Opinion

Power play: Hockey players are finally speaking out against the sport's toxic culture

Hockey players fed up with abuse are no longer willing to keep the sacred silence of the locker room, writes Oren Weisfeld.

Players fed up with abuse are no longer willing to keep the sacred silence of the locker room

Mitch Marner, seen here during the pre-season, said after the Maple Leafs practice on Nov. 25 that former coach Mike Babcock's method of instilling a positive work ethic in him during his rookie season was 'surprising.' (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion by Oren Weisfeld, a Toronto freelance journalist who focuses on the intersection of sports and politics. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The locker room is a sacred place in hockey — one where every word or action is supposed to be kept in-house. Historically, players have obliged with the unwritten rules that ask them to keep their mouths shut about what goes on behind closed doors.

It's part of hockey's toxic culture. One that asserts power over players from a very young age, asking them to keep their head down, work hard, play by the rules, and never under any circumstances break the trust of the coach or organization by making private actions public, no matter how inappropriate those actions are. 

Then we learned on Sunday that during Toronto Maple Leafs' forward Mitch Marner's rookie season, head coach Mike Babcock asked him to rank his teammates from the hardest-working to the laziest and then exposed the list to the team, leaving Marner in tears and his teammates furious.

What was shocking wasn't just the action itself, but the fact that it got out of the locker room.

Even more surprising, perhaps, were Marner's words to the media at practice on Tuesday: "I think if you wanna share [your] stories [involving coaches], do it… it's your story to tell."

For a 22-year-old from Markham, Ont., Marner is more confident and calculated than his boyish face lets on. Players aren't supposed to speak out against coaches, but Marner is a young superstar unwilling to play by the old rules. 

Still, even Marner couldn't have expected to be the catalyst of an unlikely movement that has seen current and former NHL players start speaking out against hockey's toxic culture and those who enable it, potentially changing the unfair balance of power that has existed for decades. 

On Monday, former NHLer Akim Aliu tweeted about his experience playing for current Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters in 2009-10 with the American Hockey League's Rockford IceHogs.

"He walked in before a morning pre-game skate and said, 'Hey Akim, I'm sick of you playing that n----- s---,' " Aliu told TSN, "He said, 'I'm sick of hearing this n-----s f------ other n-----s in the a-- stuff.' 

"He then walked out like nothing ever happened. You could hear a pin drop in the room, everything went dead silent. I just sat down in my stall, didn't say a word."

In the aftermath of Aliu's comments, former Carolina Hurricane Michal Jordan accused Peters of kicking him and also punching another player in the head during a game.

That account was confirmed by current Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind'Amour: 

Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind'Amour confirms allegations by former player Michal Jordan that Bill Peters kicked Jordan and punched another player during a game. 1:35

Peters issued an apology on Wednesday in an open letter to the Flames organization, saying: "I know that my comments have been the source of both anger and disappointment, and I understand why. Although it was an isolated and immediately regrettable incident, I take responsibility for what I said."

He is away from the team while the Flames investigate.

On Tuesday, former NHLer Daniel Carcillo accused long-time NHL coach Daryl Sutter of verbal abuse, and said the Western Hockey League (WHL) and Hockey Canada ignored physical, verbal, and sexual abuse.

What has become clear over the past few days is that these are not isolated incidents or a few bad apples making mistakes. Embedded in North American hockey is a culture rife with systemic racism, sexism, and physical and verbal abuse.

And it has been preserved through an uneven power structure; one that makes players feel inferior and scared to come forward, partly because speaking up could cost them a job.

"Players are afraid to speak up," Brind'Amour told reporters on Wednesday. "To be honest with you, everybody under the coach, they are afraid to speak out at times, because there's a big gap in the power structure. The players have way more power now and I think they realize that, and I think it's important for them to speak out on whatever is important."

This could be a watershed moment for the NHL and hockey in North America. With so many disturbing stories coming out within the past few days, it appears that players are finally beginning to understand that they have power and can influence change through their words. 

And there could be many more stories to come.

"I have over 150 messages from current players, former players, NHL to the AHL all the way down to children, and I plan on doing something about it. And that wasn't the case a year ago, I maybe had three or four messages," Carcillo told CBC Sports.

"This is a real problem, and it's been a problem for a really long time. It's similar to what happened in the Catholic Church in the way of systematic cover-ups, victim blaming, and this has been going on for years and decades."

What has become increasingly clear is that young hockey players have a real voice and, for the first time in the sport's history, are starting to realize it. With social media, it's easier than ever to speak out against the power brokers who have historically controlled the conversation. 

So much damage has already been done. It's time hockey players speak their truths.


  • This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

About the Author

Oren Weisfeld is a freelance journalist from Toronto who focuses on the intersection of sports and politics. His work can be found at CBC, NOW, VICE Sports, Raptors Republic, The Western Gazette, FanSided, and his blog, orenweisfeld.com.

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