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Players know hockey culture is considered toxic. Here’s how some are making it better

Speaking to junior hockey teams across Manitoba, Brock McGillis, one of the first professional hockey players to come out as gay, challenges players to share interests outside of the “safe four topics” of conversation — hockey, women, sports and music.

At the beginning of this year’s hockey season, the Manitoba Junior Hockey League (MJHL) arranged for every one of its teams to hear a presentation from the LGBTQ advocate. It’s part of the league’s commitment to addressing criticisms that traditional hockey culture has not done enough to tackle racism, sexism and homophobia.

“Most of them are far more inclusive than previous generations were at that age,” McGillis told CBC News.

“But their language and behaviours don’t necessarily match, because in that environment, they’re told, ‘This is how we’re supposed to act.'”

players know hockey culture is considered toxic heres how some are making it better
LGBTQ advocate and educator Brock McGillis recently gave a presentation to junior hockey players in Manitoba, hoping to shift their thinking and actions in a way that will help improve what many say is a toxic hockey culture. (Pelin Sidki/CBC)

Across Canada, at small and large arenas, hockey players are pursuing their NHL and college hockey dreams, but they’re doing it under a growing Hockey Canada cloud amidst calls to change the toxic culture that some say makes elite players feel they can get away with anything — on and off the ice.

The controversy began in May, when it emerged that Hockey Canada settled a $3.5-million lawsuit alleging a group sexual assault in 2018 involving players involved with Team Canada at the World Juniors. There has been widespread criticism over its handling of the assault claims and use of special funds — in part made up of registration fees — to pay legal settlements. New allegations have since come to light.

Hockey Canada was dropped by its major sponsors, and its CEO and entire board of directors stepped aside. A new board will be elected Dec. 17.

But people CBC News has spoken to say the entire hockey system must be overhauled because it often ignores bad behaviour of elite players from an early age. Over time, that can develop into a sense of entitlement and what some describe as toxic masculinity inside hockey culture.

Last week, a Hockey Canada report found there were 900 documented or alleged incidents of on-ice discrimination across all levels and age groups during the 2021-22 season. 

Federal Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge said recently that a re-envisioned Hockey Canada “must develop not only exceptional athletes, but also good citizens who respect women, the public and the law.”

WATCH | Players pushing for change:

The culture of hockey is under intense scrutiny in the wake of the Hockey Canada scandal. Karen Pauls talks to junior layers and coaches about calls to change the sport.

‘Not every hockey player is like that’

The scandal and its fallout are sensitive topics for junior players, most of whom would love to wear a Team Canada jersey in international competitions.

“A few of my friends have played for Team Canada. Not every hockey player is like that,” said forward Davis Fry, 19, of the MJHL’s Steinbach Pistons Junior A team.

“Yeah, there’s always going to be some bad people and their actions aren’t good obviously, but it sucks to be viewed upon like that,” agreed team captain Dawson Milliken, 20. 

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Steinbach Pistons assistant captain Travis Hensrud plays pickleball with local senior citizens. He says not all junior players are ‘bad individuals.’ (Karen Pauls/CBC)

“Not all of us are bad individuals,” added 20-year-old assistant captain Travis Hensrud.

“We’re young men trying to become good humans and just be involved in the community. Oh, we’re hockey players. We love to have fun, but we want to shape ourselves into young men, too.”

It’s not just talk. The Pistons have pledged to do 1,500 hours of community service this season. That includes everything from playing pickleball with seniors, to reading at schools and helping out at the local food bank.

There’s a lot of good happening in the hockey community, said Paul Dyck, the Pistons’ general manager and head coach. 

“We want to develop their dreams on the ice, but our responsibility is when they leave here, that they’re better people.”

Junior hockey is an important time in a young man’s development, he said, with some players still in high school and others away from home for the first time, living with billet families. 

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Manitoba junior hockey player Davis Fry volunteers at the local food bank. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

And while everyone will make mistakes, Dyck says they must be held accountable and accept the consequences.

Dyck’s mantra is simple: Respect.

“Having respect for one another in this room, first and foremost, and then for people in our community of different, you know, age and genders and race,” he said.

Life skills, not just hockey skills

That concept is one shared by junior teams across the country.

In B.C., players from the Coquitlam Express Junior A team have been helping out at minor hockey practices. Team captain Ian Devlin, 20, said this kind of volunteer work doesn’t just benefit the community — it’s making him a better person by teaching him about perspective.

“It’s really vital to be able to see the world through another person’s lens.”

WATCH | Junior A player reflects on the Hockey Canada scandal:

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‘There’s no room for that,’ says young athlete in wake of Hockey Canada scandal

12 days ago

Duration 2:36

Ian Devlin, captain of the Coquitlam Express junior A hockey team, weighs in on his sport’s culture.

Devlin hesitated when asked how he feels junior players are being viewed right now.

“It’s not a great image, so obviously it wouldn’t make one feel good about themselves,” he said, adding each player has to look in the mirror and do the right thing.

Devlin said he thinks the culture change has to start early, when players start playing AA or AAA hockey, when they’re spending up to seven days a week on the ice, when peer pressure becomes an issue in the locker-rooms. 

He says coaches can’t look the other way if their best players misbehave — they have to crack down and demonstrate that it’s not acceptable. And as players get older, they have to be empowered to hold each other accountable, he said — something that can be hard.

“Especially when it’s one of the older guys on the team who should know better, you know, that’s a time where you definitely need to be able to hold them accountable,” he said.

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Coquitlam Express captain Ian Devlin says culture change in hockey has to start early, when players are at the AA and AAA levels and are on the ice almost every day with their teammates. (Coquitlam Express)

‘Curb this wrong culture’

There’s a poster on the wall leading to the Coquitlam Express dressing room about the team’s “championship values.” They include having character, being appreciative, building good habits and being accountable.

“In order to be, you know, a good teammate, to be a good player, to be a good human being, it’s following all these things,” said general manager Tali Campbell.

Campbell grew up playing hockey and saw “wrong things.” He declined to go into detail, but says it had to do with respect and entitlement.

When he became the youngest GM in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League four years ago, at 23, he knew he had some big responsibilities — make them better hockey players, give them opportunities to get university scholarships and help them become good human beings.

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Coquitlam Express GM Tali Campbell stands beside a poster listing the championship qualities he is trying to teach his junior players. Many, he says, are life skills they can use on and off the ice. (Coquitlam Express)

“Slowly, over time, we curb this entitlement. We curb this wrong culture that, unfortunately, is in hockey still,” he said.

Campbell acknowledges the seriousness of the 2018 World Juniors allegations and says they need to be dealt with. Players, coaches and Hockey Canada all need to be held accountable for their actions, he said.

“Fingers need to be pointed.”

But he doesn’t want his players unfairly painted with the same brush by people saying “that every hockey player is a horrible person. Every single one of them is a rapist. Every single one of them is disrespectful to women.”

“That’s so incredibly frustrating to hear,” said Campbell.

WATCH | Tali Campbell reflects on hockey culture, the good and the bad:

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B.C. junior hockey GM on improving hockey culture

12 days ago

Duration 2:29

Tali Campbell, the general manager of the Coquitlam Express, says his organization seeks to both build better hockey players — and better human beings.

‘They have influence’

Back in the Pistons’ player lounge, Millken, Fry and Hensrud review excerpts of McGillis’s presentation. In one section, McGillis talked about the damage caused by uttering homophobic slurs.

“Before you know it, it keeps spreading. Keeps spreading, keeps spreading. Your entire team starts using it, all your friends start using it, because you are influencers,” he told the players.

Junior hockey teams are in communities across the country. They interact with each other, schoolchildren, seniors, fans and billet families, he added.

“The reality is our system has been put in place, that they have influence. And because of that influence, what they do with it matters,” he told CBC News.

The players seemed to understand, as they talked about holding each other accountable.

“Takes a lot of guts for a guy to stand up, but when you do that, your voice is loud and other people follow,” Hensrud said.

“Just usually takes one to speak up and create a culture of, ‘Listen, we’re not going to do that. This is not how our organization acts or how we act as individuals in our communities.'”

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