Connor McDavid is in a league of his own. Even those watching their first hockey game are able to notice that there is something different about McDavid. Each and every summer upon viewing a McDavid highlight for the first time in months (or, more realistically weeks/days), I double check to see if the video is fast forwarded. It’s a sight that is equal parts amazing and flabbergasting. On the ice, there is little McDavid does not excel at—he is unquestionably one of the top players in the world.
Editor’s Note: This article contains topics including sexual assault, which may be distressing for some readers.
The surfacing of NHL controversies
Given that 2022 started under the dark cloud of the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual assault and subsequent cover up, this has been a year dominated by long overdue revelations regarding one of the more vile corners of the sports culture.
It is beyond evident that certain toxic attitudes have been allowed to infect the culture of hockey and fester for far too long, and that the only silver lining of having to discuss such serious issues is the hope that these very conversations can help bring the sport into a better place.
The idyllic, if not naive, sentiments behind statements such as “hockey is for everyone” can only be achieved through honestly acknowledging shortcomings such as these and taking meaningful and proactive steps in changing the sport for the better. In other words these issues are widespread and ongoing, and can only be defeated with equally widespread and equally ongoing counter actions, at least.
The Oilers are not immune to controversy
The Oilers have found themselves adjacent to many of the difficult conversations in this past year. Duncan Keith, a member of that 2010 Blackhawks team, did not participate in the initial investigation of the incident.
Much of the Oilers front office, from Ken Holland to Bob Nicholson, has held prominent roles within Hockey Canada over the years. The Oilers employ Evander Kane, whose own history might be far less straightforward than the rest of these issues.
It hasn’t stopped either, with rumours that the Oilers were close to signing Jake Virtanen last week. Though issues of bigotry and hate have been allowed to permeate throughout the hockey world as a whole, the Oilers themselves have consistently been key figures in the discourse of the game’s culture, and not in a productive way.
Are top NHL players expected to speak out?
With the NHL season nearing, McDavid was sure to be included in an NHL/NHLPA press tour outside of Las Vegas that was held on Thursday September 15. Alongside him were countrymen and fellow NHL superstars Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar, as the three were among players interviewed on a variety of topics.
There was one set of questions and answers that stood apart from the rest: the one concerning Hockey Canada and the culture of enabling sexual assault, in particular an incident involving the 2018 U20 World Junior team.
It is for all these reasons that McDavid unavoidably holds a powerful and important position in the hockey world. As captain of the Oilers, as a generational talent, as the best player for a country that rightly or wrongly defines itself through the sport of hockey. This platform has been granted to him almost if not exclusively because of his exceptional and unique individual skill.
Different opinions on how much or what players should say
The degree to which great power is beholden to great responsibility is one that is impossible to quantify. Each player, each coach, each general manager, and each fan will have their own views on how far one should go, or which topics need to be addressed versus others. Regardless, the correlation between power and responsibility is something that we are all aware of, to the point of cliche perhaps.
There are some—myself included—that wish that hockey players as a whole were more active and outspoken in this regard. We see how a culture of silence has not helped things in the hockey world, a veil of silence that allows abusers, misogynists, racists, and other bigots to feel comfortable, to feel as if the sport belongs to them.
Despite the fact that the very roots of hockey are found outside of the current stereotype of rich, white, boys—who too closely resemble the irredeemable and entitled popular jock bullies from a made-for-TV movie—this culture of silence, inaction, and enabling, does nothing but to rot the true spirit of the game. Instead, it upholds the warped power structures of the world to distort itself into an ugly reflection of the worst parts of our society.
Perhaps it is too much to expect current players to be leading experts on such subject matter, but in the case of Hockey Canada specifically the top players on the men’s side are uniquely positioned to hold the organisation—an national institution—accountable.
Despite the longstanding nature of Hockey Canada’s enabling, such as using fees from everyday families to pay hush money to victims, not to mention some disastrous appearances before the Canadian government, any form of change or accountability has been concerning in its absence.
Though the rescheduled World Juniors held this summer seemed to operate under a cloud of negativity, it wasn’t long before Hockey Canada CEO Scott Smith was handing out gold medal to the women’s world champion team in what felt at best tone deaf, if not defiant in using the moment for good press and public relations.
Change can only occur from within
The top Canadian players on the men’s side, who at this point include McDavid, Makar, and MacKinnon, hold a degree of power in their all but guaranteed spots on any potential roster. Not only that, but as highly compensated NHLers, they have the financial might to not be reliant upon Hockey Canada’s endorsement whatsoever.
At this point, there might be no other people who could instigate change to Hockey Canada from the outside, perhaps even to hockey culture as a whole, as those three could.
The comments made by McDavid, MacKinnon, and Makar
Certainly some will take issue that the trio did not take a stronger stance. Makar in particular had some thoughtful comments surrounding the nature of the scandal. MacKinnon at least acknowledged some wrongdoing by Hockey Canada and expressed sympathy for the victims specifically.
Although these aren’t efforts that should be universally applauded, the pair of Avalanche players at least cleared the low bar expected of NHLers when it comes to speaking out on relevant social issues.
McDavid, however, was not even able to match their efforts. McDavid did not seem to distinguish any sympathies explicitly towards the victims, instead offering a more ambiguous line: “It’s a terrible situation for everybody.” Instead of levelling any sort of criticism towards Hockey Canada, he instead went the other way, stating: “I’m very proud to represent Hockey Canada.”
Even if one wanted to give McDavid some sort of benefit of the doubt on what his personal opinions might be on the matter, it is simply not good enough. At best, the comments represent a complete lack of tact; at worst, an endorsement of the idea that elite hockey players should be able to do whatever they want to whomever they want without any consequences, and that their problems should be paid for by everyday Canadians.
In a vacuum, the quote is unacceptable, but even less so given McDavid’s growing reputation for entirely disappointing answers to tough questions of this nature. The reality is that his voice speaks for a large portion of the hockey world, whether he likes it or not.
The time to be vocal is now
These are just some of the ongoing issues within hockey culture, and though McDavid does not need to be the foremost advocate or expert on any of them, he has the power, and thus the responsibility, to make a huge difference to the game by speaking up.
His being vocal could empower players around the world, pro and amateur alike, to do so as well. That is an impact that would be more positive than any one player could ever make on the ice alone, no matter the greatness of their individual skill.
Connor McDavid is in a league of his own. It’s time he holds himself accountable to the responsibilities that follow.