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'Brutal' hockey culture needs to change, former and current OHL players say

After a series of high profile firings and resignations in the NHL, hockey culture appears to be changing. Former and current OHL players tell the CBC's OHL contributor Paige Martin, that it's change for the better.

Some players are welcoming hockey's #MeToo moment

'Brutal' hockey culture needs to change, former and current OHL players say

3 years ago
Duration 10:14
After a series of high profile firings and resignations in the NHL, hockey culture appears to be changing. Former and current OHL players tell the CBC's OHL contributor Paige Martin, that it's change for the better.

Changes have come in a hurry, lately, to the NHL but they're not the kind that you'll see on the ice.

It is hockey culture that seems to be shifting, with coaches being fired after allegations of racism and bullying. They're losing their jobs for the kind of incidents that would have resulted in few consequences, if any, not long ago.

This culture shift is making its way to the Ontario Hockey League too. OHL columnist Paige Martin has been paying close attention and spoke with current and former players about how hockey culture is changing — and where it needs to go.

Here's her interview with the CBC's Conrad Collaco. You can read an abridged and edited version of the interview or listen to the full audio interview by hitting the play button above. 

Paige Martin, OHL columnist with CBC London
(Paige Martin)

Over the last few weeks some pretty prominent people in the NHL have had to face consequences for bad behaviour, the kind of that's been tolerated for years. Which names have caught your attention?

PM: Well, it has been busy in the NHL and unfortunately there's more than a few that we could choose from. But, specifically, what a lot of people have been hearing is, of course, Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters stepping down after facing allegations of racism from former NHL player Akim Aliu. We heard about Mitch Marner and his experience, in his rookie season, with Mike Babcock. And this week NHL commissioner Gary Bettman held a press conference to announce the NHL's zero tolerance policy. CBC's Front Burner podcast put these headlines together for an episode yesterday. Take a listen.

Front Burner: Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters resigned, but technically he wasn't fired. The allegation from former NHL player Akim Aliu that Bill Peters "dropped the N bomb several times towards me in the dressing room in my rookie year." Another player is alleging two incidents of physical abuse confirmed by his former team.

Don Cherry was fired for saying the kind of things he's been saying for a long time. Only now have there been some consequences from his employer. What are OHL players saying about all of this?

I think it would be naive to say that this is only impacting the NHL. The OHL is full of players who are looking up to this league and watching these situations unfold. I wanted to see what they thought about really all of this. And I spoke with a forward from the Owen Sound Attack. His name is Matthew Struthers and we sat down in the stands together before the game and I asked him, "what have you been thinking about the stories that are coming to light?" 

Matthew Struthers: Judging by the stories that you hear, that's no way to treat human beings. Just because we play hockey, that doesn't make that OK. We've seen a bit of a hockey #metoo movement, which is really good for the game. Everyone can play and that can't happen with the way humans are treating other humans. So, it's really good to see that people are feeling comfortable enough to be able to speak out and tell them their stories and hopefully there's not too many more stories, because obviously you know you don't want things like that to be happening. We're not special people, we're just hockey players and you have to treat humans like they should be treated, regardless of what sport you play.

PM: Matthew's an example of someone who would really like to see hockey culture change. But I still heard a lot of, 'yeah it's just normal for things to be said that aren't great but you just keep playing and you move on.'

Did any of the players you talked to give you any kind of specifics about these incidents of racism and bullying?

Well that's where it gets tricky. This conversation because no player will speak to any specifics because they want to play hockey still. A lot of the stories that you do hear are from former players. I was even pulled aside by people and warned that maybe this isn't the story to go with. Maybe we shouldn't talk about this. That just reinforces the narrative that you're trying to avoid. We know that there are examples of bullying in junior hockey. This behaviour doesn't start in the NHL. It's been happening before that. And that's also where many coaches get their start as well. So, I want to go back to that CBC Front Burner podcast episode that came out Thursday. Daniel Carcillo was interviewed and he played in the NHL but got his start with the Sarnia Sting. Here he is talking about that team's hazing rituals during his rookie year in 2002. 

