It’s time for change at top of Hockey Canada New leadership needed for a sport in crisis
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Memo to Hockey Canada: The next time Greg Gilhooly calls, pick up the phone. Otherwise, all this talk of reform and transparency is nothing but a public relations ploy designed to continue sweeping a toxic culture under the carpet.
“I truly hope we are having a #MeToo moment in the world of hockey,” Gilhooly, the former Winnipegger and a survivor of sexual abuse, told me during a wide-ranging chat Friday.
“And that it’s not going to be one of those instances where the cameras are on, the lights are bright and then eventually the circus leaves town.”
One thing has become painfully clear in recent weeks, as hockey’s governing body has been summoned to Ottawa to explain its silence and stunning inaction on multiple scandals: It’s time for change at the very top.
“I just think they’re in over their heads,” Gilhooly said of the current Hockey Canada leadership. “One of the problems with people generally is when they’re in over their heads, they’re either the type of person who says, ‘Look, I’m in over my head and I need help.’ Or, ‘Look, I’ve got this, leave me alone. I’ll sort it out, don’t tell me.’ Almost that defence mechanism that kicks up that comes across as arrogant.”
We’ve seen plenty of that on display recently. Despite all kinds of stunning public revelations, president Scott Smith and others in his inner circle have balked at a growing number of calls from politicians and the general public to step down.
“There are are literally thousands of people across this country who could serve the interests of Hockey Canada, but the problem is you’ve got people in there now who are thinking first about staying there, and second about what’s in the best interests of the game,” said Gilhooly, from home in Toronto. “If any of those people truly thought about what’s in the best interests of the game and Hockey Canada right now, they would have all resigned. They’re in self-preservation mode.”
They may also be running out of time. First came revelations of an alleged gang rape involving members of the 2018 Canadian world junior team that led Hockey Canada to quietly settling a $3.55-million lawsuit with the young woman. That was soon followed by bombshell allegations that members of the 2003 national squad were involved in a group sexual assault. Both of those incidents are now under review by police.
“Sunlight is the best antiseptic,” said Gilhooly.
“If any of those people truly thought about what’s in the best interests of the game and Hockey Canada right now, they would have all resigned.”-Greg Gilhooly
Additional details have been uncovered by a parliamentary committee, including that Hockey Canada has paid $8.9-million since 1989 to settle 21 cases of alleged sexual assault. The bulk of the money came from a special fund built in part through registration fees that wasn’t disclosed to parents and players.
That now has many minor hockey organizations, including here in Manitoba, considering what to do next. Discussions are ongoing, with some already voting to suspend the collection from justifiably furious families who had no idea what was happening with their money.
“Hockey Canada had an opportunity to come across as this wonderful progressive body that was doing the right thing, not the legal thing. But the execution was just so atrocious,” said Gilhooly. “They’re listening to their lawyers, and they’re listening to their insurers. And as a result, they are doing the wrong thing. They’re doing the legal thing right, but they’re doing the morally wrong thing.”
Gilhooly certainly knows of what he speaks. The senior lawyer, who is a graduate of Princeton University and the University of Toronto was one of the many victims of notorious Winnipeg hockey coach Graham James, giving him an up-close view of the darkest side of the sport.
“I’ve seen a lot. And that’s the type of person that Hockey Canada should be getting involved,” he said.
“Powerful women, sophisticated women and people who aren’t afraid to ask questions and potentially risk being ostracized. Hockey Canada’s board right now is comprised of people who want to be known for having been on Hockey Canada’s board, not for wanting to serve the best interests of the game. Whereas there are people like us who have had real experience dealing with these things, who can bring that to the table. And I can’t get my phone calls returned.
“I don’t want to sound wounded or arrogant. But how is it that Hockey Canada hasn’t reached out to someone like me?”
It truly boggles the mind. And yet, it’s quite appropriate for an organization that has buried its head in the sand for years and seemed to believe it was immune from scrutiny or criticism.
“I don’t want to sound wounded or arrogant. But how is it that Hockey Canada hasn’t reached out to someone like me?”-Greg Gilhooly
“My fear is that as happens in so many of these instances, with the type of people in control of Hockey Canada right now, I think their first reaction is going to be to say Sheldon Kennedy’s named three times and like Beetlejuice, everything goes back to normal,” said Gilhooly. “And I think I think that’s unfortunate. Sheldon (a fellow Manitoban and survivor of James’ systematic abuse) does phenomenal work and a lot of organizations try to buy his goodwill. But Sheldon does more than just provide goodwill for organizations. He’s there to make fundamental and real change.”
Earlier this week, Hockey Canada announced a new action plan “to do more to address the behaviours that are undermining the many good things the game brings to our country.” The timing and tone of the announcement wasn’t lost on many, including Gilhooly.
“It is something that Hockey Canada should have implemented 20 years ago. The things contained within that action plan are wonderful, but they should be implemented by different people we can trust,” he said.
Gilhooly said it would have packed a lot more punch if it was accompanied by a change in leadership. Instead, the organization seems to be hoping things can be business as usual, including hosting next month’s postponed world junior championship in Alberta which will include a Canadian entry.
The optics are sub-optimal, to say the least.
“I believe the national team should be pulling out. I think that there are things that are far more important than winning world championships, and that’s getting the hockey house in order,” he said. “I think the strongest message that Hockey Canada could send is that it gets that there needs to be fundamental changes and that we’re just going to put a pause on this national junior team program until we’ve taken the proper steps.”
Despite the black cloud currently hovering over the sport, Gilhooly remains a fan. He’s also optimistic brighter days are ahead.
“Does the game of hockey need to change and can we teach our children better and can we instil better values throughout the system? Absolutely. But I would still let my kid play hockey,” said Gilhooly.
“I’d keep my eyes open. Trust my gut, try to make sure things are as good as possible. I say that as someone who encountered the absolute worst of what minor hockey has to offer. And so if I can say that, the game of hockey is still something that can be trusted.
“I hope parents would hear that. I think there’s been a crisis of leadership and there’s a crisis within the game of hockey in terms of its culture. But it’s a wonderful game and the good still far outweighs the bad.”
It would be a hell of a lot better if Hockey Canada started listening to what people like him have to say.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.