As Hockey Canada continues to reckon with gang-rape allegations levelled against two of its former World Junior hockey teams, there’s been entirely too much focus on the “sex” aspect of sexual assault. The real problem is unchecked celebrity and a cultural obsession with crowning talented teenagers as boy-kings.
It’s the megalomania that makes the monsters — not the raging hormones, not the alcohol, not even the much-talked-about “cone of silence” that features prominently in Hockey Canada’s new action plan.
These are contributing factors, to be sure. But in the same way that international law fails to curb the conquests and atrocities of dictators like Russian President Vladimir Putin, tweaking a code of conduct will have limited impact on a broken culture that worships at the altar of athletic prowess.
In the first scenario, you must get rid of the dictator or the rights abuses will continue. In the latter, you must bring the hockey mini-gods back down to earth and get back to the business of making hockey players, not deities.
We know from the Harvey Weinsteins and Matt Lauers of the world that, for predators, sexual assault and harassment is often less about bodily gratification than psychological gratification. It satisfies their need for power and dominance — to know they can exert control over another human being and no one will stop them. This is true of solo sexual assaults, let alone group ones that are even more inextricably linked to the desire to subjugate.
In the case of an alleged gang rape perpetrated by players on the 2003 World Junior team, the players reportedly approached the assault like they would a tournament, complete with a pre-game interview. Sources told TSN’s Rick Westhead that a player referred to the crime as “a f—ing lamb roast” before videotaping their rape of an unresponsive woman.
It’s impossible to read this account of events and not conclude that the toxic forces of celebrity and power obsession played a pivotal role.
Hockey Canada will, of course, be reluctant to acknowledge or act on this. After all, turning young athletes into celebrities sells more tickets and jerseys, and Hockey Canada’s leadership enjoys a halo effect that also bestows celebrity, prestige and power upon them by association. It’s no wonder they’re so reluctant to give up their jobs, even in the face of their obvious failures.
Sure, they can get other jobs, but they’ll never find another kingdom to rule over like Canadian hockey. They’d much rather give up open bar events and sit through a few educational courses than trade in their celebrity.
As Hockey Canada’s leaders were testifying in front of MPs and the nation this week, the organization’s social media feeds appeared not just mostly oblivious, but entirely tone deaf.
They’ve spent the last month promoting the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, an under-18 tournament, with the line, “Spend your summer with the future stars of the game!” Hockey Canada’s Twitter feed has promoted the social media accounts of the young men currently competing in that event to its 431,000 followers. This goes beyond sharing rosters or game recaps, it’s a branding and PR exercise meant to encourage the celebrification of teen athletes.
I happened to be in Saint John, N.B., in late June, when the Canadian Hockey League’s Memorial Cup, which decides the national junior hockey title, took place. The event kicked off with a parade to show off the competing players to fans. The teams couldn’t even be bothered with walking down the city’s (very short) main street. They rode in buses, looking down at fans who lined the streets from behind tinted windows.
Canadian Hockey League teams get bonuses when their players are drafted into the NHL, further incentivizing the practice of building players’ public profiles.
Perhaps worse than the systemic corruption of young athletes via a pipeline to fame and untouchable power is the weaponization of that same celebrity against their alleged victims. At Wednesday’s hearing, Hockey Canada president Scott Smith testified that the organization settled a lawsuit related to the 2018 assault quickly, without so much as contacting the players involved, as it was supposedly “in the best interest of the young woman in protecting her privacy and also her benefit going forward.”
This quote provides insight into how negotiations may have gone down with the woman (now conveniently muzzled by a non-disclosure agreement): settle or we expose your identity to the media and this will follow you around forever. It also serves as a veiled threat to other potential accusers.
The only path to truly fixing Hockey Canada’s broken culture is to commit to focusing on athletics and nothing more. No fame. No special privileges. Just sport. Fans across the country must also adjust their expectations and treatment of young players. No one should accumulate enough power in the junior system to become untouchable — and that starts at the top of the ladder.
Canadian hockey doesn’t need an action plan as much as it needs a revolution. The era of boy-kings must end.
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