‘We haven’t learned a damn thing’: Sexual violence is embedded in junior hockey culture

‘We haven’t learned a damn thing’: Sexual violence is embedded in junior hockey culture

Content warning: This story contains details about alleged sexual assault. The content may be difficult to read and emotionally upsetting.

Multiple officials from Hockey Canada will be in Ottawa on Monday to testify in a Canadian parliamentary hearing in front of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage and take questions from committee members about a lawsuit that has roiled the sport.

In that lawsuit, a young woman alleges that in June 2018 she was sexually assaulted in a London, Ontario hotel room for hours by eight players “for, and members of the Canadian Hockey League and Hockey Canada, including but not limited to members of” that year’s gold medal-winning U20 Men’s Junior Hockey Team. The incident followed a Hockey Canada Foundation golf outing and gala event, according to the claim.

Among the more harrowing details contained within the allegations: The young woman said she was plied with alcohol, lured back to a player’s hotel room and subjected to a variety of non-consensual sexual acts which “collectively constituted sexual abuse and assault.” She said she was videotaped prior to the assault and instructed to say she was sober. She said she was prevented from leaving the room and was fearful of the fact that players had brought golf clubs into the room. After the assault, she said she was directed to shower.

That lawsuit was settled by Hockey Canada last month. When news surfaced about the allegations, the national governing body’s role in resolving the matter became a point of scrutiny, and not just among those tasked with governmental oversight (Hockey Canada receives government funding). The allegations again prompted questions from within the greater hockey community about sexual violence, misogyny and the mistreatment of women. 

Logan Mailloux, who was criminally convicted in Sweden of photographing and disseminating an explicit photo of a woman performing a sexual act without her consent, was drafted in the first round of the 2021 draft by the Montreal Canadiens shortly after the news of his conviction became public. Reid Boucher, a former NHL player who most recently played in the KHL, was charged with sexually assaulting his 12-year-old billet sister. Boucher received no jail time at his sentencing; he will serve four years of probation. (Two women told The Athletic that Boucher solicited lewd photos from them when they were teens.) Jake Virtanen was charged with sexual assault following a lengthy investigation by the Vancouver Police Department; he will stand trial next month and has pleaded not guilty. 

In a statement released last week, Hockey Canada insisted it did not use government funding to subsidize its out-of-court settlement with the young woman in the lawsuit, and the organization stated via a spokesperson that the national governing body welcomes the chance to discuss with the committee the organization’s “ongoing commitment to the safety and integrity of youth sport.” Officials are expected to face questions that extend beyond a simple forensic audit of how they handled this particular suit. 

Following the revelations in October 2021 of how the Chicago Blackhawks mishandled a case of sexual assault against one of its their own players, Kyle Beach, by team video coach Brad Aldrich, the hockey world characterized the aftermath and fallout from the investigation as a “reckoning.”

Yet, seven months following that probe, which resulted in multiple Blackhawks officials – general manager Stan Bowman and senior vice president of hockey operations Al MacIsaac – stepping down and coach Joel Quenneville resigning his post, a different set of hockey executives will face scrutiny as to how they handled sexual assault allegations.

“I don’t think people take the time to really think about the dynamics of all of this,” said Brenda Tracy, founder of Set The Expectation, a sexual assault education and prevention program geared toward athletes and teams. “People have this idea that this stuff just sort of happens. No it doesn’t. In a gang rape, these guys are taking turns, so it takes time to unfold. People make it seem like these things come together like it’s all one big accident. It’s not. It’s predatory.”

Tracy was sexually assaulted by four men, two of whom were members of the Oregon State football team, in 1998, an incident she has described in detail in her advocacy work, often times at a great personal cost to her emotional wellbeing.

The young woman that filed the lawsuit has not spoken publicly – confidentiality agreements are common in settlements of this nature, though Hockey Canada has declined to say whether this settlement included one – but she is who Tracy will be thinking of when these hearings commence Monday afternoon. She hopes others will as well.

“I can’t imagine what this victim is going through,” Tracy said. 

It’s a hockey story, decades old.

Swift Current, Saskatchewan, in 1989. Guelph, Ontario, in 1992. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in 1995. Windsor, Ontario, also 1995. Barrie, Ontario, in 2000. 

Across the junior hockey landscape, the incidents seem to play on repeat. Different towns, different teams, different players — but the details were eerily similar. 

