CALGARY — For nearly 45 minutes on Saturday morning, Sheldon Kennedy paced back and forth across the main stage of a conference room inside the Sheraton hotel.
Speaking without a script, Kennedy was able to keep his audience captivated even though many were already acutely aware of his backstory as a survivor of sexual abuse. The more than 150 leaders from the hockey world were attending Hockey Canada’s inaugural “Beyond the Boards” summit.
Kennedy talked about the man who was convicted of sexually assaulting him when he played junior hockey with the Swift Current Broncos in the 1980s and urged others to speak openly about difficult subjects.
“The Graham James of the world seek those places out,” he said. “They thrive in those places because they know nobody’s going to talk. Bad behaviour thrives there.”
Kennedy’s speech punctuated the two-day summit. The Athletic was permitted to attend a portion of the event, but some sessions and panel discussions were closed to working media. The main theme of the summit was “Leading at the intersection of masculinity and hockey,” and experts dove headfirst into topics such as elitism, gender-based violence, sexism and racism.
Some participants said the summit examined some issues plaguing the sport. Hockey Canada’s new president and CEO Katherine Henderson — who started in that role on Sept. 4 — said she was overwhelmed with some of the subject matter tackled during the workshops.
“I don’t want to sound too emotional, but I was close to tears a couple of times,” she said.
Bill Proudman, co-founder of White Men as Full Diversity Partners, an organization that works in the diversity, equity and inclusion space, led a handful of the workshops and said he was moved by the vulnerability shown by the participants.
“There were some really heartfelt moments. There was a question today, something like, ‘How do I forgive myself if I have grown up in a system where I’ve been guilty of really mistreating people?’” Proudman said. “This work is hard. It’s relentless. It’s fatiguing.”
Theresa Fowler, a professor at Concordia University in Edmonton whose research focuses on the impact of masculinity on society, with a focus on hockey, revealed findings from interviews she said she conducted with more than 20 professional and elite men’s hockey players in 2021.
She showed a slide with a handful of direct quotes from the players who opened up about the culture within parts of elite men’s hockey.
“I had a coach draw pubic hair around a net on a board and say, ‘You know, you need to crash the net hard, as if it was your girlfriend.’”
“Coaches did body shots off a 15-year-old girl at a rookie party.”
“You had to try and kiss another female (university) athlete and get a picture of it.”
In a moment that silenced the entire room, Fowler shared a quote from a hockey player who revealed that a teammate once received a coat hanger as a gag Secret Santa gift. This came shortly after the teammate’s girlfriend had undergone an abortion procedure.
“At the time everybody was laughing and I definitely participated in laughing,” the player is quoted as saying. “I thought as a 17-year-old, I see all these 20-year-olds laughing like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a good joke’. And now, I’ve had friends that have had abortions and things like that and I’m like, ‘That’s just disgusting honestly.’”
Fowler shared these anecdotes to illustrate the difficulty in challenging hyper-masculine culture in hockey. Fowler said she believes there needs to be a recalibration of locker room dynamics.
“That’s the space that really needs to be infiltrated,” she said. “Have others in the space. Perhaps have women in the space so then they’re not being overly sexist. Invite parents into the space. What’s so secretive about wanting to win a hockey game? What’s happening in there needs to be disrupted.”
Fowler’s sentiment is shared by Bayne Pettinger, who participated in the summit as a panelist. Pettinger, who is an openly gay player agent, worked for Hockey Canada for nearly a decade. He said he believes the adage of “what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room” needs to be obliterated.
“The rink isn’t a silo from society and neither is the locker room,” he said. “What happens there or on the team bus or at a team meeting or a team meal, you’re not excluded from the laws of society. And the norms of treating people the right way of not bullying. We won’t accept it in a classroom, so why do we accept it in a dressing room?”
Hockey Canada has been under intense scrutiny since May 2022. That’s when allegations of sexual assault that were leveled at some members of Canada’s 2018 world junior team became public. Hockey Canada settled the suit. In the complaint, filed in April in Ontario Superior Court, a woman alleged she was assaulted by eight players in a London, Ont., hotel room following a Hockey Canada Foundation event. Members of Canada’s 2018 world junior team were among those accused of assault. The investigation into the sexual assault allegations remains “active and ongoing,” according to the London Police.
As part of his welcoming speech, Hon. Hugh Fraser said the event was “not a public relations exercise.”
Later, Fraser said: “You don’t want this to seem like this was just a box-ticking exercise. Or that we had a conference and come out with principles. We want this to be embedded. We think this has to be part of everything that we do.”
Hockey Canada COO Pat McLaughlin said the audience spanned “from pond to pro.” There were representatives from the NHL, AHL and IIHF, as well as every major junior league and the brand new PWHL. Every provincial minor hockey association from Canada was in attendance, as well as many of Hockey Canada’s corporate sponsors.
Last year, in light of the scandals that plagued the organization, many provincial bodies and corporate sponsors either paused or severed their ties with Hockey Canada. McLaughlin says those entities were demanding Hockey Canada do something tangible, such as host a summit of this nature. And with many of them in the room over the weekend, he believes there is an appetite to collaborate with Hockey Canada once again.
“They want to be part of the solution and I don’t think anyone is distancing themselves from us,” said McLaughlin. “And quite frankly, we need everyone to be part of the solution with us.”
McLaughlin says Hockey Canada is planning on making the Beyond the Boards summit a regular event on its calendar. They will take feedback from this inaugural event and fold it into future sessions, with a focus on different issues within the sport. But the organization is reluctant to make any bold proclamations.
“We need to take two or three key pieces from this weekend and start to drive it forward,” McLaughlin said.
And there’s plenty of work ahead.
“I think Hockey Canada is headed in the right direction, but there’s so much work,” said Carla Qualtrough, Canada’s minister of sport. “We are not anywhere near the point of self-congratulations.”
As he concluded his speech on Saturday, Kennedy relayed the story about how his 5-year-old son recently told him that he wants to play hockey. Kennedy admitted “my gut turned,” but he ultimately wants to make sure it becomes a reality — even in light of his own painful experience in the sport.
“I want him to play hockey,” Kennedy said.
And then he flashed a picture of Albert Einstein on the projection screens behind him, along with a quote often attributed to the famous physicist.
“If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.”
It was Kennedy’s way of pleading with the hockey community to change.
(Top photo: Andy Devlin / Getty Images)