British Columbia

Victims of abuse in junior hockey encouraged that more players are speaking out, as CHL faces another lawsuit

Former NHLers Sheldon Kennedy and Theo Fleury say they weren't surprised at the allegations of abuse they read in a proposed class-action lawsuit against the CHL. But while the allegations underline the need to do more to stop abuse, the fact that more players are coming forward with their experiences is a positive sign, they say.

Former NHLers Theo Fleury and Sheldon Kennedy say more needs to be done to tackle sport's systemic issues

Theo Fleury (left) and Sheldon Kennedy say there's been change in junior hockey when it comes to stopping abuse, but there's still a long way to go. (Chanss Lagaden CBC )

The allegations in a new proposed class action lawsuit against the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) are brutal.

Former NHLer and Stanley Cup champion Daniel Carcillo says he and his fellow rookie teammates were forced to bob for apples in a cooler filled with urine. He says they survived hours stuffed into charter bus bathrooms naked, eight at a time. He says they sat in the middle of showers to be urinated and spat on.

The list of abuse in the statement of claim goes on. 

As shocking as these allegations are, they're far from the first to come from the world of Canadian junior hockey. Stories of sexual, physical and emotional abuse have been surfacing for decades now. 

Former NHLers Sheldon Kennedy and Theo Fleury weren't surprised at what they saw in the lawsuit. But while the allegations underline the need to do more to stop abuse, the fact that more players are coming forward with their experiences is a positive sign, they say.

Kennedy and Fleury are well known for speaking out publicly about the sexual abuse they experienced at the hands of former junior coach Graham James. James pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting both players when they were teenagers and spent time in prison. He was granted full parole in 2016.

"Sadly, none of that stuff is shocking," Kennedy said. "I wasn't surprised, it didn't catch me off guard. What goes through my head is that we've got more work to do here." 

Former NHLer Daniel Carcillo, seen in 2013 holding the Stanley Cup as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks, and former WHL player Garrett Taylor are spearheading a class-action lawsuit against the Canadian Hockey League and its member teams on behalf of players who allegedly suffered abuse while playing at the major junior level. (Elise Amendola/The Associated Press)

Both Kennedy and Fleury have committed much of their energy post-hockey career to fighting abuse in sport and other organizations. Kennedy is the co-founder of harm-reduction organization The Respect Group and Fleury is a trauma activist. 

"I look at the bigger picture of abuse and suffering and trauma ... and so, here's another instance from the universe," Fleury said. "It takes a tremendous amount of courage [to speak out], which Daniel is portraying to the world right now."

Mounting legal troubles for CHL

The lawsuit against the CHL is not the first class action it's faced in the past two years. The league is already facing a proposed suit focused on traumatic brain injuries from former Kelowna Rockets captain James McEwan

Add to that a $30-million class action settlement in May over the question of whether players should be treated as employees and receive minimum wage, and the CHL has become a regular in the court system. 

The CHL responded to the Carcillo-led proposed court action with a written statement, where it announced the formation of an independent review panel that will investigate hazing, abuse, harassment and bullying. 

"We are deeply troubled by the allegations in the recently announced class action, many of which are historic in nature and we believe are not indicative of the leading experience our players receive in the CHL today. Regardless of the timing, we are taking the claims very seriously as the protection of our players has been and will always be our primary concern," the statement reads. 

'Huge power imbalance' between players, coaches

When surveying major junior hockey for systemic issues that lead to abuse, Kennedy points to the relationship dynamic between young players who receive little pay, and well paid adult coaches and administrators who have a great deal of influence on their career prospects. 

"It's all about power," Kennedy said. "Look at a young person trying to chase their hockey career: I mean, there's a huge power imbalance and when that's not handled properly it gets thrown out of whack and people get hurt."

But, for both Kennedy and Fleury, just the fact that players feel empowered to speak out is a sure sign of progress. 

"Have we done anything that creates more safe spaces? Absolutely," Fleury said.

"Because we're hearing more and more stories coming out. There's an acknowledgement that there is a problem. Before, they were getting the brooms out and sweeping all of this under the rug."

Theo Fleury celebrates winning a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2002 Olympics. The former NHL star is now a trauma activist after publicly sharing his experiences with abuse in hockey. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

Even a quarter century into his advocacy work, Kennedy remains pragmatic. 

"We've been pushing for 25 years, so it's taken a long time," Kennedy said.

"When we started we never even talked about this stuff. We didn't talk about bullying. We didn't talk about mental health. None of it. We have moved the needle but we need to keep moving the needle more."

Further accounts of abuse are expected to surface as lawyers behind the proposed class action work to identify more alleged victims and their stories to add to the lawsuit.