Toxic masculinity is part of elite hockey. We need a culture shift

Simply changing out some hockey executives and conduct codes won't be enough. We need to teach young players emotional literacy and to reject the code of silence.

I did my PhD on this problem 23 years ago. Let's hope the message gets heard now

Allegations of group sexual assault by past Canadian World Junior teams has shone a spotlight on the culture within elite hockey, something Alexis Peters has studied and tried to warn hockey leaders about more than two decades ago. (@HockeyCanada/Twitter)

This column is an opinion from Alexis Peters, a sociology instructor in Calgary. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

I'm extremely concerned about the allegations of group sexual assault by past men's World Junior teams, and how they were handled. But am I surprised? Unfortunately not.

For more than two decades, I've been studying the toxic masculinity of hockey and its effects on the health and well-being of high-performance athletes.

My research was originally informed by being a registered nurse whose partner was a professional hockey player in a mid-level professional league. Seeing the hockey life up close, I became concerned about the overall health of many players.

So, when my partner moved on to a Danish hockey team, I enrolled at the University of Western Ontario to study toxic masculinity and its effects on men's overall physical, psychological, and social health and well-being. I focused my PhD on the health of elite athletes, specifically elite junior-level hockey players. 

What budding hockey stars believe

To study how the hockey culture of toxic masculinity affected the athletes, I distributed questionnaires to several Ontario Hockey League junior hockey teams, measuring their attitudes toward hypermasculinity. These elite players, between the ages of 18 and 22, scored notably higher than my control group on the "hypermasculinity scale" as measured by three concepts: danger as exciting, violence as manly, and more calloused attitudes toward sex.

Another unexpected finding was that they also scored significantly lower on emotional empathy. It's important to note that I was comparing these OHL junior hockey players to a group of young men who had not played hockey past Grade 11.

I concluded then, and still believe, that hockey culture needs radical changes to enable elite athletes to develop into healthy humans. Simply changing the people in the positions of power, codes of conduct, and zero-tolerance policies are not enough. 

Prevention of many forms of violence — sexual assault, harassment, abuse, hazing, and initiation rites — requires a more comprehensive educational approach to change the toxic attitudes that many athletes are learning.

For example, I argue that one way for junior hockey to change from that toxic masculine culture is to stop encouraging the concept that "real men play through the pain." This often makes it difficult for athletes to admit when they are hurt or struggling though physical, psychological, or emotional pain, especially to other men.

The code of silence is real, and players are pressured to go along for fear of being ostracized by the players or kicked off the team. The thought of possibly losing your dream and identity that you have worked so hard for is not easy at any age. 

For years, coaches and parents would accuse researcher Alexis Peters of disliking hockey for proposing educational workshops to improve hockey culture. (FotoDuets/Shutterstock)

Players learn this toxic masculinity, and are rewarded for those behaviours at a very early age and from many people. Perhaps that is why my research met a great deal of resistance from sport administrators, coaches, parents, and fans. It is easier to blame "one bad apple" than to accept partial responsibility for encouraging a toxic masculine culture. 

When I suggested a number of educational workshops and shifting hockey culture from toxic masculinity to a model centred around the pursuit of excellence, I often got accused of disliking hockey and sports. But trust me, nothing could be further from the truth.

I maintain that there are many positive life skills that can be learned through participating in sport, such as resiliency, time management and leadership skills. I continue to teach my research in all my university courses, and student athletes themselves never put up resistance to the ideas others were reluctant to accept.

Many of these young men do not make it to any mid-professional league and are left with lifelong attitudes that can prove to be destructive to their health, such as poor emotional literacy, a belief they must suffer in silence, and a huge loss to their identity. My only hope now is that out of this horrible situation people will finally listen to the stories of many athletes with an open mind and make hockey a safe place for every child to pursue their dreams and passions.

If we all take some responsibility to help make hockey all the wonderful things it can be, I remain optimistic that changing the culture can set up everyone — men and women — for a healthier life.

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Alexis Peters

Freelance contributor

Alexis Peters is a sociology instructor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, and continues to educate on ways to change the toxic masculine culture of hockey and sport.