IceDogs scandal the tip of the iceberg in problems with hockey culture

·6 min read
Head coach Billy Burke of the Niagara IceDogs. (Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images)
Niagara IceDogs head coach Billy Burke was suspended in the wake of the team's scandal. (Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images)

When a hockey player or staff member at the NHL or Major Junior level is involved in an on- or off-ice offence, the first step for most organizations is to release a statement. While these public relations steps are aimed to mitigate the impact on the team, they often fall short in acknowledging the victim or condemning the actions.

This week, the Ontario Hockey League’s Niagara IceDogs 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 WhatsApp group chat.

While the messages were clearly bigoted, the IceDogs attempted to validate their comments, stating they were only “venting” in a private forum. While the comments were profane, the IceDogs claimed the chat was “not racial in any sense, nor was it abusive.”

While most team-released statements receive a mixed response, Niagara’s speaks to something more profound - the continued protection and denial of hockey’s cultural issues.

“The Burkes are deploying a classic patriarchal version of hegemonic masculinity. They also very clearly devalue women's work and efforts as ‘less than.’ It means that women, female, and other gender formations are coded as being inferior,” explained Dr. Marc A. Ouellette.

An Assistant Professor of English & Cultural Studies at Old Dominion University, Ouellette believes, after examining the statement, that it’s a sign the Burkes, and other hockey groups releasing similar statements, are showing the issues are “institutionalized” and systemic, and that their damaging words are likely deployed in a variety of settings beyond their claims.

The portrayal of this situation as singular within the Niagara organization, or within hockey itself, is a falsehood. In the wake of the IceDogs’ comments, people started speaking out about similar incidents related to the Burkes.

“When I went to meet with Joey & Billy about doing some work for them in 2019 - they didn't respond kindly to me saying I wouldn't work for free," Rachel Doerrie, an analyst in the Vancouver Canucks Hockey Analytics department tweeted following the comments by Joey and Billy Burke. "Joey, specifically, called me 'that dy*e.' This is who they are."

Tony Ferrari, a writer for The Hockey News echoed Doerrie’s statement in a tweet of his own about past issues with the Burkes and the IceDogs.

“This is also a pair of people who were willing to ignore racism and xenophobia last year because the person wasn't a major part of the organization… The Burkes are bad for hockey,” he wrote.

Racism in hockey has come to the forefront this year with on-ice racism occurring in the ECHL and AHL, and issues arising in junior hockey leagues across North America.

Last year, two members of the Seattle Thunderbirds committed acts of racism, and used racist slurs toward a teammate. The Thunderbirds’ statement claimed the players were being suspended for “communicating inappropriate racial comments and actions.”

The Thunderbirds, who play in the Western Hockey League, another branch of the CHL alongside the OHL, released their statement using vague language, which according to critics, similarly failed to address the situation.

As Shireen Ahmed, a senior contributor for CBC Sports said, it’s crucial for hockey teams to “use correct language." Ahmed spoke on this topic as part of a Carnegie Initiative panel she moderated urging organizations to “say ‘racism’ and ‘anti-Blackness,’ not fluff words like ‘inclusion’ or ‘diversity.’”

While racism and acts of racism continue to be at the forefront of discussion in hockey, the IceDogs’ situation makes it clear that, in hockey, a hierarchy is forming where some believe one issue is more important or relevant than another.

As LGBTQ+ activist and former professional hockey goaltender Brock McGillis stated via phone, hockey’s approach to equity, as highlighted by the attack on women and the LGBTQ+ community by IceDogs staff, is not holistic. McGillis knows the prevalence and importance of combatting racism and anti-Blackness in hockey, but also sees teams and leagues jumping from issue to issue as problems arise.

“Their statement is a testament to where the culture is at in hockey,” McGillis said. “In not comprehending that diversity is all-encompassing of so many different groups and it’s the lack of humanization and education of all these groups that leads us to believe that some things are bad to say and some things are ok and justifying it in a statement by saying it wasn’t the one bad thing, in this case racism, it was this other thing, which in their mind isn’t as bad.”

The IceDogs defended the homophobia and misogyny by clearly claiming their words were “not racial in any sense,” highlighting the incongruity in hockey’s attempt to fix a broken culture.

“We don’t do enough to shift locker room culture and behaviours,” McGillis stated. “It’s a history in the sport; this isn’t new.”

Whether it is racism, homophobia, or misogyny, hockey culture has been on full display this season. As harmful as the incidents are, the statements by teams in defence of players and staff, or in an attempt to mitigate the organizational impact without considering the victims or community, troubles those who are fighting for change.

“That’s a ball dropped on the part of the sport and these leagues that aren’t doing it,” McGillis stated of the need for education and humanization of issues beyond reactionary statements. “[Niagara] should have owned it, but quite frankly, I don’t know what they can say. If you’re willing to overtly speak in such a derogatory way that is so misogynistic and homophobic in these private group chats…then how are you speaking when you’re really angry?”

According to multiple sources who obtained screenshots of the IceDogs WhatsApp chat, what has been released is only the “tip of the iceberg” related to the organization, and can be seen as indicative of hockey culture as a whole, not as a singular incident.

According to Dr. Ouellette, the attempts of these teams to paint incidents as isolated is false.

“That's not a one-off,” 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 precisely what sports leagues do.”

As was stated in a recent independent review of the Ontario Hockey League, a “‘code of silence’, lack of trust, fear, loyalty and a belief of insufficient consequences,” exists within the league, allowing these issues to perpetuate. It’s clear the OHL’s and hockey’s issues exist beyond the reported events. How deep, however, will only be seen as more players and staff step forward.

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