Hockey’s chance to reckon with its culture of abuse

The biggest question this season isn’t who wins the Stanley Cup, but whether the game finally deals with revelations of bullying, racism, misogyny and homophobia
Brett Popplewell
Canadian professional ice hockey player Akim Aliu (Photograph by Jalani Morgan)
TORONTO, CA - JANUARY 21: Canadian professional ice hockey player Akim Aliu. (Photograph by Jalani Morgan)

It’s six o’clock on a Thursday night at a rented rink in the sprawl stretching north from Toronto. Akim Aliu stands poised to explode at centre ice. He presses the entirety of his 225-lb. frame into the blades beneath his feet. He’s ready to pounce on a puck, but the only thing coming at him are a couple of five-year-olds looking to emulate one of the most influential men in the game today.

Aliu has been surrounded by 30 children for the better part of an hour. They cling to his words and mimic his movements, so he keeps his body purposely still for their benefit. He wants them to understand that, in order to react effectively, you must first analyze your surroundings. The purpose is not just to explode, but to create impact. Impact on the play and on the players around you. Impact on the game.

“Before you take off,” he says, “you want to make sure you are in a stable position. You can’t explode if you’re not secure.”

The children nod inside their caged helmets. Tonight he is both their coach and their idol. It doesn’t matter that he’s a damaged man. That he only has seven NHL games under his skates. That his career has been stagnant and derailed for the better part of a decade, or that once upon a time he was the most demonized kid in hockey.

In November, Aliu, who was born in Nigeria and came to Canada at the age of seven, exposed racism inside the hockey establishment, sparking vitriol and debate. It wasn’t the first time he’d challenged the way Canadians see themselves or their game. Fifteen years earlier, as a member of the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires, he stood up to his teammates and teenaged tormentors, exposing hockey’s culture of rookie hazing. Then he was branded a troublemaker. His draft prospects plummeted. Despite his talent and statistics, Aliu last played in the NHL in 2013, and has spent the years since struggling to get back while playing anywhere from the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia to the East Coast Hockey League in America.

READ: Ken Dryden: The outrageous, embarrassing, unmissable problem with hockey

Aliu’s skates crunch into the ice and he’s gone, pumping fast into the end zone. The children watch as he slingshots around the net and back to centre ice. He grinds to a quick stop and tucks his body back in the position he’s trained them to take. The one that shows they’re prepared for anything. Even if there’s no way to be fully prepared for some of the game’s indignities.

There’s a commercial for Hockey Night in Canada that features hockey stars in tailored suits making their way to a game; a smiling father holding a smiling son in an arena’s stands and a Canadian flag circulating over the heads of fans. There are more than 50 faces in the ad. And, with the exception of one or two, they are all white. The words that accompany those images are spoken by Ron MacLean: “This is the story of a love affair, between a country and a game. It’s simple, really—for many of us it’s a sense of belonging. We’re maybe coming from different places, but we’re all coming from the same place. You want to try to teach someone from another part of the world about Canada, you go to the television Saturday night and it becomes crystal clear. This is hockey night.”

The commercial’s intent is to stoke our national pride and sense of nostalgia, and yet it serves as an unintentional illustration of just how blind the game is to its own exclusivity.

We all know the narrative—that hockey is Canada and Canada is hockey. To many, hockey is a church, the only institution that provides us with homegrown icons to worship. Look into the stands during overtime and you’ll see Canadians in prayer. But the institution has become mired in controversy and allegations of racism, homophobia, degradation and more. As a country, we’ve barely begun to reconcile with the truths of our own cultural history. We continue to be influenced by the mythology we’ve created: that we are defined by our politeness. That our multiculturalism is our strength and that this, combined with our bilingualism and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, has helped forge the just society.