Multiple members of a junior hockey team facing allegations of sexual assault against a single female victim. In many cases, team loyalists impugned the reputations of young women who dared to put the futures of decent young men – local heroes – at risk. Stories from the women’s past weaponized against them to cast doubt on their claims and sewer their credibility.

In Swift Current, a 17-year-old girl said she was assaulted by two members of the Memorial Cup champion Swift Current Broncos after an invitation to watch TV at her parents’ house became a non-consensual attack that left her bleeding profusely. In court, both players admitted that they had sex with the girl, but said the acts were consensual. 

When sexual assault charges against the two players were stayed, Broncos coach Graham James — now notorious for sexually abusing multiple players he coached — noted how difficult the ordeal had been on his team.

The girl was charged with mischief. She attempted suicide by taking sleeping pills but survived. She was later acquitted of the charge, with the judge stating that the girl — who became the accused — had suffered “considerable physical and emotional pain” from acts that were “degrading and disgusting by any reasonable person’s standards.”

In Guelph, three players were charged with sexual assault after a 16-year-old girl told police she was forced to have sex with them at the Guelph Storm’s season-ending party. The charges were dropped on the eve of their trial.

In 1995, five members of the Saskatoon Blades were investigated for sexual assault after a 16-year-old girl said they had sex with her while she was unconscious at a house party. The Blades GM said he’d heard that she was a willing participant who bragged about the incident to schoolmates. The WHL president insinuated that the girl had a reputation.

“Certainly if the reports I’m getting (are true), this wasn’t her first time in the kip,” said Ed Chynoweth, who also led the entire CHL at the time.

The investigation was closed. No charges were laid.

Also, in 1995: three members of the Windsor Spitfires faced multiple sexual assault charges after a 24-year-old woman said she was sexually assaulted in her apartment and forced to have anal intercourse by the players. 

An attorney for one of the players dismissed the woman as not credible, revealing that the woman had also made sexual assault claims against a teacher when she was 14; those charges were later dismissed. Two of the accused — including No. 1 NHL draft pick Ed Jovanovski — counter-sued her for defamation, though the suit was dropped after the sexual assault charges were withdrawn because testimony in a preliminary hearing was ruled inconclusive. 

In 2000, three members of the Barrie Colts were charged with the sexual assault of a 16-year-old girl. Those charges were also withdrawn several months later, with the crown citing no reasonable prospect of conviction.

Three years after both the incidents in Windsor and Saskatoon, Canadian journalist Laura Robinson published a book on junior hockey culture titled “Crossing the Line: Violence and Sexual Assault in Canada’s National Sport,” which featured a constellation of examples of highly problematic, if not outright criminal, behavior within junior hockey’s ranks.

From the way one highly touted player was protected and enabled — despite numerous arrests and violent sexual incidents involving young women — to the ritualistic sexualized hazing that was omnipresent in hockey locker rooms, Robinson detailed how assault and abuse were not simply commonplace but institutionalized.

Robinson notes in her book that “in the social context of junior hockey, young men see themselves treated as objects, and consequently readily objectify young women,” leading to a rape culture described as a “a sex-segregated, male-dominated culture that displays a high degree of hostility to, and contempt for, women” that is a feature of hockey locker rooms.

Though that book was published 24 years ago, many of the same issues remain. Junior hockey leagues have instituted anti-hazing policies and partnered with advocacy groups to spread awareness about diversity, inclusion and respect, yet incidents of violence continue to surface.

Robinson notes that gang rapes and group sexual assaults are not specific to hockey, yet there is evidence to suggest that athletes who participate in this type of violence are more likely to play contact team sports like hockey, football and basketball. From her research, Robinson has found that they seem more prevalent in sports of “aggressive maleness.”

“It’s all about this team bonding bullshit through the degradation of the female body,” Robinson said in a recent phone interview.

She also believes there is a link between this type of sexual violence and the hazing rituals that she catalogued throughout her book, noting that for many of these young players, their rookie initiations were often fraught with hypersexualized aggression, degradation and humiliation

“Their first sexual experience is one of brutality, violence, humiliation, anger,” Robinson said.

The Canadian Hockey League is currently facing a class-action lawsuit that alleges that Canadian Major Junior Hockey “has been plagued by rampant hazing, bullying and abuse of underage players, by coaches, team staff and senior players,” and that leagues and teams have “perpetuated a toxic environment that condones violent, discriminatory, racist, sexualized and homophobic conduct, including physical and sexual assault.”