Daniel Carcillo: 
Ex-NHLer Daniel Carcillo, pictured above in 2014, says recent incidents involving Don Cherry, Mike Babcock and Bill Peters can serve as a wake-up call for the win-at-all costs hockey culture that's pervaded the sport. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
It was brutal. It was the worst year of my life. We walked into the room every day and we had to strip in front of our stall and twelve veterans would take a lick on us and some of them would whisper in our ear, 'if you flinch you're going to get another one' — hit us with the paddle on our bare ass in front of the whole room and then they'd go systematically one by one to each stall and twelve guys would line up. That would happen before every practice. Things like getting pissed on in the showers. Flex All getting squirted on us. And then once the veterans were done showering we could shower.

PM: Carcillo actually came forward with this story a little while ago and since then a few of his teammates have backed up what he talks about in his story and the other person that Front Burner talked to was former Sault Greyhound and Windsor Spitfire player Brock McGillis. He was the first professional hockey player to come out as gay and before he did that he was a bullying victim with situations that are honestly difficult to wrap your head around and quite heartbreaking, really. He also talked about how he had to hide who he was.

Brock McGillis: 
McGillis hid his sexual orientation during his hockey career. (Submitted by Brock McGillis)
For me, as a gay man in the sport who wasn't out, I embodied all the characteristics of what I thought it was to be a hyper-masculine hockey bro. I was a womanizer. I was incredibly cocky. I walked around like I owned every room I went into. People didn't know but I'd go home and I cry and I tried to kill myself on a regular basis.

Carcillo has taken on, personally, the responsibility of so many players inviting them to contact him to tell their own stories, anonymously, to him so that he can be the voice who is now unafraid to speak of these incidents to the powers in the NHL and in hockey throughout the world. It's a remarkable thing that he's done.

PM: Yeah, I couldn't agree more and his name does come up a lot. And I remember there was a situation where I was surrounded by a few other media individuals and his name came up and they were like 'Oh yeah. You know he's always talking' but he needs to be. This is the story. No one else is talking. So someone needs to.

How are these young junior hockey players supposed to handle these issues in the way the world in and out of hockey is changing?

Well, I think that they need to speak out and that's so easy for me to say. I can say that because I'm on the outside of it. But that's what Carcillo and McGillis both said. It's hard. These guys are 16 to 20 years old. They are young and impressionable and vulnerable even if that isn't something that they would admit firsthand. But Dylan Myskiw of the London Knights also took some time to sit with me in the stands before the game and he's a veteran. You know, he's learned to navigate the hockey culture over the years and here's his advice for up and coming players.

Dylan Myskiw: Try not to bottle things up, as a young guy. You don't want to come off the wrong way with a guy too, but the next situation is you don't want to bottle things up and keep stuff inside. If you have something to say, say it. It's always better to say something than keep it bottled up and think why didn't I say it? It's always nice to get that out and get an actual perspective. 

PM: When Dylan and I were talking he told me that he's always heard things said in the dressing room and on the ice. It's all the same no matter where you go.

Did anyone you speak with offer any ideas on how hockey moves forward from this point on?

Well you can hope for the zero tolerance plan that the NHL announced to have an impact. But the NHL has the potential to be a league that the world can turn to as a symbol of something great. It could be a league that stands for things like equality, stands up against racism, sexism, homophobia. I spoke with Gene Chiarello. He's now a lawyer but he also played in the OHL about 20 years ago. He told me that he had a fair share of things said to him and his teammates that crossed the line. His coach at the time was suspended for a few racist comments that he had made and he was telling me this is a deep, systemic issue that's going to take a massive culture change.

Gene Chiarello: I think it's out of touch with reality. If you're in the workplace and your boss is abusive towards you physically or verbally or emotionally, you know you're going to go to H.R. You're going to have some protection. If you do that in the hockey culture, you may not because there's a certain element of bravado there and concern for your own career. So that's the bubble. That's the atmosphere that's created and everybody subscribes to it. People that are in it and people that are outside of it. It's a different world and people have accepted that until today or things start to change.

PM: Now a lot of people that I spoke to were saying how bullying and racist behaviour can no longer be tolerated as normal just because it's hockey. You know it isn't just like 'oh well. That's hockey.' That can't be the story anymore. And that's also going to mean that if we really want things to change, this generation of hockey players they're going to need to be the ones that speak up and speak out. 

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