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

Niagara IceDogs head coach Billy Burke has been suspended following the team scandal. (Photo by Craig Abel/Getty Images)

When a hockey player or NHL or Major Junior staff member is involved in a violation on or off the ice, the first step for most organizations is to issue a statement. While these public relations steps are intended to mitigate the impact on the team, they often fail to acknowledge the victim or condemn the actions.

This week, the Niagara IceDogs of the Ontario Hockey League issued a statement in response to profane, homophobic and misogynistic messages from their general manager, Joey Burke, and head coach, Billy Burke, written in a whatsapp group chat.

While the posts were clearly bigoted, the IceDogs tried to validate their comments, saying they were just “dumping” into a private forum. While the comments were profane, the IceDogs claimed the chat was “not racial in any sense, nor abusive.”

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

“The Burkes deploy a classic patriarchal version of hegemonic masculinity. They also very clearly devalue women’s work and effort as ‘less than’. This means that women, women and other gender formations are coded as inferior,” explained Dr. Marc A. Oullette.

An assistant professor of English and cultural studies at Old Dominion University, Oullette believes after reviewing the statement that it’s a sign that the Burkes and other hockey groups issuing similar statements show that the issues are ” institutionalized” and systemic, and that their damaging words are likely deployed in a variety of contexts beyond their claims.

The portrayal of this situation as unique within the Niagara organization, or within hockey itself, is a lie. Following the IceDogs’ comments, people started talking about similar incidents related to the Burkes.

“When I went to meet Joey and Billy about working for them in 2019 – they didn’t respond nicely saying I wouldn’t work for free,” Vancouver Canucks Hockey department analyst Rachel Doerrie tweeted. Analytics. following comments from Joey and Billy Burke. “Joey, in particular, called me ‘this dy*e’. That’s who they are.”

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

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

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

Last year, two members of the Seattle Thunderbirds committed acts of racism and used racial slurs towards a teammate. The Thunderbirds’ statement claimed the players were suspended for “communicating inappropriate racist 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 critics say also went unanswered. to the situation.

As CBC Sports Senior Contributor Shireen Ahmed put it, it’s crucial that hockey teams “use the correct language.” Darkness, not words like ‘inclusion’ or ‘diversity’.

As racism and acts of racism continue to be at the forefront of discussions in hockey, the IceDogs situation makes it clear that in hockey, a hierarchy forms where some believe an issue is more important or relevant than another.

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

“Their statement speaks to the state of hockey culture,” McGillis said. “By not understanding that diversity encompasses so many different groups and it is the lack of humanization and nurturing of all of these groups that leads us to believe that some things are wrong to say and some things are right and justify it in a statement saying it wasn’t the only bad thing, in this case racism, it was that other thing, which in their minds isn’t as bad.

The IceDogs defended homophobia and misogyny by making it clear that their comments were “in no way racial,” pointing out the incongruity in hockey’s attempt to fix a broken culture.

“We’re not doing enough to change locker room culture and behaviors,” McGillis said. “It’s a story in sports; it is not new.

Whether it’s racism, homophobia or misogyny, hockey culture is in the spotlight this season. As damaging as the incidents are, statements by teams in defense of players and staff, or in an attempt to mitigate organizational impact without consideration for victims or the community, trouble those fighting for change.

“It’s a stray bullet from the sport and those leagues that don’t,” McGillis said of the need for education and humanizing the issues beyond reactionary statements. “[Niagara] should have owned it, but frankly, I don’t know what they can say. If you’re willing to speak openly in such a derogatory way that’s so misogynistic and homophobic in these private group chats… then how do you speak when you’re really angry? »

According to multiple sources who obtained screenshots of the IceDogs WhatsApp chat, what was posted is just the “tip of the iceberg” related to the organization and can be taken as an indication of hockey culture. as a whole, and not as a single incident.

According to Dr. Oullette, attempts by these teams to portray the incidents as isolated are wrong.

“This is not a unique case,” Ouelette wrote in an email. “My concern is that the OHL individualizes and pathologizes this event as a singularity, an exception rather than considering its institutionalized dimension. But that is precisely what sports leagues do.

As a recent independent review of the Ontario Hockey League stated, a “code of silence,” lack of trust, fear, loyalty and belief in insufficient consequences” exists within the league. , allowing these problems to persist. It is clear that the problems for the OHL and hockey exist beyond the reported events. However, the depth will only be seen when more players and staff advance.

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James C. Tibbs