In that lawsuit, filed in 2020, former players allege that they were hazed in a variety of disturbing ways – penetrated anally by foreign objects, forced to eat or drink bodily fluids, such a semen and urine, encouraged to drink heavily, physically beaten, forcibly shaved by teammates, and made to have sex with women while their teammates watched.

In one affidavit, a former player describes his teammates tying up a young woman while “well-over ten or fifteen players had sex with her.” In another affidavit, a different player said “many different players were coerced into having sex with the girls, one after the other.” “Girls were passed around as if it was no big deal, almost like they weren’t even human beings.” Another player said his time in junior hockey has impacted how he relates with women even decades later: “I believe these experiences negatively impacted my ability to have normal relationships with women.”

Many of these players participated in junior hockey more than a decade ago, yet an independent review panel commissioned by the CHL and its member teams to analyze its policies and procedures, found that the issue of hazing, bullying, abuse and harassment has persisted.

The IRP, after completing its analysis, summarized that the CHL had a “culture of embedded behaviors” and “deficient incident reporting.” It found that “a systemic culture exists in the CHL that results in maltreatment becoming an embedded norm” and that there is a “code of silence around maltreatment that helps perpetuate it.”

When Sheldon Kennedy first revealed that he was one of the players sexually abused by Graham James, his coach with the Swift Current Broncos, he said that many people worried that he was going to wreck hockey. 

And while he’s witnessed a lot of change since he first came forward more than 25 years ago, Kennedy said there has long been an impulse to avoid transparency and remain quiet about incidents of abuse, both those committed against hockey players, and by them.

“There was a time when the advice we got to deal with these stories was ‘Don’t say nothing, it’s going to go away,’” Kennedy said. “You look at the Hockey Canada case — it’s not going away. There is an expectation that we need to be transparent.”

Kennedy, who was a member of the independent review panel commissioned by the CHL, said there needs to be a more direct, aggressive effort to address the culture in which abusive behavior persists.

Jackson Katz has been studying the issue of gang rape for three decades, launching a Mentors in Violence Prevention program in the early 1990s. It was the first program of its kind that specifically looked at issues related to gender violence in sports. 

“I wouldn’t say that 30 years later we’re at the same place that we were at 30 years ago. I think we have made progress, but I think it’s very spotty,” said Katz. “What is required is long term, social change. There is no quick fix. There is no inoculation against a virus here. You have to change cultural practices and power structures that are deeply rooted and well protected. They are often insulated from accountability.”

Don Smith, a former hockey referee and player advocate who is now a board chair for TobaCentre, a charitable organization that helps victims of child abuse, laments the way young players are commodified, professionalized and prioritized at such a young age. He said that without proper boundaries, infrastructure and education to help cultivate normal emotional development, players’ sense of the world around them becomes distorted and they become entitled.

These were themes articulated in Robinson’s book in 1998, in which Smith was quoted and cited heavily. He’s frustrated by the lack of progress made since its publication, and pointed to the recent Hockey Canada lawsuit allegations:

“We haven’t learned a damn thing since.”

Glenn Canning has a simple question he asks whenever he hears a story involving gang rape.

“It’s always heartbreaking when you read about something that involves a lot of young men and there wasn’t one of them that recognized something was wrong. Where was that guy?” asks Canning.

It’s a question Canning started asking after his 17-year-old daughter, Rehtaeh Parsons, died following a suicide attempt in 2013. Parsons’ death came 17 months after her family said she was raped by four high school boys at a house party in Nova Scotia. The boys took photos as the assault was happening and then circulated them among their peers, leading to months of Parsons being cyberbullied. Though it is not a hockey story, it is perhaps the most infamous gang rape case in Canada. The crown prosecutor initially declined to prosecute the case, but police reopened the case in 2013 and convicted two of her assailants on child pornography charges for disseminating photos of Parsons. Neither served jail time. An independent review of the police and prosecution response to the case found errors were made by both law enforcement and the provincial prosecution service.

Canning speaks at high schools across Canada, sharing Rehtaeh’s story as a cautionary tale about consent, sexual assault and social media. 

“I always think if you can just change one guy in every group of guys you can go a long way,” said Canning. “Just to have someone say, “This is wrong. And this person needs my protection. And that’s my role.”

Canning often relays a story he was told about a young man who made a difference in his high school setting.

“A friend of his was in the locker room and saying something awful about a girl. This kid thought to himself, ‘Okay, this is my moment. This is the time I need to say something,’” said Canning. “And instead of being confrontational, all he did was go up to this boy and say, ‘You know man, I think you’re a lot better than that.’”

Canning said the young man was surprised by the reaction.

