Former NHL player Theo Fleury calls for educating AUS players after bench brawl

WATCH: Theo Fleury, one of the hockey world's most prolific trash talkers, has some advice for the players involved in a controversial bench brawl earlier this month: “Smarten up." Sarah Ritchie brings us that story.

The St. Francis Xavier X-Men and Acadia Axemen wrapped up a first-round playoff series Sunday night in Antigonish, N.S., with the X-Men winning the best-of-three and putting an end to a season series that has been marred by controversy over a bench brawl that erupted during a game on Feb. 2.

It grabbed national attention after allegations that the brawl began because trash talking during the game became personal.

X-Men coach Brad Peddle and player Sam Studnicka said in statements released publicly on Feb. 4 that the incident started after a comment was made to Studnicka targeting a sexual assault survivor.

They also say he’s dealt with similar comments for all three of his seasons with the team. The statements single out the Acadia team as the main instigators.

Axemen player Rodney Southam maintains he knew nothing of Studnicka’s relationship to a sexual assault survivor when he made a comment during the game, telling him he looked like a “rapist.”

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Acadia insists there have not been ongoing issues with the two teams.

READ MORE: St. FX coach, player allege hockey brawl started after comments ‘shaming sexual assault survivor’

One of the hockey world’s most prolific trash talkers has some advice for the players involved in a controversial bench brawl earlier this month.

“Smarten up,” Theo Fleury said in an interview with Global News. “You know, grow up.”

“I understand it’s a competitive game. I understand that — I was probably one of the best trash talkers that ever played the game.”

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Fleury racked up 1,088 points and 1,840 penalty minutes in 1,084 NHL games, and is perhaps as well-known for his gritty play as he is for scoring highlight-reel goals. After his NHL career ended, Fleury went public with his story of being sexually abused by junior hockey coach Graham James and has become an advocate for survivors of trauma, as well as for mental health and addiction.

“I always see it as, you know, the universe will continue to put lessons in front of us until we get them,” Fleury said. “And I see this as another opportunity.”

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An opportunity to educate players and strengthen policies, he says.

WATCH: Acadia player involved in hockey brawl said opponent looked like a ‘rapist’

Acadia player involved in hockey brawl said opponent looked like a ‘rapist’: statement
Acadia player involved in hockey brawl said opponent looked like a ‘rapist’: statement

Fleury says the line between what’s acceptable trash talking and what’s not hasn’t been clearly defined, although he says it seems clear the players involved in this incident found the comments unacceptable.

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“I think you can still trash talk, but you know, when it gets personal like that, then it’s not effective and we see what happens,” he said.

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The brawl resulted in 15 players and two coaches serving 39 games’ worth of automatic suspensions. A follow-up investigation by Atlantic University Sport (AUS) added another 36 games for five of those players and four coaches. Both teams’ head coaches will sit out 10 total games, pending appeals.

The AUS executive director characterizes the investigation into what happened on the ice that Saturday afternoon as a fact-finding mission.

“To get at what happened on the ice, whether it was in terms of comments, whether it was in terms of what actually took place on the benches, how it took place, who was responsible for what,” said Phil Currie.

But the AUS sport chair was not tasked with determining whether St. FX or Acadia was correct in their conflicting assessments of what led to the brawl. Neither university has conducted media interviews about the incident.

Currie says there was no way for the sport chair to “go backwards” and investigate what was or was not said in prior seasons. He’s hoping the universities will be able to work things out.

“I’m sure that that was brought up in some sort of the material that our sport chair reviewed, but again, there’s no way for him to go back and determine if that had an impact on this incident at all,” he said.

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READ MORE: Hockey teams involved in brawl had ‘agreement’ about on-ice comments two seasons ago

Fleury is calling for mandatory education.

“I think you need to bring in an expert on diversity and bullying and all these things, and make these organizations aware of the impact that this kind of stuff has,” Fleury said.

Currie will ask the AUS board of directors to consider sensitivity training for student-athletes, saying he will research what that may look like before they meet next in April.

“What is the best training to suggest to our board and our members, that’s going to capture all the things that need to be captured around educating our student-athletes on what’s appropriate and what isn’t appropriate,” Currie said. “I think we know that these comments aren’t acceptable, but we need maybe stronger policy in terms of helping them as they enter into the organization.

“I mean, how big is the issue is the question. You know if there’s a systemic piece that needs to be addressed, we’ll address it, and we’ll address it in education and we’ll also address it in policy.”

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Fleury sees this incident as a symptom of a wider problem of bullying behaviour, which he suggests needs to be tackled by everyone from social media networks to sports organizations.

“The way we’re taught in sports is to try and get the upper hand on somebody mentally, you know, which takes them off of their game so to speak. And so you know, unfortunately that’s a bit of the culture,” Fleury said.

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“But therein lies the lesson: that maybe we’re not doing a good enough job of teaching people about respect and sportsmanship and all the things that are really the main reasons why we put our kids in sports — (it’s) not to create professional athletes, but to create quality human beings.”