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

HACKETT: The folly of summer hockey

It’s 28 degrees outside. The sun is shining and sweat is forming on your brow.

You can feel the heat a little less if you close your eyes and imagine you’re on a beach somewhere. Instead, you’re walking across a parking lot, bound to spend some time in an arena, to soak up the long days of summer watching hockey.

It’s become an annual tradition in this country – summer hockey – and it’s hard to exactly trace down its roots.

When I was a kid, back when I was 10 or 11, our family took part in the tradition. A month-long season on Sunday afternoons, we’d trudge to an arena about half an hour from where I grew up, all to get an edge on the competition for the upcoming season.

I’ll also say I probably loved it. My friends played and I loved hockey, so it was by no means a chore to get me to those games.

Then late summer would come and there would be more time in a rink, I’m sure it was just an excuse to get me out of the house for a week when my parents shipped me off to summer hockey camp.

Those were simpler times inevitably and I’m sure there are parents reading this now planning their next trip to the rink as the hockey season fast approaches.

Regardless of my experience, summer hockey has been thrust into the spotlight for more than one reason this year.

First, the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the World Junior Hockey Championships after a few days last Christmas, which was being played in Edmonton and Red Deer at the time. That annual tradition was somewhat surprisingly shifted to the summer, exclusively in Edmonton and will be played next week.

From the sounds of it, ticket sales are going slow, with plenty of seats available ahead of opening night. That’ll likely change somewhat as the last-minute shoppers decide to make the pilgrimage down to Roger’s Place to see the best junior hockey players in the world. But this is typically a tournament that needs a waitlist and seats come at an extreme premium.

There is, of course, hockey in our own backyard as well with the Hlinka Gretzky Cup taking place over the past week. It features the best under-18 players in the world, including Red Deer Rebel Kalan Lind. The hockey has been mostly excellent, besides a few blowouts for Canada.

Canada played in the semifinal Friday and will play for a medal regardless on Saturday. I suspect that game will be the most well-attended of the tournament.

Before that game, the most well-attended game seemed to be when Canada took on Sweden Wednesday, in the final round-robin contest. Canada is the draw here clearly, but beyond that, it seems like Central Albertans have decided to dodge the storms and embrace what little nice weather we get in the summer and spend it outside.

Of course, all that is said without addressing the elephant in the room – the biggest story in sports and one of the biggest in Canada this summer.

In case you didn’t hear, Hockey Canada has been marred in controversy over its handling of two separate sexual assault allegations. The first was a woman who alleged that a group of players from the 2018 World Junior team sexually assaulted her at a hotel after a gala in London, Ontario.

Hockey Canada paid out an undisclosed settlement to the woman and some excellent reporting has been done by TSN’s Rick Westhead and others to keep the spotlight on the case.

Hockey Canada has been called twice to testify in front of members of parliament to explain the situation and they will undergo a governance review from a former supreme court justice for its handling of the issue. Most of the players who were on that team have denied any involvement. If they do not participate in a new independent investigation into the case, they will reportedly be banned from representing Canada.

Another allegation surfaced after this one, about the 2003 world junior team. Another sexual assault involved multiple players. The details in both cases were sad and disturbing and Westhead has said there are more people who have reached out to him since.

The Federal Government has frozen funding to Hockey Canada and sponsors have backed away from the organization which ultimately circles back to hockey in Alberta this summer.

Are fans launching a silent protest of the organization or are they simply not interested in watching hockey while the weather is nice?

Will there be ramifications when the minor hockey season turns around next month, as it was uncovered that Hockey Canada used registration fees, that were put into a fund to help settle sexual assault allegations?

In a recent poll, most Canadians have said they feel anger over that particular part of the situation. A Nanos survey, conducted for CTV News and the Globe and Mail, found that 73 per cent of Canadians feel anger about the situation and 41 per cent say the allegations have had a negative impact on their impression of hockey.

Still, the Nanos survey found that 55 per cent of parents said the Hockey Canada allegations would not impact their decision to let their child play the sport.

That number seems extremely low to me, but maybe that’s from someone who grew up dedicated to the game and has spent a good amount of their adult life covering it.

I think the survey shows that Canadians are at a crossroads with hockey. It’s a long-lasting love affair for many, with any shady activity brushed aside as boys will be boys, all in the name of keeping the dream alive.

The illusion may not be completely shattered, but I think for some it’s led to a deeper questioning about their involvement in the sport than ever before. I doubt there will be any systematic change in that way. Kids still love hockey; Canadians still love hockey. That bond goes deeper than most can explain.

But there’s a shadow of a doubt now and what that leads to, we’ll have to wait and see.

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