If you hate yourself enough to have a Google alert set for junior hockey sexual assault, then this week has provided you with a lot of reading material. Between the Cobourg Cougars, the Gatineau Olympiques, and a truly excellent article by VICE Magazine’s Ben Makuch on rape culture in junior hockey, example after example has been put forward of the toxic nature of high-level boys’ sports teams. (Note: this is not just a hockey problem – but hockey, unlike most other sports, has this idea of itself as somehow better than football and basketball, coded both in the upper-middle class nature of many successful hockey players and, to some extent, race.)
Mazuch’s article details horrifying exploits which are immortalized in the so-called Junior Hockey Bible. The behaviors he describes are recognizable, with a slight change in terminology, to anyone who has had the great misfortune to spend time around teenage boys whose egos have been overinflated by wealth, talent, family connection, or a poisonous combination thereof. Hockey, however, amplifies these attitudes by taking its most talented boys out of the homes of their families and telling them, implicitly or explicitly, that the success of their team is the most important thing. Instead of their job being growing as people, learning how to function in a society that is blessedly no longer stuck in the 1950s, their job is to function as a unit and concentrate on building athletic skill.
Anyone who has ever been a part of a well-coached team could tell you that a coach is in an incredibly powerful position. I’ve been blessed to have a coach who I genuinely consider like a father to me, and the members of the team that he coached will always be my sisters. A coach who knows his power and treats it as the heavy responsibility that it is can both lead a team to victory and help his players grow as people.
Clearly, that is not what is happening in many cases in junior hockey.
There are several solutions – none of which are easy, none of which will be popular. When a toxic culture spanning years and miles is revealed, it shows a deficiency of character among the adults in charge. If winning is the only priority that the team officials care about, then it must cost teams their victories when groups of players commit crimes. If the message a coach has sold these boys is we live or die as a team, that message has to have teeth.
Will it cost talented hockey players their chance at a career in the NHL? Maybe. Do you want to cheer for a team made up of talented rapists? I don’t.
Beyond changes at the coaching level, though, there needs to be a shift in how parents think about their sons. Parenting long-distance is only possible when boundaries have been set and lines of communication have been established from birth, and even then it’s difficult. When sons are sent to go be talented somewhere hundreds or thousands of miles away from their homes, parents have to know the messages that the proxy parents – billet families, coaches, teachers – are sending to their kids. Logical, clear rules have to be established and followed consistently. Teenagers are still children, and all children flourish when consistent boundaries are maintained. Life skills beyond hockey have to be taught, from dealing with conflict to understanding finances.
Some people may be saying, “We’re already doing that!” While I’m sure you may think you’re doing that already, children listen to your actions more than your words. If the boys on your team are treating the people in their lives like objects to be broken at a whim, what you’re doing isn’t working. Boys like this, with a twisted sense of their own importance and a misunderstanding of what their lives are for, are a danger to others and to themselves. You’re putting them and the people around them in harm’s way by burying your head in the sand and telling yourself that what you’re doing is adequate.
Teams have to understand that for every NHL Superstar their team produces, they will put out into the world hundreds more who will never make it to the show. They cannot just aim to produce players with talent, they also have to produce men of character.
If your son’s coaches don’t understand this distinction – pull him out. If your son’s teammates don’t share your values – pull him out. Put him somewhere else. You’re the parent. You have this power.
You may at some point be forced to choose between raising a good person and raising a great hockey player.