Opinion

It’s a beautiful game, but not the way they play it. The men in suits, I mean, the ones who hold the top rungs of the sport in their teeth. The ones for whom winning is everything, no matter what. They’re not the only ones who make the culture around such a beautiful game look so ugly, but that stain bleeds down from the top.

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This article was published 30/10/2021 (210 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s a beautiful game, but not the way they play it. The men in suits, I mean, the ones who hold the top rungs of the sport in their teeth. The ones for whom winning is everything, no matter what. They’re not the only ones who make the culture around such a beautiful game look so ugly, but that stain bleeds down from the top.

We’re talking about hockey this time, just to be clear. There are so many sports to which those words can refer.

A recap. On Tuesday, the Chicago Blackhawks released the results of an independent investigation into how the team handled a 2010 allegation that then-video coach Brad Aldrich had sexually assaulted a player. The findings, presented in a 107-page report, are damning: the team’s top management knew, and did essentially nothing.

Yet the most heartbreaking part of the story came on Wednesday, when former Blackhawks prospect Kyle Beach came forward as the survivor. (Beach is also suing the team.) In an interview with TSN’s Rick Westhead, who has done heroic work reporting this story, Beach spoke with wrenching honesty about his pain, and his journey.

In the spring of 2010, Beach was living a dream. At 20 years old, he’d been called up from the minor leagues as a black ace: a prospect who joins the team for a playoff run, largely to practise and gain experience. But that dream was ruined when, he says, Aldrich threatened his career before sexually assaulting him.

The assault wasn’t a secret. Within days, Beach had told the team’s mental skills coach and counsellor, Jim Gary, who believed him.

Lest anyone paint Gary as a hero in this story, though, let it be known that Beach says Gary then chided him for putting himself in that position. Beach also showed the independent investigators emails from Gary that included crude sexual jokes, pornographic images and what the report describes as "homophobic undertones."

Gary said he used this "juvenile sexual humour" to build rapport with young players.

Setting aside that disgusting behaviour, the report found that on the same day Gary spoke to Beach, he brought the report of the assault to the team’s senior management. While recollections of the meeting vary, the report says all of those in attendance agreed that they were made aware of at least an "unwelcome sexual advance."

Any one of those men could have changed the course of entire lives, in that moment. Any one of those men could have put into motion actions that would have saved Beach, and at least one more victim, a tremendous amount of pain.

Then-president John McDonough was there. So was general manager Stan Bowman, then-executive vice president Jay Blunk, senior director of hockey administration Al MacIsaac, then-head coach Joel Quenneville, who stepped down Thursday as coach of the Florida Panthers, and then-assistant GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, who’s now, of course, in charge of the Winnipeg Jets.

Any one of those men could have changed the course of entire lives, in that moment. Any one of those men could have put into motion actions that would have saved Beach, and at least one more victim, a tremendous amount of pain. Any one of them had the contacts and leverage to ensure that Aldrich would never work in hockey again.

Instead, as Bowman told the investigators, McDonough and Quenneville talked about a "desire to focus on the team and the playoffs." They allowed Aldrich to continue with the team through the rest of the playoffs — at the end of which he made a sexual advance at an intern — before resigning with a severance package and no investigation.

That summer, Beach had to watch the man who abused him lifting the Stanley Cup.

"It made me feel like he was in the right and I was in the wrong," he told Westhead.

Three years later, Aldrich sexually assaulted a 16-year-old Michigan high school player, a crime for which he was convicted. When Westhead asked if Beach had a message for that player, Beach wept as he expressed gratitude, saying that incident inspired him to take civil action against the team, in part to get the truth out.

"I’m sorry I didn’t do more when I could, to make sure it didn’t happen to him," Beach said, through tears.

Of all the nauseating aspects of this story, that quote strikes the hardest punch in the gut. That after all these years, it is still the one person who did the most they could with the least power, the 20-year-old kid who tried to speak his truth even as his dream was being ripped from him, who is the one apologizing that he didn’t do more.

This is the kind of emotional wreckage that is heaped on victims, when those in power fail to protect them. And the team utterly failed Beach, and by extension anyone who was hurt by Aldrich after him. They should be the ones on television giving tearful apologies. They and they alone should wear the shame that they didn’t do more.

After all, we know a lot about what is so damaging for survivors. It’s not only the assault; it’s also the silence. It’s the cover-ups. It’s the failure of those around them to acknowledge that harm was done. Often, the most important step in a survivor’s healing journey is simply to receive validation from society that they have been wronged.

But when nobody with the power to give that validation will act, what else can you conclude but that the harm done to you doesn’t matter? The message such inaction gives to a victim is clear: their pain is an inconvenience, and the expectation is that they will swallow it, push it down somewhere deep and make it disappear.

Beach, 31, is playing in Germany now. It’s a small club in a low-level league, but they treat their players very well, he said, and "do absolutely everything they can for us to make us feel safe." That’s important to him now, given what he went through, and now he says he is hoping that telling his story can bring about systemic change.

"I’ve been a survivor, I am a survivor," he said. "I know I’m not alone. I know I’m not the only one, male or female. And I buried this for 10 years, 11 years. And it’s destroyed me from the inside out. And I want everybody to know in the sports world and in the world that you’re not alone."

So far, there have been some changes. On the day the report came out, Bowman resigned, the NHL fined the club $2 million and the team’s owner announced that anyone involved in the incident would be gone. After Beach came forward, the Blackhawks released a statement praising his courage and offering "deepest apologies."

No championship is "more important than protecting our players and staff," the statement read.

Yet even here, the team couldn’t help but note that among "numerous changes" made was hiring a new leadership team "that is committed to winning championships" while adhering to the "highest ethical, professional and athletic standards." Just in case anyone was still worried about getting more Stanley Cup rings, I guess.

When winning becomes everything, the sport is lost. It’s a beautiful game, but not at that cost.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.