The Hamilton Spectator

We need to reassess our hockey culture

- TYLER FIRTH TYLER FIRTH LIVES IN HAMILTON.

Every Sunday afternoon I lace up my skates along with several dozen other late middle-aged men to play hockey. We play in what has become affectiona­tely and aptly known as an old-timers beer league.

Part of this weekly ritual is nostalgic as we desperatel­y try to conjure up the magic of our youth playing this beautiful game we all love. And it is usually not very pretty; skills have deteriorat­ed over the years. Or, my case, never really existed in the first place.

The skating and playmaking is cautious, as the objective is less about outscoring the opposition, and more about avoiding injury.

But the play on the ice is only part of the ritual. The other takes place in the change room, behind closed doors. And it’s here where a strange transforma­tion takes place that has been as much a part of the game as the skating, shooting and playmaking on the ice.

I thought of what is known in sporting parlance as the camaraderi­e of the hockey change room as I absorbed the disturbing details of the five former members of the 2018 junior Team Canada who’ve been charged with sexual assault.

This scandal, which broke almost two years ago, involves not only the alleged criminal behaviour of those who’ve been charged, but Hockey Canada’s decades-long project of covering up repeated misdeeds of elite level players.

It turns out hockey’s governing body operated a slush fund, made up partially with the fees of minor players from all across the country, to settle sexual assault claims made against certain players by paying hush money to the accusers.

The scheme guaranteed no player would be held fully accountabl­e.

Until now.

While few would argue the men who’ve been charged should face prosecutio­n and, if found guilty, face the consequenc­es for their behaviour, we also need to look at ourselves and reassess the culture that surrounds hockey in this country.

It’s evolved into a toxic, cultural stew of vulgarity, sexism, hero worship and dewy eyed sentimenta­lity that has allowed scandals of this sort to fester.

Even in my own case, I am uneasy with the change room banter that passes for team camaraderi­e. The pre- and postgame talk among a group of presumably respectabl­e citizens descends into profanity and sexism as soon as we cross the threshold of the change room.

Few of us would dare talk this way in polite company.

Oh come on Tyler lighten up, one may retort. This is simply locker room talk. It’s harmless and not unique to hockey. But we’re learning it can indeed be harmful. Possibly criminally harmful.

Also, I was a competitiv­e runner for more than 40 years where I shared change rooms with dozens, possibly hundreds of other athletes, and I cannot recall once after a race or track workout experienci­ng anything close to the milieu of the hockey change room.

It’s been over four years since the CBC fired Don Cherry. Thankfully, we’re spared hearing him weigh in on this issue on Saturday nights. But his obsequious side kick Ron McLean is still there.

McLean has built a career lionizing the “good Canadian kids” who play the game. He mistakenly conflates hockey with goodness. He and his back slapping, mawkish cohort must share in accepting responsibi­lity for helping mould the culture that has brought us to this point.

Admittedly, I too am part of the problem. I feed the beast that has elevated hockey to religious-like status in this country every time I tune in to a game, or overpay for tickets. It would be difficult for me to totally disengage from the sport. Playing hockey is among my earliest memories.

So I hope the powers that be, from the talking heads who broadcast hockey to the executives who set policy, recognize the problems the game faces and work tirelessly to change it.

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