Sports culture is famous. Sometimes for its positives (of course, I am a sports fan myself) but truth be told, it’s honestly mostly the negatives. And the most notorious of them all (including golf, a hard bar to beat) is Hockey.
There are so many ways that hockey lags regarding societal views that this article will be entirely too long and my motivation will be incredibly too low. So unfortunately for you (because who doesn’t want to read my wonderful rendition of 31 Thoughts), I’ll only be going through all the latest issues brought to light recently. Which is a lot. And that, guys, gals and our non-binary pals, is why this is an entire article.
Addressing Sexual Assault
One of the saddest, tragic and unfortunately recurring events is the dismissal and ignorance of sexual assault. Just recently over the off-season there have been many instances of this. Most notably is the 2010 Blackhawks case and the drafting of Logan Mailloux.
The 2010 Blackhawks were (and still are) one of the worst cases of sexual assault that was covered up. During that time Brad Aldrich, who is now a convicted sex offender, worked for the NHL team as a video coach. And there he assaulted at least two of the players by using physical force (as he threatened them with a metal bat) and manipulation (he told them he would get them traded or sent down to the minors). Not only were these actions horrific, what is as disturbing is the fact that most of the entire franchise knew. The two players mentioned that many of the players and staff not only knew but also actively covered it up. Brad Aldrich departed from the Blackhawks with a letter of recommendation.
Even more recently are the accusations and the drafting of Logan Mailloux. Logan Mailloux, a Canadian defenseman, had previously withdrawn from the draft due to inappropriate behaviour. A year previously the 18-year-old Belle River Native had secretly taken photos of a woman while they were engaged in a sexual act, and shared them — and the identity of the woman — with members of his hockey team. And although he had withdrawn himself from the draft, the Montreal Canadiens selected him in the first round, 31st overall. Which of course brings into question the values and beliefs of the management team. Specifically Marc Bergevin, the General Manager. Many different instances of similar acts (trying to acquire known sexual offenders, domestic abusers, and other problematic individuals) were linked to him, as well as being a part of the Blackhawks organization in 2010 as the Director of Player Personnel.
Throughout history, sexual assault and abuse have been ignored and dismissed. Theo Fleury is just one example of the many cases, and those are just the known ones. As our society evolves we will continue to watch these events come to light. And while these are grim things that many (including myself) do not want to read or write about, it is important to acknowledge that the effect of reducing these horrible events is worth every minute we put towards the current time.
It’s 2021. 156 years after the US abolished slavery. 25 years after the last residential school closed. And yet racism is still largely prominent in today’s hockey culture. Just within the last year there have been many terrible instances of racial discrimination and biased hate against people of colour around the world. In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the rising of the Black Lives Matter Movement many believed life would get even a little bit easier. But for players Ethan Bear and Jalen Smereck, they experience the hate very personally and up close.
After the Edmonton Oilers incredibly disappointing 2020 – 2021 playoffs (they were swept in the first round by the Winnipeg Jets) many fans started to point fingers at different players. Namely Cree defenseman Ethan Bear. Ethan Bear is a huge spokesperson for the current and future Indigenous players. He wore the first Cree NHL jersey and every summer he runs a youth camp in his home nation, Ochapowace (near Whitewood, Saskatchewan). He became an easy target for Oilers fans because of his position, but mainly because of the easy access to stereotypes. Many fans relied on these biases and called him a “lazy” player. But that motivated him to work harder and he often drew inspiration from his brother (who also played hockey) and other Indigenous players such as Carey Price, Jordin Tootoo, Brandon Montour, Arron Asham and Micheal Ferland. And with today being the first National Truth and Reconciliation day in Canada is important to recognize the people that continue to set milestones in Indigenous history.
