Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

HACKETT: Hockey and its unfortunate reckoning

Hockey has a problem.

Before I explore this idea, I need to get quite a few things out of the way.

I love the game with all my heart. I have since I was old enough to skate, even if I left the ice in tears for the first few skates.

I have had some of the most memorable moments of my life playing hockey. I won my first-ever travel hockey championship at seven years old – we beat the rival Orangeville Flyers in the league final. I’m still friends with several of my teammates from that group. I just went back to Ontario for one of their weddings and another will be a groomsman in mine next summer. Isn’t that the wonderful part of sports, the long-lasting connections?

I remember a playoff game years later, against that same Orangeville team, when I scored four goals in a do-or-die playoff game. The rink in our small town had a modest crowd, they were loud and my teammates were so happy to see what I did that game. It’s burned in my memory forever.

And some bad.

I almost lost my eye playing rec hockey eight years ago, but have never stopped playing the game, just have to do it with a cage and low-prescription contacts.

Still, the game is as fun for me now as it ever was and I still play someone competitively to this day. I relish every chance I get to be on the ice. But like I said before, hockey has a problem.

I love watching it, I love talking about it, I love playing it. Can’t get enough. That’s not the problem.

The problem is hockey culture. And before you flip the page or start typing out an angry email, hear me out.

It’s not the volunteer coaches who spend hours on hours at the rink, dedicating the entire winter to helping the youth fall in love. Those people are heroes.

It’s not the parents who sacrifice so much between equipment, registration fees and time driving to and from the rink, as well as watching games and practices.

It’s not the refs, god bless the refs. I have the utmost respect for anyone who takes on that job and they deserve praise until the end of the earth.

The hockey culture problem is in locker rooms, with the players. I’ve seen it as a coach, I’ve seen it as a player and until there is a change, at the grassroots, hockey will never change.

Because you see, in this country, kids who are really good at hockey are treated like gods. They are worshiped by the community, they are touted as the next one or praised long into the night by adults.

That creates a complex – a complex I saw firsthand as a player and again as a coach.

When I was in my early teens, I began to resent hockey. It stopped being fun, because in practice, in the dressing room or at team functions, I was bullied by my teammates. Nothing harsh or too offside, a lot of boys will be boys-type stuff. But I was the target, day after day, week after week. It sucked. The only time I felt I was in control was in a game, the bullying ended there because I was good, they needed me. I didn’t tell anyone, only fearing that would make it worse.

I quit hockey at 18 because the joy was gone. I found the passion again, a few years later in university.

I coached a girls hockey team in Saskatchewan years later and the bullying got so bad, we had to kick our best player off the team and she was banned from the organization.

The bullying happened behind closed doors, the coaches didn’t know until it was too late. She was the best player, she felt she was untouchable.

These situations are needle-point small compared to the reckoning happening in hockey right now. What I’m trying to show is how even at the smallest level, hockey can have rotten elements.

I don’t think other sports are immune, but hockey in Canada is on a completely different level. Because of how these young kids are built up, they think that the rules of society don’t apply to them and if they do, their connection to the sport will get them out of trouble. And for decades, it has. From minor hockey to the NHL, hockey players have skirted consequences because of their status in the sport.

This comes full circle to last week when Hockey Canada’s board and executives believe they are bigger than the game.

Hockey Canada’s interim board chair Andrea Skinner erroneously said that she doesn’t know if the lights will stay on if there is wholesale change at Hockey Canada. What an ignorant and disappointing thing to say. She blamed the media for blowing the current scandal “out of proportion.” When major sponsors are dropping your brand, I’m sorry that’s a story, no matter who you are.

Skinner, who played NCAA Div. 1 hockey and has a brother who is a long-time NHLer believes she and her colleagues are bigger than the game. As someone who loves hockey, her comments gutted me to the core. It was about as far from the mark as you could get in that moment.

Skinner and the entire board stepped down earlier this week, after a report from retired Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwell.

In his report, he outlined that Hockey Canada has not done enough to disclose to those registered where their fees go and what they are used for. He reported that nearly half of an individual player registration fee went into what’s called the National Equity Fund, which has largely been used to settle uninsured sexual assault claims. That’s far beyond what had been disclosed previously.

He also found that the organization didn’t have detailed records of the fund and broke disclosure rules in doing so.

Hockey parents should be sick. Disgusted. Outraged.

People are calling for the organization to be burned to the ground and started anew. Maybe they’re right.

I don’t agree with that, but the board needs to be replaced and the executives should be fired. Build it back from there, hire an outside firm, an independent firm to do the replacement. You need diversity on the board, you need people from outside the inner sanctum of hockey to help right the ship.

Hayley Wickenheiser, one of Canada’s most iconic hockey players, said it best just last week.

“I spent 23 years of my life around Hockey Canada. It’s been beyond disappointing. I would say disgraceful. It’s taken a while to process everything really,” she said.

“Hockey in this country, regardless of what happens in the board rooms, it’s the grassroots, it’s the moms and dads, the volunteers, the Zambonis and cafeteria’s and the rink that keep hockey going.

“Regardless of what’s happening in the board rooms, the lights will always be on in rinks across this country, and hockey will go on. It’s much bigger than any person or organization.”

Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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