Toxic hockey culture starts young

How a player’s skill is used as a “get out of jail” card

illustration of a sports fan opening a closet full of sports jerseys.
ILLUSTRATION: Andrea Choi / The Peak

By: Isabella Urbani, Sports Editor

In the last few years, it’s become progressively harder to call myself a hockey fan. My love for the game hasn’t faltered. If anything, it’s becoming a more significant part of my life. Checking statistics of National Hockey League (NHL) players went from something I did for fun to something I made a career out of.

Deep down, I’ve always known that hockey culture wasn’t as flawless as the rose-tinted glass it was portrayed through. I heard the distressing stories my brothers would tell about what goes on in the locker room, behind closed doors. Stealing gear and defacing it; hazing younger players; and appointing a team “bitch” to take the brunt of team duties. Everyone knows what’s going on — organizations, coaches, players — but no one says anything. 

From the moment you play hockey, you’re told that your team is your family. Through thick and thin, you stick by the family. No matter how bad it gets. If that means looking the other way, so be it. It’s “do or die,” just like the USA Hockey chant. 

Growing up, this is what hockey players hear. I’ve seen it firsthand. Some of the worst people on a hockey team are the best players. All their life, they’ve been told they’re the “man.” They aren’t told no. Their skill gives them a free pass to do whatever they want, and they’re told the team will take care of the rest. This is the foundation on which hockey culture lies. 

The true problems with hockey culture didn’t really start to get peeled back until last season when years upon years of secrets, buried accusations, and player testimonials were revealed. Hockey Canada, the same organization that supplied my earliest childhood memories of some of the best Canadian hockey players, had taken out a separate fund to silence sexual assault survivors from speaking out for years

Kyle Beach, a former NHL player for the Chicago Blackhawks, sued the Blackhawks in 2021 after he was sexually assaulted by the team’s former assistant coach during his time with the organization in 2010. Multiple players on the team knew, according to Beach. One of them being captain Jonathan Toews. Toews said he thought the firing of the assistant coach was how the organization was dealing with the situation. He had heard of rumours about what had transpired, but didn’t intervene at the time.

As players put on fronts, so do organizations. The NHL prides itself on being inclusive for all, establishing the tagline, “Hockey is for Everyone.” This would be the case if “everyone” was a straight, cisgender white man. The NHL is homophobic. Ivan Provorov, a hockey player for the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team, skipped the team’s warm-up skate just last month to avoid wearing the team’s pride jerseys. He cited his religious beliefs as a Russian Orthodox Christian for refusing to put on the sweater. A day later, the NHL released a statement that said “Players are free to decide which initiatives to support.” 

Being a member or ally of the LGBTQIA2S+ community isn’t an agenda you can subscribe to. Discerning sexual orientation as an initiative, much like religion, is incredibly belittling. What message does this send Luke Prokop who became the first openly gay professional NHL athlete just two years ago? Prokop took to social media to voice his displeasure about the situation saying, “There is a place for every [LGBTQIA2S+] athlete, fan, coach, [and] team staff member in sports, as well as hockey. We shall continue to break barriers and show hockey is truly for everyone. I can’t wait to see what our community and allies are capable of in the future.” 

Knowing what I know, seeing what I’ve seen, how can I take the bitter with the sweet? I can’t help but be reminded of the toxicity embedded in hockey as I tell people about the sport I love the most in the world. 

How can I support the young athletes chosen by Hockey Canada without supporting the organization? It’s something I’ve thought long and hard about. I decided to draw a line in the sand.

 The NHL has hardly backed up their words with meaningful actions. They’ll say that hockey is inclusive, but make sure to cater to homophobic athletes and fans to keep their revenue moving. I, however, can decide not to support them. In the grand scheme of things, it won’t do much. But the more people refuse to let the NHL get away with it, the more the culture will have to change. Hockey Canada’s board of directors only resigned once some of the organization’s biggest sponsors pulled out, including Bell Media

While the actions of companies may pressure teams to make changes faster, the real change needs to come from the type of culture encouraged in locker rooms. Fredrik Backman, who wrote a book about how a small Swedish City relies on its junior hockey team, says that “culture is as much about what we encourage as what we actually permit.

“It takes a culture of silence to foster a culture of winning.” 

Change the narrative. Stop putting athletes on a pedestal and letting what they bring to the ice justify the way they behave in their private lives.