Why The CHL’s Player’s First Program Failed; Hockey, Gymnastics, and Systematic Suffering

By: Kacey F
Posted: January 6, 2021

Trigger warning: This story deals with topics of sexual abuse, hazing, bullying, bigotry, and abuse apologia. While this article tries to avoid graphic detail, many of the stories sourced or linked to in this piece are extremely upsetting.

Hockey’s equivalent of a “Me Too” movement started what seems like a shockingly long time ago, far predating the recent cultural moment.

It began on September 3, 1996, when Sheldon Kennedy came forward. The NHL forward was nine years removed from playing in the Western Hockey League, or WHL, one of the three entities that make up the top developmental program for teenage boys in North America, called the Canadian Hockey League, or CHL. Kennedy, like thousands of young boys, left home for the WHL at the age of 14 and was placed with a billet family. Kennedy competed in the league for five years, where he was sexually abused by the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos’ coach Graham James over 350 times. By January of 1997, the top story all throughout Canada was James’ three and a half year prison sentence for his abuse of Kennedy and another unnamed Broncos player, later revealed in his autobiography to be NHL player Theoren Fleury

The story was out: the institution Canadian families were encouraged to trust their teenage sons to in order to play hockey away from home was harboring pedophiles and allowed at least two boys to be sexually abused hundreds of times over a decade. It didn’t stop there. 

Immediately following James’ sentencing, allegations circulated about deceased Portland Winter Hawks owner Brian Shaw’s inappropriate behavior. Calgary Bantam coach Robert Keith Allaby was charged with abusing a fifteen-year-old. Junior B League (the step below CHL) GM Donald Middlebrough was found to have abused a thirteen-year-old boy. The Ontario Hockey League investigate the Kingsville Comets, an Ontario Jr. C team, for a hazing ritual involving nudity and sexual violence towards rookies on the team.

Author Laura Robinson released her book Crossing the Line: Violence and Sexual Assault in Canada’s National Sport (McClelland & Stewart, 1998) on sexual abuse in junior hockey, both perpetrated by players and suffered by them. Rumors circulated that over 20 individuals within the CHL had known about Graham James abusing kids and chose to do nothing.  

Canada’s program for churning out NHL stars was suddenly facing well-deserved scrutiny, and they needed to find a way to gain back public trust. They turned to sports lawyer Gordon Kirke who examined the situation with authority figures in the sport, psychiatrists, victims, fellow players, and teachers to put together a report titled “Players First.” This report compiled recommendations for the CHL designed to prevent anything like the Kennedy case from happening again. Among the recommendations in Kirke’s report was a toll-free number for players to report abuse run and an independent body to educate on and handle abuse, hazing, and intolerance issues. The report prioritized supervision by experts who were independent of the CHL. 

The CHL’s Player’s First program has been implemented over the course of the past 20 years. An educational course was made mandatory for team staff on bullying and bigotry, all clubs were required to have a Club Liaison Officer as an individual that players could turn to for help. According to the WHL, they were “awarded with a national citation by the Canadian Red Cross in 2013 for its contributions to the prevention of harassment and abuse in the game.” On paper, the events of 1997 changed the CHL for the better.

Fast forward to the present day. 

“Better” is far from the truth. November of 2018 brought new accusations from two-time Stanley Cup Champion Daniel Carcillo, who posted a Twitter thread discussing the abuse he faced in the early 2000’s as a CHL player, in graphic detail. A former NHL center who was also a CHL rookie in 2004, Shawn Matthias, shared a similar experience on Twitter. Within the year, a larger cultural reckoning would occur in hockey after Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock was fired and faced backlash for his abusive behaviors, followed by fellow NHL coach Bill Peters after his racist and abusive behaviors were made public by Akim Aliu, a promising player who never got a fair chance at the NHL in part due to Bill Peters’ racism. Sadly, this was not the first time Aliu, nicknamed Dreamer by friends and teammates, had made headlines for challenging harmful behavior in hockey institutions. Back in 2005, around the same time as Carcillo and Matthias’ abuse, Aliu was violently targeted by teammate Steve Downie, who would go on to play nine seasons in the NHL, for refusing to take part in a sexually abusive rookie initiation. Both stories, as told by Aliu himself, can be read at the Players Tribune

