In wake of racism and abuse allegations, is hockey at its tipping point?

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ABOVE: Host Farah Nasser sits with Toronto Star sports reporter Morgan Campbell and founding host of Hockey Night In Canada in Punjabi, Parminder Singh, to discuss the culture of hockey in the wake of Don Cherry's firing – Nov 12, 2019

Racial slurs, emotional abuse and violence. These are some of the recent allegations made against celebrated coaches in the NHL.  

Since the firing of longtime hockey commentator Don Cherry over his anti-immigrant remarks on Coach’s Corner earlier this month, more players and hockey insiders are calling out racism, bullying and toxic masculinity within the hockey community — things they say are commonplace in the sport. 

On Monday, former NHL player Akim Aliu said Bill Peters, currently the head coach of the Calgary Flames, hurled racial slurs at him in a minor league dressing room during the 2009-10 season.

Peters has also been accused of physical abuse by Michal Jordan, who played for the coach on the Carolina Hurricanes from 2014 to 2016. Peters apologized for the racial slurs, but did not address the allegations of abuse. He resigned from his job with the Flames on Friday.

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The recent flood of allegations has sparked debate about race, hockey culture and whether or not the sport really is for everyone.

READ MORE: Ex-NHLer Daniel Carcillo alleges verbal abuse by long-time coach Daryl Sutter

“To be a hockey player, you have to be the macho, hyper-masculine man,” Brock McGillis, a former OHL player, told Global News. 

McGillis, who came out as gay three years ago, says homophobia is ingrained in the sport and part of “lockerroom talk.” This harmful attitude kept him in the closet for years as he feared his sexuality would jeopardize his career. 

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“If you’re gay, the perception is you don’t fit into the hockey culture,” he said. 

“I experienced firsthand the language that was used and dealt with it on a daily basis to the point that on a number of occasions, I tried to kill myself.”

READ MORE: 1 in 5 Canadian athletes experience psychological abuse

McGillis, now 36, played hockey from around the age of six up until he was 30. Throughout his career, he hid his sexuality by engaging in common hockey behaviour, including partying and womanizing.

“I hated myself,” he said. “The toxic nature of the hockey culture led me to feel like I couldn’t be myself —  like I was ‘bad’ or ‘wrong.’”

A history of abuse

McGillis is only one of several hockey players taking to social media to share their experiences with the sport. 

Former NHL player Daniel Carcillo recently alleged unbridled verbal abuse by ex-Los Angeles Kings head coach Darryl Sutter during the 2013-14 season.

Carcillo, who played 12 seasons in the NHL, said he repeatedly saw Sutter berate players in front of the whole team.

“The worst coach I’ve ever had in my life,” Carcillo told Global News. “He would demean people in front of the room, in front of everyone. It’s just all about embarrassing guys.”

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Carcillo says he decided to share his story after the accusations made by Aliu against Peters.

“What you saw happen these last two days and over the course of the last three weeks is a sort of reckoning that I’ve always believe needs to happen in the NHL,” Carcillo said. “I’ve been preaching this since I left the game from what I saw and what I experienced.

Click to play video: '‘The worst coach I’ve ever had in my life’: Former NHLer Dan Carcillo alleges abuse by former coach Darryl Sutter' ‘The worst coach I’ve ever had in my life’: Former NHLer Dan Carcillo alleges abuse by former coach Darryl Sutter
‘The worst coach I’ve ever had in my life’: Former NHLer Dan Carcillo alleges abuse by former coach Darryl Sutter – Nov 27, 2019

Toronto Maple Leafs player Mitch Marner also recently shared a disturbing story about a task his former coach Mike Babcock, who was fired earlier this month, made him do during the 2016-17 season.

The 22-year-old told TSN Babcock asked him to rank his teammates from hardest to least hardest working, and then he shared the list with the rest of the team. Marner was a rookie at the time.

READ MORE: NHL, Flames investigate allegations against coach

“There seems to be more acknowledgement amongst the general public that hockey culture has significant issues that need to be dealt with,” said Stacy Lorenz, a professor of physical education and history at the University of Alberta.

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“But… I still see a very strong resistance from many defenders of traditional hockey culture who do not want to acknowledge this critique of hockey, who still insist that everything about hockey is good and pure and Canada.”

Hockey is an ‘anchor point’ for Canada

Cherry’s “you people” comments sparked a larger discussion among Canadians about hockey culture. 

Discrimination has long run rampant at every level of of the game, from recreational teams to the NHL, says Courtney Szto, an assistant professor of kinesiology and health studies at Queen’s University and an editor of Hockey in Society

This is at least partly due to how conformity is valued by the people in charge.

READ MORE: Don Cherry’s comments weren’t ‘hate speech,’ but employees can still be fired for being ‘hateful,’ legal experts say

“I don’t think [these problems] are necessarily unique to hockey, because [that is to say something like] Larry Nassar wouldn’t have happened in gymnastics — a sport terribly different from hockey,” she said. 
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“But hockey is certainly known for conformity, and not in a good way. You don’t want to be a distraction for the team. Anybody that’s marked a troublemaker, broadly interpreted, will not generally do well in the game.” 

The issues with discrimination in hockey haven’t been confronted, says Szto, because of how intimately the sport is tied to the Canadian identity.

Click to play video: 'Hayley Wickenheiser inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame' Hayley Wickenheiser inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame
Hayley Wickenheiser inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame – Nov 18, 2019
“Hockey serves as an anchor point for this country, [which] doesn’t necessarily have a unified history,” she said. 

Szto also believes Canadians have a tough time admitting race, for example, is a source of contention for the nation. 

“We tend to confuse silence with politeness in Canada,” she said. “We don’t talk about race. We think that’s an American issue.” 

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READ MORE: Why Don Cherry’s ‘you people’ rant on ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ has such an impact

The conversations around toxic hockey culture also highlight the fact that people of colour often aren’t represented in hockey, said Carl James, a professor at York University’s faculty of education in Toronto. 

James says that when young kids don’t see themselves in hockey stars, society sends the message that they are not part of the sport.

“We need to recognize that we are a society in which race and racism has been a factor from the very beginning,” he said.

Next steps

There are three steps the NHL needs to take immediately if hockey culture is to change, says Szto: create an education plan, diversify hiring and institute a zero-tolerance policy. 

Anti-racism education was one of the five calls to action, directed specifically at sport, put forth by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015.

READ MORE: Akin Aliu calls Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters’ apology ‘misleading, insincere and concerning

There’s also a deep need for the injection of new talent in management. 

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“The NHL is notorious for recycling its personnel, as if there’s some shortage of coaches and players,” Szto said. 

Finally, the league needs to declare a zero-tolerance policy for instances of abuse, racism and discrimination. 

READ MORE: Peterborough-area hockey player says he was told to ‘go back to where you came from, immigrant’

“You need to create a culture where people feel safe and recognize that if they say something, it will be taken seriously and there will be consequences,” she said. 

McGillis says the recent outpouring of stories detailing toxic and racist behaviour is an opportunity to have an honest conversation about hockey culture and hopefully change it for good. 

“Culture can evolve, but it has to happen at the top level and also at the youth level, and it has to happen simultaneously at both.”

With files from Andrew Russell and Mike Drolet

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