First played on a Montreal rink eight years after Confederation, the game wasn’t really inviting to anyone other than English Canadians. It wasn’t until Maurice Richard exploded into the public consciousness in 1944, enduring ethnic slurs and constant reminders that he was considered a second-class citizen, that many French Canadians began to view the game as something for them as well. And though the first Black hockey player, Willie O’Ree, also broke into the league during the Richard era—as did the first Indigenous player, Fred Sasakamoose, and the first Asian player, Larry Kwong—the NHL today, and indeed hockey, remains almost exclusively white. It is that reality, and a multitude of other issues (not least of all the fact that children’s hockey has become so expensive that it requires wealth and privilege in order to play), that has put the game at odds with the very ideals that many feel are the embodiment of modern Canada.

Though many have been affected by the culture clash that surrounds the game, few have invested more time and energy into trying to understand the underlying issues than Queen’s University kinesiology professor Courtney Szto. A hockey fan and recreational player, she was one of the first academics to really question the impact of race and racism on hockey. During the 2016-17 season, she analyzed data showing that, of 700 NHL players in the league, only three per cent identified as racialized. Then she looked off the ice and found that only three out of 524 scouts working at the end of the season could be identified as racialized. The faces behind the bench were equally white—of 315 coaching positions in the NHL, only five identified as racialized. The lack of diversity goes to the top: Szto noted that there had never been a racialized general manager or sole team owner in the history of the NHL. (There has been diversity among minority owners of some clubs.)*

Szto devoted her Ph.D. to trying to reconcile the mythological truths that hockey is Canada and that Canada is multicultural. “If they are both true, then they should be true together,” she says. “But we know that hockey is far from multicultural, and the more you pit the two myths against each other, the more both of them start to unravel. So, is hockey going to reckon with it? I think the broader question is whether Canadian society is ready to reckon . . . It’s not that hockey is racist. It’s that hockey exists inside a racist society.”

When the time comes to reflect on what actually mattered in the current NHL season, the conversations won’t be about who won the Vezina, the Hart or even the Stanley Cup, but about whether “hockey’s reckoning” really had any impact on the game’s cultural direction. Because this will either prove to have been hockey’s longest winter, or it won’t; the season when repeated revelations of abuse, racial and homophobic slurs, and toxic masculinity finally overpowered the spectacle on ice and sparked a discussion that will either succeed or fail to reform the game.

Five-and-a-half weeks into the season, the off-ice narratives supplanted the actual game in the public consciousness. It was Saturday, Nov. 9. The Kings were playing the Canadiens and the Flyers were beating up the Leafs when suddenly the only thing that mattered were the words coming out of Don Cherry’s mouth.

“You people . . . that come here, whatever it is, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey . . . ”

Two days later Cherry was fired and it seemed the country was going through some sort of cultural unravelling as the old white man who’d long spoken for the game was removed from his pulpit for exclusory messaging. Nine days after that, Mike Babcock, former coach of Team Canada, was removed from the Maple Leafs’ bench amid allegations that he had been bullying his players for years.

Then Aliu entered the fray.

Before he exploded for the first time, Akim Aliu was stripped naked, sealed in the bathroom of a bus with three other boys, and left to gasp for air until the door burst open and he crashed into the light. He refused to be locked in again. Days later, after he stood up for himself again, a teammate knocked out Aliu’s teeth and left him concussed. He was 16 years old.

His faith in the game was shaken, but he didn’t let it break. Not even when the men and women who’d once cheered his name from the stands began to boo and taunt him with the same language he’d heard from his fellow players both on and off the ice. Looking back on it now, he says he doesn’t blame them for what they were doing. They didn’t see their world the way he did. And they couldn’t hear their words the same way either. That was the problem then, and it’s still the problem now. It’s what makes the memories so raw.

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“I’ve been buried alive more than once by this game,” he says. “I don’t want to be buried again.”

Aliu spent the days that followed Babcock’s firing reading reports about how the coach had picked on those most vulnerable in the dressing room—rookies and vets. The story that riled him most was the one about how Babcock once made Mitch Marner rank his teammates from hardest-working to laziest, and then shared that list with the team.