“After a moment, the other boy said, ‘You know what? You’re right.’”

Kennedy’s organization, Respect Group, has reached more 1.8 million people through online training, providing education on issues combating the kind of toxic and abusive behaviors sometimes found in junior hockey. 

But only recently, he said, has the focus shifted to directly educating the players themselves. According to the research gathered in the CHL review, each of the leagues within the CHL had its own policies, procedures and education programs regarding off-ice misconduct, and most of those were updated around four years prior to the panel’s report, in 2016.

“Strong policies and procedures are the foundation of an organization, but writing a policy without providing effective education and awareness programs will have little impact on an organization,” the report states, adding that education is not done on an ongoing basis but rather at one point in time. “Programs are different across the three leagues, and policies and procedures are not in alignment with the training programs of the various leagues.”

In the fall of 2016, the Ontario Hockey League launched its OHL ONSIDE program in partnership with the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres. The program, which includes mandatory two-hour seminars, was specifically designed for hockey players with the goal of increasing awareness and understanding and respecting women through words and actions. 

“We want to promote an understanding with the players about a dominant narrative of masculinity and how that looks. We want to provide them with healthy counter narratives on masculinity and encourage them about how their words and actions can demonstrate respect for women,” said Trish Vanoosterom, who works at the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Centre of Sarnia-Lambton. 

Vanoosterom, who helps deliver the ONSIDE program to members of the Sarnia Sting, said they touch on a wide array of topics, including healthy masculinity, consent, bystander intervention and using proper language. 

In one activity, players are presented with a scenario of seeing a teammate pass crude pictures around the locker room. How would they intervene?

Like many experts interviewed for this story, Vanoosterom believes the OHL should not be the starting point for these types of discussions. The players are usually 16 or 17 when they enter the league and Vanoosterom thinks they should have been exposed to this type of education long before. 

“I would honestly say that 12 or 13 is the right age to start this,” said Vanoosterom. 

(At least eight players on Canada’s 2018 world junior hockey team, the team that is identified in the lawsuit, would have received this training during their time playing in the OHL. Any member of a national team for Hockey Canada at that time would have also had to sign a code of conduct as part of their player agreement, multiple sources said.)

Tracy, who primarily works with college teams and athletes, feels that until educational programs focus the lens on young men and boys, “we will continue to see these stories. We’ll continue to applaud survivors for coming forward, but we won’t actually be doing anything to fix the problem.”

“If we would start working with our boys at younger ages about consent, their mental health and what manhood really looks like, they will show up in the world differently,” said Tracy. “We put all the burden on the girls to keep themselves safe.”

She added: “It’s not enough to not commit sexual violence. What are you actively doing to prevent it?”

“I always say you can’t talk about men as the problem unless you’re also willing to talk about men as the solution,” Tracy continued. “If women alone could have stopped sexual violence, we would have done it already.”

What will come of Monday’s hearing is not yet clear. MP Peter Julian told The Athletic that Canadians want answers on why this happened and how Hockey Canada aims to ensure it never happens again. Julian left open the possibility for the Committee to call future witnesses and to pursue certain relevant documents to its inquiry.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, in a press conference prior to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday, called the investigation a “challenging” one given that neither the plaintiff nor any of the eight players are named, but he said the league plans to release the findings of its probe. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly told reporters that the league’s probe is underway and that the league has been in touch with both the NHL Players’ Association and Hockey Canada.

The NHLPA has not yet been informed when the league will schedule interviews with players or who will be tasked with the fact-finding mission. Monday’s hearings may unearth new information.

In some of the most notable cases of sexual misconduct involving hockey players, those players have not faced stiff consequences. Mailloux was convicted but had to simply pay a fine; shortly after that news surfaced, he was selected in the first round of the NHL draft (he was subsequently suspended by the OHL). Boucher will serve no jail time for his assault of a 12-year-old. Additionally, his third-degree criminal sexual misconduct charge will not appear on his permanent record if he complies with probation, because he was 17 at the time of the incident and was sentenced under a youthful offenders act.

Don Smith said he hopes the league’s investigation identifies the players involved and imposes harsh discipline:

“Take away their earning power. Take away their identity as a hockey player,” Smith said. “That’ll work.”

Smith, a sexual abuse survivor himself, said the young woman who came forward has already shown “amazing courage.” 

“She’s fighting not just the eight young men,” he said. “But a bureaucratic structure that is designed to protect them.”

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photo: Yifei Chen / Unsplash)

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