As of mid-October, former CEO Bob Nicholson, as well as the entire Board of Directors of Hockey Canada have stepped down. After months of dodging questions and revealing as little as possible to the Canadian government and general public, there appears to have finally been some consequences from the drawn out process. The almost defiant position the former leadership took was both jarring and tone deaf (at best), but it is quite frankly unsurprising that any sort of accountability came only after most of the corporate sponsors spurned the organisation known as Hockey Canada.
Dark times for Hockey Canada
As one of the most influential hockey bodies in the world, Canadians, hockey players, parents, and fans, deserve much more from the institution. Almost lost in the commotion is the event in 2018 that brought this all to light, and the fallout yet to ensue. There are of course individuals who need to be held accountable and victims whose pain cannot be undone, both in the 2018 case as well as those that have happened before and since.
With each passing month the story has become something much bigger, a continuation of a conversation both longstanding and growing. The more one learns about the systemic issues that have enabled the worst actors in the sport, primarily how common and widespread the pattern of covering up or shielding offenders has been, the more the depth of these issues loom—both disheartening and alarming.
For those less familiar with discussions about hockey culture as a whole, sexual misconduct is only one part of the overarching web of problems. On this topic in particular we can see the effect of systemic problems cascading into a culture that is toxic to both the game itself and the people that interact with it.
Yes, similar problems exist across our culture as a whole, but this systemic enabling festers when it is allowed to exist. There are real problems within the very institutions that are supposed to be helping the game grow. As much as there will always be those who commit such heinous offences, shielding these people from consequences allows their acts to become part of the game, pushing out everyone else.
The next abuser, or worse, that comes along will be empowered as well, or at least to this point, has been. Players have been, in fact, encouraged to engage in such behaviour, as with more and more secrets shared, and more and more instances that slush funds are used to cover up crimes, the currents towards such behaviours strengthen and spread.
The fact that these incidents are so common shows how comfortable Hockey Canada had become in poisoning the game. All those with significant power in Hockey Canada should be questioned, examined, judged. Ultimately there are many more who might follow suit in stepping down from prominent positions across the hockey world, and it is a step that is necessary if things are to truly change.
Nicholson’s time with the Oilers
From an Oilers perspective, former president Bob Nicholson held an executive role in Hockey Canada for more than 15 years (from 1998 to 2014), much of which has been within the time frame that these slush funds were being used in this manner. On top of this, a member of the Bakersfield Condors staff has been let go after his concerning, and quite frankly vile, past was revealed.
Between Nicholson to this most recent development in Bakersfield, there have been several issues the Oilers have created for themselves. With varying degrees of severity and clarity there has been a consistent Oilers presence in the past year. Starting with the news of the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks with Duncan Keith on the Oilers, to the Evander Kane signing, to the Jake Virtanen PTO, to a variety of comments made in the wake of said news, the Oilers have found themselves a somewhat central piece in a lot of bad news.
Perhaps each of these circumstances is best dealt with on its own, with different levels of nuance, but the bigger picture leads to a less charitable reading. In the best light, these can be seen as negligent, but any good faith is quickly eroding, if there is any left at all.
Perhaps some answers are owed from certain individuals, such as Nicholson himself, the continued dissection of Hockey Canada. Words alone mean little without actions to back them up, but at the very least they can be a good place to start.
Of course, as the specific issue of Hockey Canada’s enabling sexual misconduct is but one corner of the hockey world, there are no NHL teams that can claim to be beyond or free from such ugly truths. This is but the tip of the iceberg, speaking to how this is a specific, widespread, and tangible issue within hockey culture as a whole.
There are non-hockey fields of life, and non-Oiler hockey organisations, that have many of these same issues—that much is true. That said, it is clear that hockey, and the Oilers specifically, have ongoing issues here.
Taking steps forward
Left unchecked, we have seen time and time again that the powers at be will stop short of doing enough to fix the problems—if not sweeping them under the rug entirely. In many of these stories it is only public pressure that begins the cascades of change, usually via sponsorship money being retracted. Simply put it is important for each of us to continue engaging in these discussions, to some extent, should there be any hope of building a better future.
There are of course steps to be taken that can improve these circumstances, but the first step is acknowledging the truth. Taking methodical actions to combat these systemic issues are long overdue as well. Many of these powerful hockey organisations have been allowed to lag behind the rest of society, even in manners as simple as not having protocol or policy for such issues of abuse or sexual misconduct.
It is not for me, or any of us individually perhaps, to know who can be forgiven and when, but such things must be earned, a journey that must be taken. On a personal level there will always be room for self improvement, a task that is arduous, but on an institutional level such shortcomings are all the more unacceptable. Beyond the obvious reformations that are required at Hockey Canada, there are similar actions to be taken elsewhere across the highest powers in the sport.
The years of enabling have made many of these issues embedded into the very fabric of the sport, an unfortunate reality that is unnecessary. Behaviours of sexism and racism, among others, must be met and overcome proactively instead of reactively, or worse still, retroactively. Any thoughts as to why the NHL or hockey as a whole is lagging in popularity must begin with uprooting the bigotry that has become so comfortable in the sport.
The future of hockey
Ultimately, we find ourselves caught in the proverbial web of hockey’s magic, the artful intensity, the joyous passion, the thrilling pursuit of competition. Hockey is great, but it can be so much greater. It is important for organisations with power to take a stance on making change, to enable the growth of the game on and off the ice, instead of enabling toxic actions and behaviours.
We should expect more from the Oilers in these respects. Not every player or front office member needs a doctorate in social equity or a Magnus Opus speech, but that is a far cry from where we find ourselves at this time. There are certain questions that need to be asked of the Oilers, and as a viewing public we can do little besides keeping ourselves informed and trying to help build a better tomorrow.
For this reason it is important for each of us to consider our place in the equation as well. There are certainly many who turn to sport for some escapism, but such a luxury is taken from others when these dark issues fester within the game. We might not all want a place in having such conversations, and that’s fine, but the response cannot be to dissuade others from doing so.
Not picking a side, or more so dissuading others from engaging in that dialogue, is in fact a strong endorsement of a status quo that is holding the game back. As Oilers fans, and as fans of hockey in general, it is warranted to expect much better effort and execution in leading the game to a better place.