Aliu went to the gym where he works out every day in the hope of getting called back into action. He was reflecting on his own experiences as he powered through his weight routine. His workout complete, he sat down next to his locker and began typing. “Not very surprising the things we’re hearing about Babcock,” he tweeted. “Apple doesn’t fall far from the Tree, same sort of deal with his protégé in YYC. Dropped the N bomb several times towards me in the dressing room in my rookie year because he didn’t like my choice of music.”

It was a reference to an indignity from 2009, Aliu’s first full season in the AHL. His then-coach, Bill Peters, walked into the team’s dressing room, heard the music coming out of Aliu’s cubby and shouted: “Hey Akim, I’m sick of you playing that n—er s–t.” The two clashed and Aliu was quickly demoted to another league where he dealt with even more racism, including an incident where an equipment manager donned blackface along with a team sweater that had Aliu’s number and nickname—Dreamer—stitched to its back.

Aliu says he had no idea the impact those tweets would have. That Peters would resign his post as head coach of the Calgary Flames. That NHL commissioner Gary Bettman would fly to Toronto for a closed-door meeting with Aliu or that other former players would begin to come forward with more stories about more coaches. He wasn’t expecting any of it. And he wasn’t ready for it either.

Aliu is a man of faith. Scripture runs down his arm in ink, but he is fearful of being a martyr. He reached out to Ben Meiselas, the Los Angeles-based lawyer who represented Colin Kaepernick in a case against the NFL, in which Kaepernick accused team owners and league officials of colluding to keep him out of the game after he began protesting the American national anthem. The NFL subsequently agreed to a multi-million-dollar settlement out of court.

Aliu says he contacted Meiselas not because he was looking to launch a lawsuit, but because he wanted help to start a conversation.

“You ask if I see myself as hockey’s Kaepernick, and I don’t really know how to answer that. I see myself as hockey’s Akim.”

Meiselas expands on that thought: “Akim has been calling right from wrong for a very long time. Having had the experience with other leagues, I can tell you that these are difficult conversations to have. But he is trying to broker difficult reforms in productive ways. The NHL is in a state of awakening. They have been insulated by a culture of silence.”

That culture is what bothers Aliu most. He sees it as symbolic of a fear that is deeply rooted within players from an early age. He says it would be nice to hear from P.K. Subban or Sidney Crosby on the issues that everyone is talking about right now. But, he recognizes that even players with strong brands and guaranteed contracts might view themselves as having too much to lose by being vocal. “At some point you have to speak to what’s real. We all do.”

Brock McGillis (Adam Deunk)

Aliu reminds anyone who asks why it took him 10 years to write that tweet that once upon a time he was a kid who spoke out against hazing only to get his teeth knocked out and his prospects squashed.

“I’ve been hesitant to speak about it,” he says. “But it is easier now that I’m older.”

He’s also no longer the only voice calling for change. Those speaking out include Hall of Famer Chris Chelios and former Red Wings star Johan Franzen, who have alleged Babcock degraded players to the point that Franzen actually suffered a nervous breakdown. Then there are parents like Garrett Ladd, whose 13-year-old son resigned from his Abbotsford, B.C., hockey team after teammates began bullying him with anti-Semitic remarks. “My son tolerated a lot because he loved to play,” says Ladd. “But in the end he just wanted to move away from the entire culture.” Ladd says other parents have reached out to him privately, sharing similar stories of how dressing room culture has hurt their kids while worrying that speaking publicly might end their children’s playing careers. “I didn’t realize so many parents were being intimidated,” Ladd says. “It’s not just their kids.”

