Former Ottawa 67's player highlights need for change in hockey culture

Justin Davis, right, plays in a game for the Ottawa 67's. He played for the team for two years, and was a member of the team that won the Memorial Cup in 1999. (Submitted by Justin Davis - image credit)
Justin Davis, right, plays in a game for the Ottawa 67's. He played for the team for two years, and was a member of the team that won the Memorial Cup in 1999. (Submitted by Justin Davis - image credit)

Dealing with back problems and post-concussion issues, lingering mementos of his career in hockey, Justin Davis started writing a book on his road to recovery.

The 44-year-old former professional hockey player thought it would be a collection of memories and thoughts for his kids to "read a little bit about who their dad was." Instead it started to focus on the darker side of hockey culture — racism, hazing and the normalization of what he asserts is abnormal behaviour.

"It was never really meant to get to this point, but obviously it's turned into a full-blown memoir," he told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Monday.

"And at this point it's very topical."

Submitted by Justin Davis
Submitted by Justin Davis

It's important timing for Conflicted Scars: An Average Player's Journey to the NHL, with revelations about how Hockey Canada has dealt with issues of player misconduct including allegations of sexual assault by players.

Earlier this year, news broke about a multi-million dollar settlement Hockey Canada paid to a woman who filed a lawsuit alleging she was sexually assaulted by eight former CHL players. The allegations, which have not been proven in court, relate to an incident after a Hockey Canada Foundation event in London, Ont., in June 2018.

The identities of the players allegedly involved and the alleged victim are not publicly known. The terms of the settlement, including how much Hockey Canada paid the complainant, are not public.

Since these revelations more damning information has come to light, including the use of money from Hockey Canada's National Equity Fund to pay for similar settlements in the past.

Starting early in life

Davis played two seasons with the OHL's Ottawa 67's — and was a member of the 1999 team that won the Memorial Cup — before he was drafted by the Washington Capitals of the NHL.

From all his years in the locker room, he said part of hockey culture involves conformity. Starting young you are "told how to walk and talk and how to act, and you're no bigger than the team."

I didn't realize until I became a high school teacher many years later that this is actually abnormal behaviour. - Justin Davis, former professional hockey player

This normalizes abnormal and inappropriate behaviours at a young age.

"A lot of the time you don't even know that it's happening. It's something that you're just embedded in from the time you're five, six, seven years old."

That makes it easier for racism to flourish, Davis said. He said the N-word was heard around the rink and Indigenous players were often referred to as "Chief."

"I think there's an ignorance to the game, as well, because we're not told what to do when we encounter certain things and you don't want to give up your career to stand up," he said.

"The sexual stuff that's come up, if you talk about even the racism, you're told not to stand up, you're told to keep your mouth shut, and no one wants to risk their career to be the one that talks about it."

Hazing

Heather Pollock
Heather Pollock

Hazing has been a part of team sports for generations, and hockey is no different.

Davis referenced a hazing ritual called the "hot box" that was done on team bus trips.

"You take your clothes off and they stuff six or seven of you in the bathroom and turn the heat on and you drive for an hour or two and it's a rite of passage that everyone goes through," he said.

"I was proud of it, that I've done this and now I was officially part of the team. And there's other incidents I don't, I'm not comfortable talking about, but this is just a normal thing. And I didn't realize until I became a high school teacher many years later that this is actually abnormal behaviour."

Fear of speaking out

Davis said when he started writing the book, he was still afraid to name coaches — to step out of line from the culture of conformity and silence ingrained in him.

"Here I am, 44 years old and married for 20 years. I've got three kids, two teenagers and I'm still afraid to mention people's names. And it wasn't until I started writing and this book's come out that I've had people reach out and say thank you for doing this," he said.

"It's the first time I feel comfortable talking about what happened to me. And talking to my wife and family and unpacking who I am and why I act like I am. So that part it's been a process, but I am getting more comfortable with it, even talking with you today."