Does Hockey Have a Culture Problem?
Updated: Jun 26, 2020
With the ever-prevalent instances of blatant racism in North America and hockey, it’s worth asking whether hockey is an inclusive sport.
The short answer: It’s not. But it’s not too late to fix it either.
There are a few reasons for hockey’s cultural issues, which range from the aforementioned racism, to widespread hazing of rookie players across North America. Let’s take an in-depth look at the cultural issues in hockey and reflect on how we may be able to remedy them.
There’s no question that racism is a widespread issue in North America, and it definitely doesn’t stop at hockey either. There are countless examples on the professional side, and recent investigations into the GTHL in Canada show that it’s an issue in the minor leagues as well. For anyone still on the fence, here are a few of the noteworthy cases:
There are likely countless cases before my time, but one of the first I can remember was when Joel Ward scored a series-winning overtime goal against the Boston Bruins. Twitter was instantly flooded with n-words and threats. Hard to explain what that is if it’s not racism.
Akim Aliu has recently been the centerpiece of a direct complaint to the NHL for not doing enough to punish racism. When he was in the AHL (the NHL’s minor league), he was told by his coach to stop playing “n-word music.” He was later sent down to a lower league for having an issue with it.
K’Andre Miller is a promising NHL prospect with hopes of joining the league soon. He was recently on a zoom call in which the anonymous chat repeatedly called him an n-word. Not a good look for the NHL in what was supposed to be a light-hearted check in with him and his offseason plans.
Jordin Tootoo is an Inuk ex-NHLer who had to deal with a lot on his way up to the big leagues. He speaks about countless instances of racial tension and blatant comments thrown at him in his book, “All The Way: My Life on The Ice.”
Sexism may be a little harder to find in hockey, because women don’t play among the men professionally. But in the minor and adult leagues, it’s there. And interestingly enough, it pops up from time to time professionally as well, because sexism still exists in the world.
In adult hockey leagues, women face sexism constantly. This should be differentiated from normal ‘chirping’, which is the act of saying things to opposing players to distract or insult them. This goes a step further: these chirps seem to be a direct opposition to women’s place in the game. Things like a refusal to shake hands after a game or a motivational speech including the phrase, “c’mon guys it’s a friggin girl.”
In professional leagues, there may not be as many direct quotes, but you don’t have to search far and wide to find the underlying sentiments. Brendan Leipsic was recently cut by the Washington Capitals for leaked tweets that included sexist remarks. One noteworthy remark was that a player’s wife looked like a whale, and a couple of much worse ones.
Homophobia is another one of the less outwardly-obvious issues. But given the number of players that have played in the NHL, and the lack of gay or bisexual representation, it’s easy to see why homosexual players may be ostracized for their sexual orientation. Only recently has there been outwardly gay or bisexual players in other leagues, with some pointing to the fact that hockey has a very macho culture.
One instance in the mainstream NHL news was Tyler Seguin’s tweet upon his trade to the Dallas Stars. He also used the phrase ‘no homo’ a few years back. Now, I’m not here to cancel anyone, especially because he has publicly apologized. But it does point to the underlying issues players have towards homosexuals.
The macho culture seems to influence the language used in hockey rinks and dressing rooms. This may not bother many or most players, but the players sitting in silence, unsure of their place in the game, likely experience problems accepting who they are. Homosexual teens have more suicidal thoughts than the general population as well, pointing to a health and wellness spin on the issue.
Hazing is one of the most disturbing parts of today’s game. For those not cognizant of what hazing is, it’s the act of subjecting the new or younger players to physical or mental humiliation, and has recently been trending towards overt sexual abuse.
There was an incident at St. Mike’s College School in Toronto in which 3 players were charged with sexual assault. The incident involved sticking a broomstick inside of the younger players. This is obviously an extreme example, but it nonetheless happens and will continue in other places until it is completely eradicated.
Dan Carcillo, an ex-NHLer with a less than stellar reputation, has been filing claims against the Ontario Hockey League for past instances of hazing. There are numerous stories and rumours about some of the allegations, but one of the stories that stands out is the one about the younger players sitting in the middle of a dressing room and being showered in urine and spit. Carcillo has won one of his claims and has since filed another. One of the issues that bothers me the most is that some of the coaches know about the hazing and turn a blind eye.
So, we have a list of four concrete issues within hockey culture and numerous examples to back them up. Where do we go from here? Is hockey itself to blame? Or are there just a few bad apples?
I think bad apples are a huge part of it. Players or coaches in positions of power are taking advantage of that power to perpetuate the macho, sexist, racist, and homophobic ideals that they hold. But that doesn’t explain the widespread nature of these issues.
Our society as a whole is prejudiced. Some biologists and psychologists tell us that people may be racist by nature, meaning that there are some evolutionary links to racism and tribalism. So the issue begins with overcoming those ‘natural’ inclinations and becoming more accepting as a whole.
So how do we fix hockey culture?
Seven NHL players have recently formed the Hockey Diversity Alliance. Their goal is to eradicate racism in hockey. Their plan involves making the game more accessible and educating the hockey community about the challenges facing the sport in regards to racism and exclusion. This seems like a good first step towards tackling racism, sexism, and homophobia within the sport.
Hazing has to be tackled head on, and across the board. Any instances of it need to be addressed immediately and with thorough punishments. Adults in the room need to step up to the plate. There’s no question that hazing has crossed the line into physical and sexual abuse, and it should be treated as such.
On the other hand, some hazing can be seen as beneficial to a team’s morale. Examples of this could be that new or young players have to skate some extra laps after practice or pick up the pucks. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a new player earning their spot on the team with harmless tasks such as these.
But most importantly, I think North American culture as a whole needs to address these problems. This doesn’t seem to be solely a hockey issue. This is a societal issue. We need to start from the bottom; that means we need to be vigilant in the classrooms. Perhaps a new curriculum in schools that teaches children the shortcomings of our biology and psychology, and turns it around to inform them that we are all the same when it comes to race.
Another addition to the curriculum should be an intensive study into the segregation of Black and Indigenous people. There’s no question that black people are still being segregated in the US. And Indigenous people of Canada still don’t have enough of a voice in our governing bodies. Reversing the irrefutable damage these issues have caused is an important step to improving our society as a whole.
Hockey has a culture problem. It seems it can be attributed to a few bad apples. But the only way to fix it is to tackle all the problems head-on, and start with education. If we can encourage the younger generations to care more for each other regardless of race, sex, or orientation, life will be better and hockey will be more fun for all.
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