After the Aliu incident in 2005, several leagues cracked down on hazing, a practice that is prohibited by Hockey Canada, the national governing body for hockey. In its bullying, harassment and abuse policies, Hockey Canada identifies “degrading or inappropriate hazing rituals” when directed toward a child as abuse. In 1997, Hockey Canada developed the Speak Out! program, which includes workshops, resource materials, and branch and associate initiatives for its coaches, parents and players. The organization also certifies its coaches in Respect in Sport, an online abuse prevention program developed in part by Sheldon Kennedy (who in 1996 disclosed his own experience of sexual abuse by a coach), and offers parents a separate Respect in Sport course.

But people who work with youth in the game insist that toxic masculinity remains a problem. Brock McGillis is among them: the OHL veteran played in minor professional leagues in the United States and the Netherlands before retiring from the game to become Canada’s first openly gay former professional male hockey player.

“The culture of hockey is stuck in the 1960s,” McGillis says. “The toxic masculinity starts very early in the game and is passed down from coaches. Everyone is told that ‘what happens in the dressing room stays in the dressing room.’ ”

The 36-year-old former goalie says he could not have survived in the game had he been open about his sexuality while he was playing competitively. He describes how one of his teammates once defecated in his shoes as a form of initiation and how he was so concerned about being outed that he was suicidal while playing in the OHL and beyond. But he hasn’t abandoned hockey. He spends a lot of his time training kids, and he has also begun speaking publicly about his experiences.

“I know a coach who recently rallied his team by saying, ‘Let’s go kill those f–gots,’ ” says McGillis. “I hear plenty of stories like this.”

“While it’s not fair to suggest that [behaviour is] absolutely not in the game, it would be fair to say it has diminished quite a bit,” says Paul Carson, vice-president of hockey development with Hockey Canada. But these stories are important, he adds. “They are challenging the system, [but] they’re also trying to keep the system moving in the right direction. It’s not our position to push back with reasons and excuses. It’s our position to take that information and say, ‘OK, what do we need to do to get better?’ ”

McGillis says the game needs to evolve faster. “Is the culture salvageable?” he asks. “It depends what they actually do to educate and inform at all levels. This ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ banner is garbage. It’s like having the parade before the championship. I haven’t seen or heard one coach or manager come forward and say, ‘I’m part of the problem and I need to change.’ Until that happens, nothing’s going to change.”

Carcillo (far right) (Elsa/Getty Images)

“What makes this season any different from the last?”

It’s a rhetorical question that Daniel Carcillo poses when asked to comment about all the ways the game seems to be changing.

The Stanley Cup winner and former tough guy has been screaming into what sometimes feels like a digital abyss for more than a year. He has been screaming about hazing, about head trauma, about diversity and about what he calls the systematic oppression of players’ rights perpetuated by an institutionalized deference to abusive coaches.

He points out that hockey has been reeling from one existential crisis to another for pretty much the entirety of the 21st century. First it was Marty McSorley assaulting Donald Brashear with his stick during the 2000 season. Then it was Todd Bertuzzi getting convicted of assault against Steve Moore. Then came Aliu’s revelations about hazing, followed by the deaths of multiple enforcers and the subsequent dissections of their brains, which revealed chronic rot. These were followed by lawsuits. They were all powerful narratives, but none seemed to spark anything that could be labelled a “reckoning.”

Carcillo played through all those crises, ultimately retiring from the Blackhawks in 2015. He spent the first few years of his post-playing career working with kids in Chicago who wanted to play hockey. Then something in his head snapped, and he began questioning whether the game had really been such a positive influence on his life after all.

He remembers the date—Nov. 14, 2018. He was at home when the news hit that a 15-year-old boy had been held down in the dressing room of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College School while a group of teenagers sodomized him with a broomstick.

“I immediately started to have a panic attack,” Carcillo says. “The emotional trauma that I had put in a box for 16 years came out.”

Carcillo says he didn’t fully appreciate that he had been physically and sexually abused 16 years earlier until he began reading about the boy from St. Michael’s. The former NHL enforcer, who’d been known as “Carbomb” on the ice because of his volatility, began questioning the impact that hazing had on his character and, the more he thought about it, the more incensed he became.

