Canadian author hopes Hockey Canada scandal leads to brighter days

“When you talk to victims, they are so in complete despair and so beside themselves because no one seems to care about them. So, I don’t think they ever thought there would be a breakthrough like this,” Robinson said.

Nearly a quarter-century ago, Robinson published her book, Crossing the Line: Violence and Sexual Assault in Canada’s National Game. Largely ignored after its release in 1998, the book details allegations of decades of abuse, violent hazing rituals, and sexual assaults within the sphere of hockey, but the public wasn’t forced to confront the dark underbelly of the country’s national pastime until this spring. In May, reports surfaced the sport’s national governing body, Hockey Canada, settled a civil suit out of court, which claimed members of the 2018 Canadian world junior team were allegedly involved in a group sexual assault of a young woman in London, Ont.

The world under-20 hockey championship, colloquially dubbed the world juniors, is played over the Christmas and new year break. Hockey Canada selects and ices a team of players hailing from coast to coast; many are household names in the major junior towns where they suit up during the regular season. The thought that these players, all under the age of 20, could be involved in a group sexual assault sparked shock and outrage from fans across the country.

Hockey Canada, however, had seemingly put the wheels in motion to ensure the incident — and lawsuit — went unnoticed from as early as the day following the alleged assault, when the board was first made aware. And it would remain unnoticed, until it was reported on by senior reporter Rick Westhead at TSN. While Hockey Canada reported the allegations to Sport Canada, it did not inform the public and the alleged victim was required to sign a non-disclosure agreement as part of the settlement.

“A female journalist breaking all of this — an entire book in ’98 — I could be ignored, and so could all the voices of all the young women, but they couldn’t ignore a well-respected male journalist from TSN,” Robinson explained.

As the public reeled over further fallout after the Globe & Mail reported the lawsuit was paid for using a slush fund made up of minor hockey registration fees, another story surfaced days later of the 2003 edition of Team Canada at the world juniors in Halifax where a number of players were allegedly seen on a video tape assaulting an unconscious woman.

In both instances, no criminal charges have been laid or tested in criminal court.

No players have faced any consequences, legal or otherwise, so far for either alleged incident, but Robinson says that’s standard in junior hockey, where adults are in complete control of their young charges’ lives.

“They’ve been doing it for decades. The people in power in junior hockey have been cleaning up after junior players for decades,” she said.

Called onto the carpet by the federal government, a number of Hockey Canada execs appeared at the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage last month. During the hearings, several Members of Parliament called on the brass at Hockey Canada to resign. So far, only chairman of the board Michael Brind’Amour has done so. He was replaced on Tuesday by interim chair, Markham, Ont., native, Andrea Skinner. In a statement, Skinner said, “As a Board we are listening to Canadians. We are working to make meaningful positive changes to the culture of the sport of hockey.” (Skinner joined Hockey Canada in 2020, after a new mandate required at least two women on the board.)

Hockey Canada announced a new “Action Plan” on July 25, which it claims will “address toxic behaviours” on and off the ice. Last week, members of Team Canada at the world junior training camp in Alberta participated in two seminars as part of the new action plan, but Robinson believes a couple workshops are not enough to effect change.

“Of course not. Who gets all the ice time at that arena? Who are the gods in all the CHL towns? They’re those guys. You could go to a seminar every week if you wanted to, but what your culture tells you is ‘you matter and girls don’t.’”

Referencing a chapter in Crossing the Line, “Young Gods,” she added, “Those young women in those towns live basically vicariously through junior hockey. No one makes a big deal out of the similar age group of girls or women in a CHL town. They don’t pack the arenas, even though they might have extraordinary skills. The guys still are young gods. So, as long as you are told by your culture that you are a young god — the seminar is better than not having one, but it’s relatively inconsequential.”

A former multi-sport athlete and coach in cycling and cross-country skiing, Robinson said going forward, she’d like to see a national inquiry into what she calls a “crisis” in Canadian sport.

“We have to have a comeuppance on what has been allowed to happen in Canadian sport for all of these decades. And hockey is the worst one, but there are many sports that need to answer to athletes, and to Canadians,” Robinson ..