist purely to play the game and entertain—further contributes to this illusion of untouchability that enables their behaviour. But the culture of sexual violence in hockey is not only perpetrated by players. In fact, players themselves are often survivors of hazing, sexual assault, abusive coaches, and a permissive institution. The cycle of violence is self-fulfilling, and its effects echo beyond the ice rink.
Active efforts to cover up sexual violence plague the leagues under Hockey Canada’s jurisdiction. The organization used player fees to set up a previously unknown multi-million dollar fund to settle sexual assault cases. For Hockey Canada, money has the ultimate power to absolve players and coaches of their crimes. Ironically, money is what is propelling the downfall of the organization. The loss of major sponsors is a significant move that reflects companies’ interests in protecting consumer support by distancing their brand from this scandal. It seems that good corporate citizenship, or companies’ efforts to align themselves with ethical standards, is one of the only ways to induce institutional progress or, at minimum, dialogue. An exclusive focus on the power of companies, however, disregards the fact that hockey’s demoralizing culture of hazing, misogyny, and rape starts as soon as kids lace up their first pair of skates. The future of hockey in Canada must prioritize bottom-up initiatives and should be wary of corporations’ fronts of allyship.
If Hockey Canada truly wants to address the misogynistic culture it has allowed to fester, it must allocate significant resources to consent training starting with young players. As soon as a new board of directors is formed, the organization must also implement a policy to handle sexual assault allegations—a key element to holding perpetrators and enablers accountable. This reckoning should also extend into other parts of Canadian society, notably college campuses. McGill’s recent revision to its sexual violence policy is a step forward in centering survivors and is cause for optimism. But, just as in professional leagues, true change will only be reflected when rape culture is dismantled. From allowing professors with sexual misconduct allegations to teach and the men’s varsity hockey team to receive no formal consent training, McGill needs to actively participate in the change and require the Athletics department to take a hands-on approach to tackling rape culture. The “boys will be boys” culture is pervasive in both Hockey Canada and on campus. Men at McGill and in Canadian society must reject the infantilization that absolves them and embody non-violent manhood.