Junior leagues still in the dark on details of Hockey Canada's 'Action Plan'

Hockey Canada has yet to develop programs for sexual consent training for its junior leagues nationwide, nearly two months after it announced an
Hockey Canada has yet to develop programs for sexual consent training for its junior leagues nationwide, nearly two months after it announced an "Action Plan" to combat toxic culture in the sport. (Getty Images)

Nearly two months after Hockey Canada released their “Action Plan", Canadian junior hockey leagues are still awaiting communication and direction from the governing body. Without guidance, Junior A and Junior B leagues across the country have been left to develop programming of their own, or wait for guidance from Hockey Canada as their seasons begin. The inaction from Hockey Canada has commissioners and league directors across Canada frustrated and questioning what comes next.

“Sadly, but unfortunately not surprisingly, we haven’t received anything from Hockey Canada,” said Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League (GOJHL) commissioner Brent Garbutt. With his league, and Junior leagues that act as feeder systems for the OHL, QMJHL, and WHL left in the dark regarding Hockey Canada’s plans, Garbutt feels the focus is only on players participating in national team programs, despite the fact that hockey’s cultural issues exist everywhere, and Hockey Canada’s commitment purportedly involved all levels of the game in Canada.

“It’s even more infuriating to know that they provided sexual consent training for their World Junior team in advance of the World Juniors this past summer, yet did not send that down the chain for the thousands of junior and minor hockey players,” said Garbutt. “It is another example that Hockey Canada only cares about their World Junior team.”

“We have not, as of yet, received any direction from Hockey Canada with regard to education programs regarding abuse and assault,” explained Kevin Rigsby, commissioner of Ligue de Hockey Junior AAA du Quebec (LHJQ). It’s an issue of concern and messaged echoed by leagues in every province. “As of today, we haven’t received any communication or direction,” wrote British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) executive director Steven Cocker. League leaders from the Maritime’s and Alberta were also unable to point to any direction, policy, or practices they’ve received from Hockey Canada.

With months to prepare and communicate directives for the new season, leagues have been left to their own devices, and wondering what, if anything, Hockey Canada intends to do to answer issues of sexual violence, consent, abuse, and harassment in hockey, as well as the culture of silence that pervades in the sport and methods for reporting incidents.

“We have been waiting all summer for information on new protocols on the complaints process, which is conflicting and not clear,” said Garbutt. “I know it takes time to develop processes and resources, but we’ve been left in the dark across the country. This is what a national governing body is supposed to be doing so there is a unified process and education.”

Without direction, the dozens of junior leagues across Canada are taking matters into their own hands to combat issues in the game. While no league contacted could point to an initiative or directive from Hockey Canada, each had already developed their own plans to improve equity, inclusion, and safety in the sport, and to answer the calls for change by Canadians.

For example, the Alberta Junior Hockey League, which boasts NHL alumni including last year’s Norris Trophy and Conn Smythe winner Cale Makar, recently announced a partnership with the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters (ACWS) and participation in its Leading Change™ program, Building Leaders in Violence Prevention. “The program aims to build a positive conversation among players in discussing domestic and gender-based violence prevention and will provide players within the Alberta Junior Hockey League with the tools they need to begin leading the change to end domestic abuse and contribute to a larger culture change,” Charla Flett, the AJHL’s executive director explained to Yahoo Sports Canada.

“We believe that our players can use their position as role models and leaders in Alberta communities to contribute to positive change and promote anti-violence,” said AJHL Commissioner Ryan Bartoshyk. "The Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters will provide our young athletes with education on abuse prevention, consent and assist in identifying how they can model this leadership in their everyday lives.”

While the programming and initiatives provided differ across the country, each league is approaching the issue of safety and violence prevention in their own way.

“Each of our teams is working with their local police to undertake and organize seminars for their players on sexual aggression and assault,” said Figsby of the LHJQ. “We will also be working with the NHL and their Diversity and Inclusion Program, to educate our players.”

In Atlantic Canada, the Maritime Junior Hockey League (MHL) recently announced a “women in hockey operations program” to hire more women in organizations across the league, and as league president Troy Dumville explained, the MHL is also working with noted hockey scholar Dr. Cheryl MacDonald to “develop training for our athletes on many topics including consent and respect.”

When Hockey Canada initially announced their “Action Plan” in July 2022, Hockey Canada CEO Scott Smith said there was an “urgent need” to address the issues within the sport. The “Action Plan” itself states several times that changes will “effect positive behaviour from the grassroots to the national team level,” however, as stated by league staff from across Canada, programming has yet to reach beyond a single group of players at the recent World Junior Championship.

“We are doing everything on our own as we cannot continue to wait around,” said the GOJHL’s Brent Garbutt. “We can only control what we do, so we are trying to lead. It’s unfortunate that all leagues are having to do this and there will be many different things being done.”

Despite the lack of assistance or direction from Hockey Canada, the leagues themselves are working for change. While commissioners and directors across the country grow increasingly frustrated and impatient for the sport’s national governing body to act, they are unwilling to wait to enact much needed change, and lose another season of opportunity.

“Through professionals in the space of abuse and assault education, we are in the process of identifying ways we can proactively educate our athletes,” said the BCHL’s Steven Cocker. “We will continue to lean on those professionals to create a plan to be implemented for the 2022-23 season.” It’s the same message across Canada. “The LHJQ is committed to working with our teams and players to develop community based programs and safe environments for the development of all,” said Figsby.

Hockey leagues across Canada are ready and willing to change. Whether that commitment and work comes with the assistance of Hockey Canada is yet to be seen. For now, hockey players, coaches, parents, and administrators across Canada are searching for direction and implementing policies and programs of their own until Hockey Canada’s “action plan” takes action.

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