The Canadian Junior Hockey System treats youth like cattle and the sports media deserve their share of the blame
By ANDY PREST*
VANCOUVER (1 June 2005) – THE HOCKEY superstars of the future have been on display with the playoffs of the just-completed Memorial Cup, the championship trophy of the Canadian Hockey League (CHL). With NHL players locked out, the CHL, featuring players 15 to 20 years old, was the best hockey puck-starved Canadians can find these days.
Competitions such as the Memorial Cup and the World Junior Hockey Championships – a tournament slated for Vancouver in December – are spectacles that showcase the best of junior hockey. But there is a disturbing side to junior hockey that is rarely addressed. Violence, ego, and the effects of the siren call of NHL riches are major issues but only become media stories through scandal. The rest of the time sports journalists are happy to show clips of the latest “great scrap” and ignore systemic problems that have serious consequences.
With the NHL on hold, the media spotlight now shines even brighter on the junior game. There has never been a better opportunity to examine the hockey system, which shapes (or misshapes) so many young Canadians.
In Canadian minor hockey, the most talented (or fastest maturing) players are separated from their peers at a young age. By 10, the elite players are elevated above those players in house league, and by 16, the best players are drafted and sent to junior teams far from home. Removed from their families and their communities, players are lavished with attention by local, and sometimes, national media, fawned over by adoring fans, and immersed in a male-dominated culture where older men control their lives and women are objects for conquest or ridicule.
Mike Danton, a former NHL player with the St. Louis Blues, now languishes in prison, convicted of trying to have his former junior hockey coach and agent, David Frost, murdered. His story touches on the worst of junior hockey’s problems. When he was 11, Danton’s father introduced his son to Frost, thinking the coach could improve Danton’s chances of making the NHL. And it worked. But at a heavy price.
Frost acted variously as mentor, coach and agent to the young boy and Danton followed his hockey and life instructions in a way other coaches have described as cult-like. The head of the Greater Toronto Hockey League, where Frost coached Danton, told the Toronto Star that Frost “practiced mind control.”
When he was 16, Danton and three other players lived with Frost in a hotel room in Deseronto, Ont., where they played for a team called the Quinte Hawks. Seven years later it was Frost who was the target of Danton’s murder-for-hire plot. Danton’s father says he overlooked the strangeness of his son’s relationship with Frost because the results were showing up on the ice and the thought of having a son in the NHL was too enticing.
Sheldon Kennedy is another player who was let down by the Canadian hockey system. In 1996, Kennedy, a veteran NHL player, said that he had been a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of Graham James, his former junior coach with the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League. In January 1997, James was convicted of having more than 300 sexual encounters with the teenage player beginning when Kennedy was 14. James abused Kennedy with impunity when he played for the Broncos. And because the CHL allows teenage players to be traded from team to team like full professionals, James was able to keep Kennedy with him as he moved.
Kennedy said that he kept the abuse quiet as a teenager because he was afraid he would be sent home and his career would be over if he told anyone. “ The coach is so respected. Your parents send you away and say, “Do what he says,” he told the Ottawa Citizen. “At that age, you listen. That’s your first step if you want to play pro.”
When players like Danton or Kennedy are in the spotlight, the sports media are critical of the system for a few weeks until the crisis is over. Then it’s business as usual. Individual cases are excused as isolated incidents in an otherwise well-functioning system.
However, academic studies show that these incidents are part of systemic problems in junior hockey. In her book Crossing the Line: Violence and Sexual Assault in Canada’s National Sport, journalist Laura Robinson proves that abuse by and of players is far from rare. She chronicles degrading hazing rituals and instances of gang sex in hockey towns across Canada. The abuses remain quiet, according to Robinson, because the system is structured to benefit owners, advertisers, and league officials, not the players. “Junior hockey would look quite different if it served the needs of Canadian youth,” writes Robinson.
Robinson argues that these stories of abuse rarely appear in the sports section and that even more problematic are the numerous attacks on young women by hockey players that remain under the radar. When young women do come forward, they are often vilified by entire towns that come to the defense of their hockey heroes.
It is time to reconsider the structure of Canadian minor hockey. Why not allow underage players to play for the nearest junior team instead of sending 15 year olds to far away places?
The media also need to remember that they are covering teenagers. Praise should be tempered, frivolous criticism avoided, and sexual assault and violence should be recognized and covered. The CHL is not a mini-NHL and it should not be covered like one. Turning junior players into heroes and villains only adds to the problems of ego and expectation. There must be more to life for these young Giants and Rockets than swinging sticks and burning out.
*Andy Prest is a first year student in the UBC School of Journalism. His article is slightly edited for this publication. It first appeared in the school’s magazine, Thunderbird, 24 March 2005. His previous article “ Locked out: Filling the NHL void” appeared in the January 2005 edition of the University of British Columbia magazine.
Related reading on this blog:
“Militarization of culture: crisis in Canadian hockey,” TML Daily, June 11, 2007 – No. 94