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Hockey’s day of reckoning: Last stand for locker-room mentality

December 12, 2019
By Marcel Vander Wier

Photo: Getty Images

The November firing of Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock set off a chain reaction in hockey that has led to a cultural reset for Canada’s national pastime.

Following the lead of Leafs forward Mitch Marner, NHL players such as Akim Aliu began speaking out on the abusive environment within the game — specifically in terms of coaches and those in authority.

Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters resigned following an investigation into past usage of racist language; Chicago Blackhawks assistant Marc Crawford was suspended during a team investigation into past physical abuse; and Dallas Stars head coach Jim Montgomery was fired for unprofessional conduct.

The fallout has led to a full-blown human resources crisis in hockey — something former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy believes could eventually benefit greater society.


“Hockey — because it’s so high profile — has an opportunity to really bring a light to issues that sometimes don’t have that light,” he says in an exclusive interview with Talent Canada.

Hockey’s reckoning holds lessons for senior leadership in workplaces across the country, says Kennedy, co-founder of the Respect Group in Calgary.

These types of issues can no longer sit in a file on the desks of HR professionals, but rather need to be addressed by an organization’s most senior leader, he says.

“We’re dealing with issues that carry a lot of fear. If there’s one thing that hockey’s taught us, it’s that these issues are real. They’re impactful, and this is about leadership.”

Understanding harassment

For its part, the National Hockey League has instilled a zero-tolerance policy on harassment and abuse going forward.

“The world is changing for the better,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman at a Dec. 9 press conference. “This is an opportunity and a moment for positive change, and this evolution should be expedited for the benefit of everyone associated with the game that we love.”

“Inclusion and diversity are not simply buzzwords. They are a foundational principle for the NHL,” he said. “Our message is unequivocal — we will not tolerate abusive behaviour of any kind… Everyone is entitled to a respectful workplace.”

The league has implemented annual training for all employees in a leadership capacity and employee background checks will be of critical importance going forward, said Bettman.

He also discussed the implementation of a hotline for players to report abuse anonymously.

Coaching is emotional, he said.

“Not everyone will approve of every coach’s methods,” said Bettman. “However, there are lines that cannot be crossed. Clearly, physical abuse and racial and homophobic language cross the line.”

“While we acknowledge that there may be other actions that could cross the line or fall in a grey area, we hope that the program we create and its intended consciousness-raising will help better define what is and what is not acceptable conduct, and will make for a better playing and coaching environment.”

Hockey leaders need to be sensitized to possible grey areas in order to act with more caution, he said.

“Even if there’s a line, why get too close to it? Let’s have a respectful workplace where people can feel comfortable doing their jobs.”

Moving towards civility

What has occurred in hockey over the past months could eventually be remembered as hockey’s #MeToo moment, says Lew Bayer, a civility expert in Winnipeg.

“If we think about, say, Don Cherry or Mike Babcock… it’s the same as the #MeToo (movement) in Hollywood,” she says. “You can’t be permissive for decades — and essentially encourage and reward the behaviour —and then act shocked… to hear that it’s actually happening.”

“You can’t boil it down to one person’s misbehaviour. There’s a whole tribe, a whole sports family, a whole collective who encouraged and supported and engaged in that behaviour.”

Inappropriate behaviour has been a long-time issue in sports, according to Bayer.

“It’s surprising to me that for years and years, it’s been completely obvious that there’s a different set of rules for elite athletes’ behaviour — not just coaches.”

“It’s understood that you don’t talk to a referee or an umpire in a particular way without some expectation of immediate consequence,” she says.

“But you can use that same tone to speak to a player or coach or supplier or parent or sponsor… There’s been this kind of double standard for a long time.”

Rather than implement policy upon policy, civility can succeed under one simple rule, says Bayer: “Everyone in every situation gets exactly the same respect and consideration.”

At present, the evaluation of interactions remains a murky process.

“That’s a huge part of the problem. It’s very grey and sometimes we don’t hold a player accountable if he says something that, outside of that context — in practice for example — might be perceived as racist,” she says. “There should be a do-not-use list that is clearly understood. But then we have to be able to hold everybody accountable and it has to apply across the board.”

“The way we’ve been handling incivility is with more incivility and I’m not sure that that’s the most effective thing. However, at the end of the day, we’ve got to start somewhere. Things usually get a little messier before they get better.”

Lessons for senior leaders

Hockey’s troubles hold lessons for senior leaders across all workplace sectors, says Kennedy.

“Hockey’s made the headlines. And I think that the headlines are, it’s important to make sure we get this right,” he says. “There’s an expectation that companies have these issues addressed and prioritized.”

The steps taken by Bettman and the NHL signify good progress, says Kennedy, noting Hockey Canada has been educating its coaches on abuse for more than 15 years.

“When we first started doing this work, it was a very difficult conversation to have.”

But the education is paying off in the current generation of players who are not afraid to discuss these issues, he says.

“The shift and the knowledge and the confidence to actually be able to discuss these types of issues is at an all-time high.”

As for dredging up issues that may have occurred in the past, it is a painful but important task, as harassment and abuse are a major contributor to mental-health problems for individuals and within the workplace, says Kennedy.

“We’re going to have to hear it. We have to be able to listen to those individuals,” he says. “Because if we don’t know where we’re coming from, it’s tough to move forward.”

“There is a lot of hurt, pain and suffering that has come with some of these incidences.”

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