Some moments crack things open, and this was one. Wednesday night, Kyle Beach was on television trying not to cry, trying to tell the truth, trying to apologize for something that wasn’t his fault. As a Chicago Blackhawks player in 2010, he was allegedly sexually assaulted by a video coach, and in a shattering interview with Rick Westhead of TSN, he came forward. Before he did — before the report commissioned by the team that laid some of the failures bare — the alleged assault on Beach and another player had been buried for 11 years.
“There’s a culture of silence in hockey. That’s how the system has built their individuals to respond,” said Sheldon Kennedy. He spent the day on his Alberta farm, out on a tractor, between phone interviews. People call him when something like this happens, because it happened to him. He fought back for 23 years.
“It’s all familiar,” Kennedy said.
It is, because it’s hockey, and more than hockey. Beach was allegedly assaulted during the 2010 playoffs. He reported it to the team. According to the report commissioned and released by the Blackhawks, Chicago’s leadership met after the team had advanced to the Stanley Cup final: team president John McDonough, hockey administration director Al MacIsaac, general manager Stan Bowman, vice-president Jay Blunk, assistant general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, and coach Joel Quenneville. They are some of the venerated men in the game. They claim they were only told of the allegations in non-specifics, but declined to find out more. They decided it wasn’t the time to address it.
The team didn’t file a police report. The NHLPA was informed. Three weeks after Chicago won the Cup, Aldrich was allowed to resign; Quenneville wrote a positive performance evaluation. Aldrich went on to assault a 16-year-old in Houghton, Mich., while serving as a hockey coach there. Before he left the Blackhawks, Aldrich was allowed to be part of the championship parade, and have his day with the Stanley Cup and his day at the championship parade.
So Beach talked about how his teammates started using homophobic slurs, how it all devoured him for years, how his mom cried because she didn’t protect him, how he failed because he didn’t protect the 16-year-old kid. And within the span of an hour, you could watch his stubbled face trying not to come apart on TSN, and then watch Quenneville grimly coach for his 969th career win in front of a scattering of fans in Sunrise, Fla., because commissioner Gary Bettman promised to talk to him tomorrow. It was so utterly, predictably shameful. It was hockey.
Kennedy knew it all by heart. When Graham James preyed on him and Theo Fleury and others for all those years, the culture of silence and reverence for the game is part of what made it happen. It’s that same dynamic as you see in USA Gymnastics, or the Catholic Church. When the institution is more important than the people in it, you need leadership to preserve them.
So look at the leadership in hockey, all of it. Beach reported the incident to the team. Nothing happened. NHLPA president Don Fehr knew, according to Beach. Nothing happened. The NHL declined to investigate this past summer, according to Beach; USA Hockey, where Bowman was the Team USA GM until the report came out, declined an investigation, too. The principals buried this deep underground for a decade, and 37 people refused to co-operate with the Chicago investigation, and so did Notre Dame, where Aldrich was a coach. Meanwhile, Cheveldayoff is the general manager of a Winnipeg Jets franchise that purports to be a pillar of the community, and Quenneville was allowed to coach.
The Blackhawks buried this story for a goddamn video coach, and the head coach wrote him a nice performance review, and nobody said nothing. Hockey has a lot of problems, and a lot of silence. This should shake some of the rotten pillars of this game, and hard.
“I’ve seen so many of them that I don’t get my hopes up too high that everything will be done perfectly,” says Kennedy. “These issues are about leadership, and for culture change, it’s about leadership. There’s a systemic nature of silence in hockey, and that’s what has to change. It’s not just the victims who are scared to talk. Look at everybody surrounding that whole situation that didn’t say anything, that didn’t talk. How do we create a confidence and a clear pathway for those individuals to say something, and know that it’s going to be heard, and independent?
“This is all too familiar. And what’s familiar here is the response has been archaic, and I mean, this is the way they would have tried to respond in 1998 when I came forward. Don’t say nothing. That was how they addressed these issues: Don’t say nothing. That’s the familiar part, and that’s what they tried to do.”
There were some exceptions: former players Brent Sopel and Nick Boynton, and scout Paul Vincent. Hockey talks a lot about brotherhood and courage and character. They exemplified it.
Beach, too. You should watch the interview. And spare a moment for Westhead, who worked at this paper for a long time before TSN. His 14-year-old son Carter has battled lymphoma this year; they were in and out of SickKids this week. This wasn’t easy work, in any sense of the word.
In a way, it’s everybody’s fault. Winning is the most important thing: that’s what generates the most glory, what draws the most eyeballs, what makes the most money. Collateral damage is more or less assumed and often ignored in sports, if less and less. The NFL is holding back 650,000 emails as part of a report over sexual harassment and a toxic culture inside the Washington Football Team, and a tiny slice of those e-mails got the coach of the Oakland Raiders fired. USA Gymnastics had faced an incomplete reckoning over Larry Nassar’s sexual assault of its athletes. Women’s soccer is finally facing a dynamic of abuse.
And hockey swept one broken man under its big rug, but he was braver than they were, and now the questions of who knew what when need to be asked and answered, up to and including the leaders of the game. Some things crack a world open. It happened in hockey again.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur