What’s our own role in creating a toxic hockey ‘culture’ for young men?

There has been much commentary about alleged sexual assaults perpetrated by members of Hockey Canada’s 2018 and 2003 junior teams. The prominent themes have centered on the failure of Hockey Canada to properly investigate and deal with these allegations, along with toxic masculinity, sexual violence against women, male entitlement, and flaws within junior hockey and hockey culture in general — the lack of oversight, accountability , due diligence and education.

While all those deserve serious scrutiny, we could choose to more deeply examine the underlying lived reality. Fixating on terms, concepts, structures or blame won’t take us to the heart of what took place and why it is not as rare as we might like to think.

These allegations should induce us to go to the truth of kids, and particularly male kids — boys — to really understand what’s inside them and how it got there. These under-20 players all have physical power and play the role of being young men, but any parent knows that teenagers are emotionally undeveloped and devoid of experience, maturity and awareness.

This is especially the case for boys who grow up in the channels of competitive hockey that lead towards Junior B, Junior A, or Major Junior levels. Their development has been narrowly goal-focused and dominated by doing whatever it takes to get as far up the ladder as possible. The result in its own way is akin to the institutionalization that happens in prisons.

From the start they live in a dome of pressure: from parents and themselves, in the form of dreams and hopes and sacrifices; from commanding coaches; pious teammates; pious audiences; from the rigors of games and practices; from the need for developing strength, speed and single-minded mental focus. This is not nuanced, varied, explorative, spontaneous, balanced, easygoing, fun-for-the-sake of fun or self-affirming. Rather it is driven, structured, superficially one-dimensional — and very often lonely. They have no control over any of it other than compliance. Adults conspire to make them believers.

Throughout his hockey life, one boy I counseled had been told by every coach that if he worked hard enough he would reach his dreams. Instead, he was spending most games in the stands!

These boys are our sons. So were those accused national-level players. The adult world grew them, just as we grow all of our boys, and then blames or condemns them when they reveal the training they did or did not receive. We teach boys to take pain, be tough, carry themselves with swagger, fight and go after what they want with dedication and commitment. We don’t teach them in any serious way about love, intimacy, sexuality, empathy, mutuality. About respect or relationships. We don’t connect them to their feelings or the feelings of others, nor help them learn about themselves and the changes they go through. We don’t teach about balance or reflection or communication.

So, they take their training from peers, the internet, video games and popular trends. This creates the illusion of fitting in, which feels way better than being an outlier when you don’t have a firm sense of who you are. Every boy has hormonal urges and sexual desires, and the pornography free to every set of eyes is male-focused, unrestrained, superficial and high-def. It becomes a template for wants, expectations and behaviour. How could it not?

This news about the national junior hockey teams — and all the previous, similar stories from sports or colleges — tends to foster a distancing from ourselves. It allows us to point to flaws or deviants or programs, or ushers us to concepts such as masculinity and gender. Instead, we need to be pointing at ourselves, truly reflecting on what we do to our boys as they grow. The elephant in the room is us.

Calvin White is the author of “The Secret Life of Teenagers” and a high school counselor.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *