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Letter: Hockey plagued by elitism, lack of diversity

Toxic culture is ruining participation in the game by all but an elect few, reader says
A culture of entitlement and racism plagues the sport of hockey, a reader says.

Editor: In the past, hockey was a sport that was played only by the elites in society, and to this day, not much has changed.

Although the sport is now considered to be for all with the famous slogan: “hockey is for everyone” —the landscape of the game has not evolved that much over time to a place where this phrase can be preached. Currently, the drastic costs that come with playing the sport have created an elitist culture, essentially shutting out those who can’t afford to play the game at a high calibre. Thus, the current state of hockey culture has become quite toxic and exclusive. Now, in order to save our game, there must be a fundamental shift so that everyone is able to truly embrace and enjoy “Canada’s game.”

I grew up in Western Canada, where hockey is essentially “forced” upon you from an early age. Everyone in the neighborhood often flocks to the local courts for games of “street hockey” —and this was no exception in my hometown of Burnaby. I started to play at just four years old. Throughout the years, I played in many associations, and experienced hockey culture first-hand. Unfortunately, this meant that I often heard homophobic and racial slurs being passed around the rinks, and to be honest, it became my new normal over the years.

I never thought of this culture as being “toxic” until I reached high school. In my later years of high school, I came to a realization that being a hockey player had a lot of adverse effects. Most have presumptions about hockey players being rude, arrogant, and aggressive. For the years that came after this realization, I constantly tried to prove that this wasn’t true–and it wasn’t until the news about Hockey Canada came out, that I had lost hope.

From news coverage in 2022, I learned that a hallmark of Canadian culture, Hockey Canada, was corrupt. This happened after numerous reports had come out that Hockey Canada had a fund that was primarily used to silence victims of sexual assault cases involving Team Canada hockey players. There were numerous incidents that had occurred, however, the one most in the spotlight was a case involving the 2018 Canadian World Junior Hockey Team. Donations and Sponsorships from large family-oriented companies in Canada found that their donations towards the corporation could have gone toward this fund; hence, they moved themselves away from the brand. Brands such as Esso and Tim Hortons have severed ties with Hockey Canada. The mishandling of many assault cases over the years did not align with the values of these brands.

The culture that exists in the sport is one that resembles a frat atmosphere. Many players often view themselves as superior to others, meaning they are allowed to do as they please. Obviously, this outlook is not sustainable as there have been numerous incidents where individual hockey players and whole teams have been caught being disrespectful in the public eye. An example of this involved the 2021 Russian World Junior Hockey team being kicked off a flight for being disruptive and not following the given COVID-19 protocols.

Moreover, we often see individual players getting in trouble for their behavior.

Mitchell Miller, for instance, was a highly touted prospect for the 2020 NHL Draft. Despite all the hype around him as a player, there was a lot to be worked on when it came to his off-ice behavior. Only a few years before he was selected in the 2020 Draft by the Arizona Coyotes, he took part in the bullying of an African-American teenager, constantly referring to him using racial slurs including the N-word. Despite this information being disclosed to teams, he was still drafted to the NHL by the Coyotes. Although he displayed actions that were inhumane, he was still allowed the privilege to try and play in the NHL. The case study of Mitchell Miller emphasizes how many of those in NHL management don’t care about the actions of their players, rather than the type of people they are. Also, it shows how the sport needs to take more care in nurturing those whom they want to be ambassadors of the game, as genuinely good people who display the right values should be those who promote the sport at its highest level.

It seems that the complete disregard for others that is currently evident in hockey can be dated back to the origins of the game. Looking at the creation of the game, it’s evident that the game we see today is heavily connected to the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. Despite this, we don’t really see the recognition given to those who helped pioneer the game in our world today. I feel that the current toxic culture found in the sport can be traced to the foundations of the sport–hundreds of years ago.

During the 1600s, Indigenous Peoples of Canada played a game called “ricket.” Played by members of the Mi’kmaq tribe, the game was similar to hockey; however, there were a few key distinctions. The game used wooden pucks until rubber ones were introduced by European settlers who shaped the game into what we know now. It’s apparent that this first game played by Indigenous people had a large impact on the game we see throughout the world today. Yet we don’t see these groups get the recognition that they deserve. I believe that the stripping of the game away from their culture is just another way that the Indigenous Peoples of Canada have been mistreated over the years. And this continued through the leadership of our first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald.

This discrimination from years ago has manifested itself into “Canada’s game”. We see that hockey is predominantly a white sport, with 90 per cent of the National Hockey League (NHL) being made up of white players. Even looking to the minor levels, the majority of players that you see on your average rink are white. Many trailblazers looking to make the game more diverse have tried their best; however, the issue still persists. Looking at the NHL in more depth, we can even look back to 2021 when Indigenous player Ethan Bear experienced hate and discrimination for simply being an Indigenous professional hockey player.

After an unfortunate play during a playoff series, the elimination of the Edmonton Oilers was blamed solely on the actions of Ethan Bear. These statements are not true, yet online trolls didn’t care. So-called fans of the Oilers were using racial slurs and belittling him online. This example of hate being found in hockey illustrates the anti-minority culture deep rooted within many fans and players — and it took only the Oilers elimination for this to come out. The white culture that has been deep rooted in our country since its foundations were built by Macdonald have led to our national sport becoming white dominated.

Today, playing the sport requires insane funding due to the high costs of equipment, training, facility booking and travel costs. It becomes harder to play the sport at a higher level without the funding that is needed. All throughout Canada, travel teams are where the top players flock to play to compete against the top players in their given age group. These teams can cost over $10,000 per year, just to play a children's game. For many years, we have seen that minority groups have not been able to maintain the same socioeconomic status as their white counterparts due to years of disadvantage. Because of this, “rich sports” were fostered, with hockey being an example.

The costs associated with the game as mentioned earlier exemplify how these already disadvantaged minorities have been essentially left out of the sport for many years. Thus, a white dominated culture has grown into what we now see in hockey throughout most of the world, and in North America in particular. The concentration of a specific type of individual in the sport has led to some anger towards “outsiders” in the game. Thus, we have seen some apprehension and discrimination towards minorities trying to break into the sport. A sense of entitlement among most of these rich players has created a mindset where they can belittle minorities in the sport and behave in any way they please. Obviously, this is not correct, given the incidents with Hockey Canada, along with other racial and discriminatory incidents in the sport prior to this news. The culture in hockey is racist and toxic. We must find a way to change this to save our sport.

It will take an overall mindset shift in the game to remove the toxic culture that currently exists. Unless the sport can become more accessible to people from all walks of life, you will continue to see this white and elitist culture persist for years to come. This is why Hockey Canada and other government organizations around the world must take key steps to make the sport more affordable, whether this is through community programs such as Canadian Tire’s Jumpstart Program or donations to make the sport more accessible to everyone. The game must become more diverse, or we will continue to see this culture continue to poison how it is perceived by our world.

Hockey is a sport that I have loved my entire life, and I don’t want to see it become associated with negativity —and change must come to stop this. Only when there is a mindset shift will we be able to see a sport that we can be proud of, and a culture where acceptance of all is status quo and the game is diverse. These are the goals that I have for the sport that I have played for my entire life. I want hockey to truly be the game of the “true north strong and free.”

Milin Aujla