NHL Abuse Scandal – Could it be the Tipping Point?

December 10, 2019

Paul Melia, CCES president and CEO, and Allison Forsyth, AthletesCAN – Chair, Athlete Safe Sport Committee

In Canada when the sport of hockey takes centre stage, Canadians tend to sit up and take notice. So too do Canadian politicians, government officials, sport governing body executives and business leaders.

Over the last two years, in the wake of a series of sexual abuse cases in Canadian sport, there has been a renewed effort to address the issue of maltreatment in sport. While sexual maltreatment grabs the headlines, research shows us that all forms of maltreatment, including physical and psychological, are both prevalent in sport and cause significant harm to victims - the vast majority of whom are athletes. We have made slow but steady progress toward a universal code of conduct which defines the various forms of maltreatment. The remaining challenge is how to effectively implement this code in all sports at all levels in Canada.

The recent revelations in the National Hockey League (NHL) related to allegations of abuse by coaches of players, including physical and psychological abuse such as racial slurs, has brought the issue of maltreatment in sport into the spotlight in a way few other sports can in Canada.

It is interesting to hear the NHL and NHL media experts opining on what needs to be done to address these revelations of maltreatment. Opinions range from the need for a culture shift in coaching methods to the importance of addressing maltreatment throughout the hockey system, from grassroots to the NHL. There have been acknowledgments that verbal and physical abuse by coaches of players should have no place in the NHL. There are calls for mandatory education of coaches and players around what constitutes maltreatment. There have been recommendations for a code of conduct to apply to all coaches in the NHL. There has been recognition that complaints of maltreatment should go to an independent third party for assessment and investigation. There is talk of the need for proportionate and consistent sanctions for cases of maltreatment. And there have been important references to the need for due process in asserting violations of maltreatment.

The NHL is only now confronting the problem of maltreatment in their sport and beginning to turn their mind to solutions. They are covering the same ground Canadian sport has travelled these past two years. Yet the NHL’s attention to the issue means more media focus and greater public attention being paid to the issue.

The reality for both the NHL and the Canadian sport system, is that we know what would work to keep participants safe from all forms of harassment and abuse. Experiences in other sectors and best practices around the world have shown us.

We need a universal code of conduct that applies to all sports at all levels and is administered by an independent organization. This is the way we deal with doping in sport and this should be the way we deal with maltreatment in sport. 

So let’s use the spotlight currently shining on the issue, thanks to the NHL’s popularity, to move more urgently towards a universal system for safe sport in Canada.