He took to Twitter and shared troubling details of his own story as a means to heal. He told how back in 2003, when he was a rookie with the OHL’s Sarnia Sting, he never flinched a muscle when his teammates forced him and the other rookies to line up naked and let the veterans spank them hard with the sawed-off paddle of a goalie stick. “The most disturbing part is that I thought this was normal,” he says.

He says the media has prematurely labelled this moment as hockey’s #MeToo. He says a closer analogy would be the Catholic Church. “The abuse scandals are only going to become more prominent as more players speak.”

What Carcillo finds most upsetting is that some of the stories that have come to the fore have actually been circulating in public for years. He cites the example of Marc Crawford, who was suspended from his assistant coaching position with the Blackhawks in December for allegations that he was physically abusive to players behind the bench. Retired player Patrick O’Sullivan wrote about Crawford in a 2015 memoir.

“It’s not like we didn’t know this stuff before,” Carcillo says.

And yet, there are people in the game who still don’t seem to be listening. In January, during a game between the Winnipeg Jets and the Minnesota Wild, a TSN commentator shared a 15-year-old story about an incident involving the Wild’s Jared Spurgeon.

“He was a 15-year-old. Two months into the season, we Saran-wrapped him to a pillar in the arena, about six feet up in the air. He was tiny. He looked like he was 12,” said Kevin Sawyer, who coached Spurgeon when Spurgeon played for the Western Hockey League’s Spokane Chiefs. Spurgeon later confirmed the story, though he said it “was just a 16th birthday thing” and that it “wasn’t a big deal.” Sawyer has also issued an apology for what he called “unprofessional and insensitive” comments. He said that while at the time he did not view what happened as “negative, harmful or demeaning,” he now understands that “times have changed a lot over the past 15 years, and for the better,” and that he would never allow something like to happen if he were coaching today.

Aliu wants to help change the game, but still also hopes to find his place in it again (Photograph by Della Rollins)

Standing in a dressing room as the kids filter out, Aliu chooses his words cautiously. He doesn’t want to say anything to dissuade any of the children he has been coaching. He wants to preserve their faith in themselves and their place in the game for as long as possible. He still shares their dreams.

There have been days over the last few months when his iPhone has overheated from the number of messages pouring in. Reporters, fans—haters. He doesn’t know how many have thanked him for saying what they can’t. He tries to respond personally to those who have shared stories of their own struggles to feel included in the game. He doesn’t reply to the vitriol, though he reads it. He hasn’t bothered to count how many death threats he’s received.

He pulls out his phone. A fresh wave of messages has arrived in his inbox from all corners of Canada. A hockey mom tells Aliu to go back to Africa, while a man from B.C. sends him a follow-up message filled with homophobic slurs. And some kid on Instagram just called him the N-word again.

The Hockey News recently ranked Aliu number 20 on a list of the 100 most powerful and influential people in the sport. They called him a “former NHL player and rights advocate”—a simplified description for a figure caught on the outside looking in. Aliu is still not entirely comfortable with the role he now finds himself playing, but he’s beginning to understand that if he keeps speaking truth to power, some people will listen.

It’s why he chose to accept an invitation from Ron MacLean and Hockey Night in Canada to sit for an interview that ultimately aired in Don Cherry’s old slot. And it’s why he recently agonized for days over whether or not to accept an offer to play in the Czech Extraliga, one of Europe’s top professional hockey leagues.

It wasn’t easy deciding to join a team on the other side of the planet when there were important conversations to be had back home–conversations with Gary Bettman, but also with the kids at the rink.

“There has never been this much attention on these issues,” he says. “I have faith in what we’ve started.”

But he, more than anyone else, understands just how far we still have to go.

CORRECTION: The print version of this story inaccurately stated that there has never been a racialized owner in the history of the NHL, where there has in fact been diversity among minority owners of some clubs.

This article appears in print in the March 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Decision time.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.