When a hockey player or NHL or Major Junior employee is involved in an offense on or off the ice, the first step for most organizations is to make a statement. While these PR moves aim to mitigate the impact on the team, they are often insufficient to acknowledge the victim or condemn the actions.
This week, the Niagara IceDogs of the Ontario Hockey League released a statement in response to profane, homophobic and misogynistic messages from their general manager Joey Burke and head coach Billy Burke, written in a team’s WhatsApp group chat.
While the messages were clearly bigoted, the IceDogs attempted to validate their comments by stating that they were only “letting off” on a private forum. While the comments were profane, the IceDogs claimed the chat was “in no way racist nor abusive”.
While most of the statements released by the teams evoke mixed reactions, Niagara is addressing something deeper – the continued protection and denial of hockey’s cultural issues.
“The Burkes employ a classic patriarchal version of hegemonic masculinity. They also clearly devalue the work and commitment of women as “less than”. This means that women, feminine and other gender formations are coded as inferior,” explains Dr. Marc A Ouellette.
Ouellette, an assistant professor of English and cultural studies at Old Dominion University, after examining the statement, believes it is a sign that the Burkes and other hockey groups releasing similar statements show the problems are “institutionalized” and systemic, and that her offensive words are likely to be used in a variety of settings beyond her claims.
Presenting this situation as unique within the Niagara Organization or within hockey itself is a lie. Following the IceDogs’ comments, people began talking about similar incidents involving the Burkes.
“When I met up with Joey & Billy to do something for them in 2019, they didn’t respond kindly to me and said I wouldn’t work for free,” tweeted Rachel Doerrie, an analyst with the Vancouver Canucks Hockey Analytics division Joey and Billy Burke’s comments: “Joey called me ‘that guy.’ That’s them.”
Tony Ferrari, an author for The Ice Hockey News reiterated Doerrie’s statement in a separate tweet about past troubles with the Burkes and the IceDogs.
“These are also two people who last year were willing to ignore racism and xenophobia because the person wasn’t an important part of the organization … The Burkes are bad for hockey.” he wrote.
Racism in hockey has come to the fore this year as racism occurs on the ice in the ECHL and AHL and issues arise in junior hockey leagues across North America.
Last year, two members of the Seattle Thunderbirds committed racist acts and used racial slurs against a teammate. The Thunderbirds’ statement said players would be banned for “communicating inappropriate racist comments and actions.”
The Thunderbirds, who play in the Western Hockey League, another branch of the CHL alongside the OHL, released their statement in vague language that critics said also failed to address the situation.
As Shireen Ahmed, an executive at CBC Sports, said, “Using the right language” is critical for ice hockey teams. Blackness, not clichés like ‘inclusion’ or ‘diversity’.”
While racism and racist acts continue to be at the forefront of discussions in hockey, the IceDogs’ situation makes it clear that a hierarchy is forming in hockey, with some believing that one issue is more important or relevant than another.
As LGBTQ+ activist and former professional ice hockey goaltender Brock McGillis explained over the phone, as the attack on women and the LGBTQ+ community by IceDogs employees has made clear, ice hockey’s approach to equality is not holistic. While McGillis understands the prevalence and importance of countering racism and anti-blackness in hockey, he also sees that teams and leagues jump from issue to issue as issues arise.
“Your testimony is a testament to where the culture is in hockey,” McGillis said. “By not understanding that diversity encompasses so many different groups and it is the lack of humanization and education of all of these groups that makes us believe that some things are bad to say and some things are fine and do so in a statement to justify it by saying it’s not the only bad thing, in this case racism, but something else that they don’t think is so bad.”
The IceDogs defended homophobia and misogyny, unequivocally claiming their words were “in no way racist,” highlighting the incongruity in hockey’s attempt to mend a broken culture.
“We’re not doing enough to change locker room culture and behavior,” McGillis explained. “It’s a story in sport; that’s not new.”
Whether it’s racism, homophobia or misogyny, hockey culture has been showcased to the fullest this season. As damaging as the incidents are, pronouncements by teams in defense of players and staff or in an attempt to mitigate the impact on the organization without considering the victims or the community are worrying those fighting for change.
“It’s a mistake on the part of sport and these leagues that don’t do it,” McGillis said of the need to educate and humanize issues beyond reactionary pronouncements. “[Niagara] should have owned it but honestly I don’t know what to say. If you’re willing to speak openly in such a derogatory, misogynist, and homophobic way in these private group chats… how do you speak when you’re really angry?
According to multiple sources who received screenshots of the IceDogs WhatsApp chat, what has been released is just the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of the organization and can be taken as an indication of hockey culture as a whole rather than a single incident .
according to dr Ouellette, these teams’ attempts to portray incidents as isolated are wrong.
“This is not an isolated case,” Ouellette wrote in an email. “The concern I have is that the OHL individualizes and pathologizes this one event as a singularity, an exception, rather than considering its institutionalized dimension. But that’s exactly what sports leagues do.”
As noted in a recent independent review of the Ontario Hockey League, a “‘code of silence’, lack of trust, fear, loyalty and belief in insufficient consequences” exist within the league which allows these problems to persist. It is clear that the OHL and hockey’s problems extend beyond the reported events. How deep, however, will only be seen when more players and staff step forward.
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