Hockey Canada takes positive step, but now the hard part begins

Hockey Canada faces a long road ahead in overhauling the root problems of hockey culture. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
Hockey Canada faces a long road ahead in overhauling the root problems of hockey culture. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)

Hockey Canada took a step forward, albeit a small one, to begin the process of addressing systemic cultural and governance issues in the sport this week. On Tuesday, CEO Scott Smith stepped down, as did the remainder of Hockey Canada’s board of directors. While it was an important move, it is only the first step in what needs to be a complete overhaul and redesign of the sport in Canada.

“Today's announcement was a positive step but we need to see substantive action,” Liberal MP and member of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage Chris Bittle told Yahoo Sports. “That is a long process. Though I'm hopeful new leadership at Hockey Canada will look at the culture of the organization, resetting the leadership alone will not accomplish that goal.”

In fact, removing leadership was an arduous process, and it may turn out to be the easiest step involved in tearing down, and rebuilding, the culture of hockey in Canada.

“Cleaning house was the easy part,” said Western University assistant professor MacIntosh Ross. “Rebuilding will be far more difficult. It looks like Hockey Canada will be leading this process itself, which could be problematic.”

According to Brock University assistant professor in sport management Taylor McKee, this problematic selection of new leadership, how to gain clarity regarding ongoing scandals, and how to address hockey’s underlying toxic culture are problems without current solutions.

“Critical questions remain,” said McKee. “Who exactly will comprise the interim management committee? When this new committee is assembled, what qualities and experiences will be privileged on the new Hockey Canada board? What precisely will be done to provide clarity on the 2018 and 2003 sexual assault scandals and will those investigations with players lead to disciplinary actions?”

“All these questions await whomever will be assuming the leadership of Hockey Canada moving forward, and that is in addition to larger questions regarding toxicity in hockey culture more broadly and sponsorship relationships that may be irreparably harmed,” McKee continued. “This moment, though painful, is only the beginning of a long journey.”

As equity advocate Brock McGillis, one of hockey’s preeminent voices for change within the sport said, Tuesday’s personnel changes were only “step one of 10.” No substantive change, including to policy and procedure, education, or the hockey’s culture itself has occurred.

“Today didn’t fix the culture, but it opened the door to begin the process of being fixed,” said McGillis. “Today did nothing to shift the culture of the sport, to shift the culture of Hockey Canada, to shift any of the provinces or local minor hockey organizations.”

To effectively enact and plan for this shift in culture, the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, media, and the public are continuing to seek truth. As prescribed by the Standing Committee, this includes a complete audit of spending and finances within Hockey Canada, access to Hockey Canada meeting minutes, and examining the results of a report commissioned by Hockey Canada from Justice Thomas Cromwell involving an organizational governance review.

“My hope in the immediate term is that Justice Cromwell's report actually provides a meaningful path forward,” said MP Bittle.

Hockey Canada, under now former leadership, heralded a self proclaimed path forward in the form of their “Action Plan.” According to MacIntosh Ross, however, this “Action Plan” is another area that needs significant reform as it was constructed “as part of Hockey Canada’s broader effort to appease its critics,” and without “the seriousness it deserved.”

This review of the “Action Plan” will almost certainly wait, and be conducted, by Hockey Canada’s new board of directors, which will not be elected for more than a month. For the new board of directors to be effective in facing these, and other challenges ahead, Ross says it’s time the board reflected Canada with “social, cultural, and racial diversity,” that para hockey be represented, an equal balance of women and men exist, and that non-hockey members be considered.

With Hockey Canada’s board of directors and CEO gone, the process of changing hockey’s toxic culture, and challenging the power dynamics and structures of the game can now begin. To effectively plot a future course and equip future leadership with the tools necessary to make change, the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage will continue to subpoena and question witnesses, with longtime Hockey Canada CEO Bob Nicholson scheduled to appear next. Hockey Canada and that Standing Committee are also awaiting the results of Justice Thomas Cromwell’s report.

With step one complete and significant work ahead, McGillis hopes concerned stakeholders refuse to relent and continue to push for change.

“Now is not the time for the media, for the government, sponsors, or the public to take the pressure off,” McGillis said. “We need to keep pushing this forward.”

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