Two decades of failure to keep players safe from bullying and sexual abuse in the form of hazing CHL has finally culminated in a class-action lawsuit, all of which can be read, once again, in graphic detail. The lawsuit involves 16 former CHL players, most of them having played prior to 2010, save one documented case from 2014. Carcillo has implied he’s heard more recent stories after sharing his own on Twitter. While hazing rituals may be declining in the past decade, the cultural issues that bred them are still around, and kids are still getting hurt. Russian forward Yaroslav Alexeyev discussed witnessing the same hazing rituals discussed by others in the lawsuit as recently as 2019 while on the Baie-Comeau Drakkar

So, why didn’t sensitivity training, education, and outside partnerships with mental health organizations work? Why wasn’t it enough? The narrative around sexual abuse in hockey has shifted from being about coaches abusing players in private settings to older players abusing younger players, with coaches joining in when done publicly. Players first focused on the former issue but failed to address the more common cause of sexual abuse: ritualistic hazing. But it’s not just that aspects like sensitivity training or education didn’t work, it felt like they were outright ignored, designed to be useless. An afternoon spent in a conference room with lukewarm coffee with a speaker droning on and no consequences if a coach didn’t internalize the message that was sent, or decided to disregard it. Programs run by police departments, the same ones Laura Robinson wrote about ignoring violence against women in order to keep the local hockey teams out of trouble

The CHL knew they had a problem. They knew when Akim Aliu spoke out in 2005, when Sheldon Kennedy brought Graham James to court, when as recently as 2011 they had to suspend 16 players and two coaches from the Neepawa Natives in a hazing incident. Former player Carson Shields told his story of sexual abuse through hazing, a story almost identical to Carcillo and others, all the way back in 2014. All the right tools were in front of them but the implementation ignored beyond surface-level attempts at public relations. After all, only after the recent lawsuit did the CHL form a truly independent review board to handle the CHL’s policies around hazing and why players aren’t comfortable reporting, something that’s been voiced by the former players for years. 

The obvious answer is “profit.” Suspending players and pissing off parents means bad publicity, especially if those players are stars, guaranteed future NHLers. But to reduce it solely down to capital, while certainly an aspect, ignores a larger cultural issue. Sexual abuse is the deadly symptom of a larger disease, the claws but not the beast. And it’s not the first time we’ve seen it exposed in sports in the last few years. 

A Look Outside of Hockey 

Gymnastics and hockey have a lot in common. An expensive barrier to entry, with most of the best players starting from the time they could walk. Many high-level gymnasts and hockey players are sent to live away from home in order to chase their dream when they turn 14. Both sports require athletes to ignore extreme pain in order to compete, with the greatest to ever play being heralded for the pain they endured. 

But most importantly, both are plagued with sexual abuse scandals. 

Like junior hockey, whispers and rumors of sexual abuse began decades before it would boil over in court. The Olympic coach of the 1984 American team, Don Peters, would go on to be banned in 2011 after sexual assault accusations. Another coach, Marvin Sharp, was sentenced to prison for sexual molestation of a minor in 2011. Despite this, USA Gymnastics’ reputation remained relatively unscathed until the criminal investigation and sentencing of Larry Nassar, USA Gymnastic official doctor, for abusing a staggering 200 women in a 14 year period. The high profile case included several Olympians and star athletes who discussed being abused behind the scenes of major competitions. 

Prior to the lawsuit, USA Gymnastics had a system of documenting abuse they knew was all but useless, that incidents would only be considered if a victim or their parent had reported it, and wouldn’t investigate any claims reported by a third party. Complaints against Marvin Sharp were ignored for four years before being brought to the police. USA Gymnastics was also notified of another coach, Bill McCabe, as early as 1998. The nature of USA Gymnastics’ policy meant the claims were ignored until 2006 when a parent escalated the claims to the police herself. 

They allowed Nassar to control the narrative around his absence from USA Gymnastics during a 2015 investigation into his abuse, opting to lie to parents and say he was sick. USA coach and trainer Béla Károlyi was accused of enabling the abuse through the environment created on his isolated training site, in which he verbally abused and starved his players, making them more vulnerable to Nassar. When Maggie Nichols tried to report the abuse she faced from Nassar there, it got her kicked off the Olympic team. 

Bad systems of reporting, negligent authority, and protection of the sports biggest businessmen aren’t what make the CHL and USA Gymnastics abuse cases notable. Unfortunately, those aspects can be found in most work environments in our current society, from politics to pop music. The eerily similarities of these cases is the specific way rape culture manifested in both sports through other verbal and emotional abuse that was not only encouraged, but seen as essential for the sport to function. 

A culture that expects athletes to leave their families at fourteen and be isolated from their advocates. A system with such high barriers to entry that any players who do make it feel too lucky to complain. A system that relies on players to not trust their own judgments on their body and be rewarded for ignoring their pain. One that they will say weeds out the weak ones but in reality, either beats into submission, normalizes suffering, or exiles anyone who thinks there’s another way. The junior players sexually abusing other players in hockey or the Larry Nassar’s of the world aren’t the ones this system was built to benefit, but they are seen as an unplanned but useful enforcer to the Bill Peters or Béla Károlyis of the world who want to keep their clout, their authority, and their paycheck. 

Athletes in gymnastics, hockey, and beyond are taught that they are brave for not listening to their bodies. For giving their autonomy to the sport in a noble fashion. That taking verbal threats from coaches is the same as showing up to practice early in terms of work ethic. If we teach players they must suffer exploitation to be great, we cannot be surprised when they think interpersonal abuse from teammates, coaches, or faculty is just part of the game. 

Can junior hockey players learn from the USA Gymnasts? 

USA Gymnastics’ biggest downfall was the solidarity between the players themselves. They supported each other not only against Nassar but against the entire system that enabled him. Hockey hasn’t seen such solidarity and many won’t even admit there’s a problem. This is not to say that the women who spoke out about USA Gymnastics didn’t face a lot of verbal abuse and pushback for doing so (including from their own teammates) but with immense bravery, over 100 gymnasts- including several current Olympians-came forward to give impact statements and support fellow survivors.

In hockey, there’s been support for those who’ve come out abuse the sexual assault or abuse they’ve faced, but not nearly on the same scale. Many continue to remain anonymous and support each other privately, which is not a failure of the individual but rather a system where many still have to face retribution if they come out with their stories publicly. Back in 2005, when Aliu’s story first broke, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Darcy Tucker went on record with the National Post and called it “quite amusing.” Steve Downie had news stories rehabilitating his image the second he made his NHL appearance, downplaying his behavior in junior hockey. 

The dynamic is different when it’s exclusively faculty abusing the athletes, the children they’re responsible for, unlike in hockey where the topic has shifted to peer on peer violence. Solidarity is harder when those lines are blurred. But there is another reason many hockey players are still buying into this system: they do still see their reward as worth it. For gymnastics, the reward for dealing with abuse was a Gold medal, a sponsorship, and a possible full ride to college. 

But in hockey, it’s not just a Stanley Cup, it’s an invitation to the Boys Club for life. None of the girls ever thought they could be Béla Károlyi if they suffered long enough, and the nature of gymnastics means a very early retirement before looking to another career plan. A lot of CHL players probably thought they could be Bill Peters or Mike Babcock, and not just in terms of a coaching position. They wanted to make sure they could make others feel like shit and end their career on a whim. 

Fixing the culture of abuse in hockey, or gymnastics, that exists as a smaller subset of larger rape culture in America doesn’t have one straightforward answer. Some solutions are unquestionably necessary; Akim Aliu and the recently founded Hockey Diversity Alliance have pushed the NHL and other organizations to hire more diverse coaching staff and to be able to review policies against racial discrimination, as a group of hockey players of color who have experienced it. Better protections for those who report abuse against retaliation, and more independent audits of the CHL’s teams and any allegations against their members. 

Something has to change in the way we teach these players to think of themselves, too, and as a result how they think of others. Perhaps if players were taught that it’s okay to take their own pain seriously, to not be called a failure for not playing through a broken ankle or sports hernia, it could maybe help a few understand the gravity of the pain they inflict on others off the ice or help victims understand that what they’re experiencing is serious. 

If we didn’t let the consequences of any of Mike Milbury or Don Cherry’s racist, sexist, or otherwise insensitive comments be the point of debate and rather a swift firing, we could maybe teach the boys in juniors that the validity of concerns from oppressed groups isn’t yours to question if you come in from a place of privilege. Victims of bigotry could see their pain taken seriously on the big stage and feel they could speak out on their own teams. 

If Crossing The Line was seen as an essential hockey media the way Slapshot is, and if the training that the CHL prides itself in around sexual abuse had speakers like Laura Robinson. Instead, publishing the book resulted in her media credentials being denied by the CHL. 

Sexual abuse, media credidentials, playing through injury, and T.V. broadcasts may seem like unrelated concerns, but they’re all part of the same beast. The same system USA Gymnastics was teaching their players under Károlyi; A players’ pain is not only up for debate, but the excess of it is necessary for their success. 

A special thank you to Molly Long, for helping with this article.

For more hockey thoughts and opinions from Kacey, check out their author page or Twitter.

AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian

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