Jalen Smereck’s encounter with racism happened a lot more recently and with a lot more public uproar. The Detroit native plays in the Ukrainian Hockey League and on Sunday was subjected to an incredibly racist gesture from Ukrainian forward Andrei Deniskin. The incident spread over the internet and many players and fans tweeted their support for Jalen Smereck. Many called for a suspension that was a minimum of a year. Some were even calling for a life ban. Unfortunately the Disciplinary Committee of Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine did not live up to expectations and suspended Andrei Deniskin for three games, with the option to pay what is equivalent to an $1870 fine to avoid 10 more games. The hockey community is in a huge uproar over this ruling and many are encouraging the IIHF to place their International ban.
Not only is hockey culture lagging regarding race issues, but it is also extremely delayed in the education and acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community. The culture is incredibly toxic as it often centers around the ideology of ‘tough manliness’. Being gay is used as a common insult and LGBTQ+ players will face an incredibly hostile environment. But slowly that is changing, starting with Luke Prokop.
Luke Prokop is a Canadian professional ice hockey defenseman for the Calgary Hitmen, a Western Hockey League (WHL) team. In October of 2020, he was selected 73rd overall by the Nashville Predators and less than a year later, on July 19th, 2021, he came out as gay. He is the first player under NHL contract to do so.
Not only did every NHL team post their support in a personal message, but many players did as well. Jacob Trouba, Tyson Barrie, Mitch Marner, Nick Foligno and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are just some of the swarms of people to tweet out with love and support. Toronto Maple Leafs Captain John Tavares said it best “@lukeprokop_6, I admire your courage and know your story will serve as inspiration for so many.”
What Luke Prokop did will not only serve as inspiration for young players but already has sparked a change in hockey culture. Historically locker room talks and chirps often featured anti-LGBTQ+ slurs and comments. Prominent players such as Anaheim Ducks Captain Ryan Getzlaf and two-time Stanley Cup champion Andrew Shaw have both been caught on microphone using the f slur, with little punishment. Dallas Stars Captain Jamie Benn has been repeatedly exposed for transphobia and also had little consequence. All were sadly just within the last five years. But now players see that what they say can, and will, affect the lives of their teammates and they are striving for change.
Addressing Mental Health
Sports in general and hockey in particular often talk a good game when it comes to accepting mental illness and both have come a long way in recent years. But coaches and GMs still have games to win, and to do that, they need players to play. It often wears on a player and additionally also forces them to keep quiet. But now with multiple role models speaking about it within the last few months the rate of acceptance has shot up. Athletes, fans and even the management themselves have learned so much from so few individuals. Namely Robin Lehner, goaltender for the Vegas Golden Knights, and Jonathan Drouin, forward for the Montreal Canadiens.
Robin Lehner is officially diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Bipolar Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Additionally, he also struggled with addiction issues. He remains a role model, winning the Masterton Trophy and being Vegas’ starting goalie. He also is a spokesperson for the #samehere global mental health movement and the bipolar community. He often shares his experiences as both a mentally ill person and a mentally ill athlete in today’s society.
Most recently is Montreal Canadiens forward Jonathan (Jo) Drouin. Jo Drouin is a 26-year-old left-winger who has totalled more than 50 points on multiple occasions. Additionally, he has a gold medal at the World’s IH18 for Team Canada and is a Memorial Cup Champion (Halifax Mooseheads). He was a vital part of the Montréal Canadiens roster but his production was declining until he took a break for the whole 2020 – 2021 season for personal reasons. It wasn’t until the start of the 2021 – 2022 season that he revealed it was caused by severe anxiety and insomnia. He said that it got to the point where he didn’t sleep for more than three days, a catastrophic issue for a professional athlete. “That’s where it hit a wall for me. It was time to step away from the game. Take a step back from everything and enjoy life”
And now the whole league watches with joy as Jonathan Drouin takes to the ice again, wearing the iconic Habs jerseys. He returned from training camp and has played one preseason. In that game, he tallied two points and combined with his close friend Josh Anderson and new linemate Christian Dvorak for nine points.
So while hockey does obviously lag regarding social views, we can see the impact that the role models created and sustained. With the revealing of sexual assault cases, the uproar against racism, the hope that Luke Prokop brought, and the light shone on athletes mental health we will begin to see positive effects. And in the near future we will be able to see a much better world in hockey culture.