EDMONTON, Alberta — The pandemic shifted one among Canada’s longstanding holiday rituals, the World Junior Championship, from December to the center of summer. But even allowing for that, the absence of a crowd before the Canadian team’s first game this week was striking.
In a fan zone with sprawling television screens outside of the N.H.L. arena in downtown Edmonton, a D.J. entertained a bunch that never surpassed a dozen people within the hour before Canada took on Latvia in its first game. Up an extended escalator, the variety of open gates into Rogers Place often exceeded the number of individuals passing through them. And once inside, a preponderance of empty seats allowed the chants of eight enthusiastic Latvian supporters to be heard by all.
In a rustic that many claim is defined by hockey, there have traditionally been three mandatory rituals for fans: the Stanley Cup finals, men’s and girls’s Olympic hockey and the boys’s world juniors. Several of the spectators who did show up for Canada’s opening game said its transformation right into a shadow of a tournament was only partly explained by its unseasonal rescheduling. In May, TSN, a sports television network, reported that Hockey Canada, the national governing body, paid 3.5 million Canadian dollars to settle a lawsuit by a lady who accused eight members of the world junior team of sexually assaulting her in 2018.
While shocking, they’re removed from the primary reports of sexual assault and abuse by and against hockey players. But the present scandal appears to have shaken the religion that some Canadians have in a sport that is nearly as much an obsession as a national pastime.
Just outside the largely empty entrance gates, Jen Rutledge, a civil engineer with the City of Edmonton and an Edmonton Oilers season-ticket holder, said she was using the ticket purchased way back only because a cousin visiting from England desired to catch a game.
“I’m a bit conflicted, truthfully, about me even attending this tournament,” she said. “To listen to about player fees being paid right into a fund that goes toward silencing victims of a few of these teams is admittedly quite concerning. Hockey is a vital a part of Canadian culture. But, at the identical time, there have been a number of atrocities done by this organization.”
Rutledge will not be alone in her dismay and anger. All of Hockey Canada’s corporate sponsors, which include one among the country’s largest banks and the ever present Tim Hortons coffee and doughnut chain, have abandoned it, leaving the world freed from the same old promoting on the ice and rink boards. Edmonton’s tourism board is not any longer promoting the tournament, and the federal government has also cut off its funding to Hockey Canada and ordered an audit to ensure that its funds weren’t used to silence victims while lawmakers in Ottawa hold hearings. Police have also resumed investigating the events of 2018. Because the story began to dominate the news, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for a “real reckoning” at Hockey Canada and condemned its leaders for his or her “willful blindness.”
All this comes at a time when participation and interest in hockey in an increasingly ethnically and racially diverse Canada have been ebbing in favor of soccer, basketball and other less expensive and more global sports.
Most of the sport’s longtime critics say it’s time for Canadians to simply accept that the game that has come to define their nation — accurately or not — is ingrained with misogyny, violence, racism and homophobia.
“It’s like Hollywood and the casting couch,” said Greg Gilhooly, a company lawyer who was sexually abused by Graham James, a junior hockey coach who was a notorious sexual predator. “People knew for years, a long time, that the casting couch was very much an element of the production of content in Hollywood. And yet, it took a grotesque violation of trust for people to say: ‘Enough is enough.’ My hope is that there’s finally going to be a reckoning here.”
Exactly why the present revelations have begun to show the national game right into a nation’s shame in a way that a string of previous ones didn’t will not be entirely clear.
In 1997, in essentially the most high-profile case, Sheldon Kennedy, a former National Hockey League player, accused James of sexually abusing him over five years when he was an adolescent playing junior hockey for James. Since then, James, who was named Man of the 12 months by The Hockey News in 1989 (though he was stripped of the consideration in 2013), has been twice convicted, served time in prison and likewise faced charges on a 3rd occasion.
As well as, multiple junior players have been convicted on charges related to sexual misconduct, spared jail time after which signed by N.H.L. teams. In 2021, the Montreal Canadiens drafted a junior player who had shared with teammates photos of his consensual sexual encounter with a lady and was convicted and fined by a court in Sweden.
Brock McGillis, a former player within the Ontario Hockey League who was the primary skilled hockey player to come back out as gay, said he believed that using registration fees to repay victims had been taken as particularly egregious. (Hockey Canada officials told Parliament that the cash mostly went to victims of James.)
“Prior to now, people were defensive because their sibling, child or their husband or wife, any person was involved in the game,” McGillis said. “So people felt that it was an attack on their identity. But once you discover that your dollars are getting used to silence victims of sexual assault and to pay for crimes and mistakes of others, now you are feeling culpable.”
Critics of hockey have long argued that the system for developing players within the country and the national idolizing of young men have created a culture of entitlement and hero worship that has served as an incubator for bad behavior.
Within the 2018 case, through which all of the names have been sealed by a court, a lady said in a court filing that she had been repeatedly sexually abused in a hotel room in London, Ontario, by eight members of the national junior team after a Hockey Canada fund-raising golf game and dinner.
Like players on the present team, most had been streamed into the game’s elite channel by elementary school. By 16, that they had moved away from home to play junior hockey in small towns, billeting with local families and becoming local celebrities. From there, they moved onto college or other minor leagues or were drafted by N.H.L. teams. All of the while, their only community was their hockey community.
“There’s a number of privilege to say or do whatever you wish with none ramifications or questions that comes with that,” McGillis said. “You possibly can say racist, sexist, homophobic things with none real consequences.”
And Gilhooly said that fans shared the blame.
“That is one among these situations where individuals are placed on pedestals, they usually’re allowed to get away with things,” he said. “It’ll be resolved only when society gets up in arms and teaches young men that simply because you’ll be able to, doesn’t mean you need to.”
On top of that may be a fractured system overseeing hockey in Canada. Hockey Canada’s authority is usually limited to national and international events and teams. A lot of the responsibility for organizing and running the game is split amongst 10 provincial governing bodies and a wide range of leagues.
“Everybody’s type of running their very own autonomous show,” said Courtney Szto, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. “So we discover ourselves now in a situation where it’s quite easy for people to say: Well, that’s another person’s responsibility. There’s a number of finger pointing.”
But Hockey Canada’s authority over the junior men’s national team is supreme. And to date, its board of directors continues to withstand widespread calls to resign although its chairman did step down just a few months early and was replaced by Andrea Skinner, a director, lawyer and the primary woman within the position, on an interim basis.
Hockey Canada’s board has hired a former Supreme Court of Canada justice to review the way it is governed and operated and a law firm to look at the 2018 assault. But Gilhooly said that without complete autonomy, no investigation was prone to be credible. He also wants Hockey Canada to suspend all national team programs until the present mess is resolved.
After Canada’s first game finished with the team’s first win, Dave and Lynette Jordan sat on a bench outside the world and pulled soft drinks out of a small cooler. The couple had made the two-day drive from Virden, Manitoba, to attend their 14th world junior tournament.
They’ve long billeted players for the Virden Oil Capitals, including some that Dave Jordan said he believed had been abused by James.
While essentially the most recent revelation wasn’t enough for them to think about staying home, Jordan said that he was nevertheless distressed concerning the state of hockey.
“Hockey Canada has got to get themselves straightened out, but you will have to honor and watch players who go on the market and provides their all,” he said. “It’s going to be a serious shake up, and hockey’s going to must determine the right way to survive this.”