Fixing NHL’s toxic culture won’t be easy, but change can’t wait

(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images) /

Content warning: This story contains discussion of sexual assault.

Sexual assault is something that will stay with you forever. There’s no way to describe how it makes you feel, or how it sticks to you like a menacing and unwanted but ever-present shadow, even one that shines in the darkness. Language doesn’t allow us the adequate words to share the impact, to share the emptiness, the despair, the black hole that you become.

But you have to understand that before you can understand just how deeply hockey, the Blackhawks, the NHLPA, and the NHL have failed the survivors of Brad Aldrich. And not just how they failed the survivors a decade ago, but how they are still failing them — even after everything we now know.

In May, TSN’s Rick Westhead reported that a former Chicago player was suing the team for covering up sexual abuse committed by then-video coach Brad Alrdich. Seemingly every week revealed more abhorrent details of the abuse and what the Blackhawks — including general manager Stan Bowman — knew. And each week, mainstream media members ignored the story.

Jenner & Block’s investigation into Chicago’s alleged cover up of sexual abuse revealed some very sinister and shocking things. The report stated senior leadership — including Stan Bowman, Kevin Cheveldayoff and Joel Quenneville — discussed the allegations. This contradicts earlier statements from the parties involved that they had no prior knowledge.

This damningly suggests Blackhawks brass gathered to ultimately decide they were interested in things other than protecting current and future survivors of Aldrich.

Kyle Beach revealed himself as the survivor on Wednesday and was interviewed by Westhead. In the interview, Beach explained it made him feel sick.

"“The only way I could describe it was that I felt sick, I felt sick to my stomach. I reported this and I was made aware that it made it all the way up the chain of command by ‘Doc’ (James) Gary and nothing happened. It was like his life was the same as the day before. Same every day. And then when they won, to see him paraded around lifting the Cup, at the parade, at the team pictures, at celebrations, it made me feel like nothing. It made me feel like I didn’t exist. It made me feel like, that I wasn’t important and…it made me feel like he was in the right and I was wrong.And that’s also what ‘Doc’ Gary told me, that it was my fault because I put myself in that situation. And the combination of these and him being paraded around, then letting him take the Stanley Cup to a high school with kids after they knew what had happened.”"

But the team’s cover up also gave Aldrich a license to keep preying. That resulted in more sexual abuse, inlcuding of a minor in Michigan.

To be clear: This was not a mistake. This was a calculated decision made to protect a winning team.

It took a decade for this to reach public ears. And even now, one decade later, justice has not been served.

Once the findings were shared, Stan Bowman was allowed to step down rather than be professionally reprimanded by being fired. He was also allowed to resign from USA Hockey, where had been named the general manager of the Olympic squad. Both Cheveldayoff and Quenneville, who moved on from Chicago to work for the Jets and Panthers, respectively, were allowed to continue in their roles. Quenneville even coached against the Bruins, although the Panthers declined his media availability postgame before also allowing him the luxury of resigning from his post rather than firing him for his actions.

Bettman said he would reserve judgment on the two until after he spoke with them.

So, after all this, barely the bare minimum was served. There is no reason for Bettman to wait to speak to anyone since the findings already explained what happened. Quenneville knew. Bowman knew. Chevy knew. They covered up sexual assault so that they could win, full stop.

Because they sat there and ignored a survivor and allowed a predator to walk free and hurt other people. That is something that can never be atoned for. The only punishment fitting is a lifetime ban from hockey and from leadership positions, and especially any positions in youth-serving organizations.

It isn’t just the leadership. It’s the players, too.

Westhead reported a source said players knew. In cases like these, someone likely knows or suspects. Yet, no one did anything. They were all complicit.

They aren’t the only ones who need to go. Look at Bettman, who elected to do nothing. Or Blackhawks captain and team leader Jonathan Toews, who called Bowman — after he was proven to have covered up sexual assault — a good person.

Then there are the reporters who failed to report on this and who failed to share when it was reported. Some of those reporters now are calling for the NHL to take action, but they failed to do their jobs when it mattered.

Beach also said he reached out to the NHLPA and Donald Fehr, but his agent told TSN that “after that one conversation, the NHLPA cut me loose. I never heard from them again.”

As horrific as this all may be, it isn’t surprising. This isn’t a bug in the system — this is the system.

Hockey is a factory. Players are the input and winning is the output. When a person is viewed as a disposable commodity, the wellbeing of that person as a person goes away.

There are many more cases of sexual abuse and more that we don’t hear about and may never hear about. Peruse SafeSport’s database and see just how many coaches have been banned for sexual abuse.

People have asked what message this sends to survivors. It really echoes what we already know — don’t tell anyone. All that happens is you will be retraumatized and no justice will be served.

Perhaps to make things worse, the NHL — like with Bettman’s comments — has come across arrogantly in its reaction to being forced to look inward at how toxic and ugly its system is. Look no further than that Blackhawks calling Beach’s sexual assault a “sexual encounter” in a letter formally requesting the removal of Aldrich’s name from the Stanley Cup.

This further proves how sick the system is, and just how steep the uphill battle is to flush the toxicity out of hockey’s culture.

It’s been a decade and clearly no one has learned anything. The system needs to be dismantled and rebuilt because it’s not just a few people. It’s everyone, from the reporters to players to coaches to media to public relations people. And it’s Gary Bettman. Removing one or two people won’t fix the way these people think or how they act.

[The Blackhawks] covered up sexual assault so that they could win, full stop.

All those people should go because not only were those people complicit then, they are still being complicit now. I think that’s the problem, isn’t it? That people clearly haven’t learned anything. Oh, and Westhead reported that the Blackhawks filed court motions to dismiss both lawsuits.

That’s just the NHL part of it. USA Hockey allowed Bowman, named as the general manager for the Olympics squad, to resign, after they made no action. And the man who replaced him? None other than Bill Guerin, who was also under investigation for allegedly covering up sexual assault. The Hockey News reported Safesport cleared Geurin, but Westhead reported that Erin Skalde, who asked Safesport to open an investigation, has not yet been interviewed by Safesport. (Guerin is not listed on Safesport’s public centralized database).

None of these people deserve second chances. None should ever be allowed in leadership positions again. They can’t be allowed to be in a position where, if this happens again, they are the ones making decisions.

But simply getting rid of them won’t solve the problem.

There needs to be a culture shift entirely, which can only happen if leadership is willing to change. The league needs to have policies in place on how to handle sexual assault allegations and the punishments that should be handed out. Education is a must, both for players coming in through youth hockey and for current ones. But it needs to be more robust than just a seminar. Organizations that teach athletes to be active bystanders, like Jordan DeKort’s Gamechangers or the Institute of Sport and Society, are resources hockey must partner with at all levels. That hotline Gary Bettman promised? That also needs to happen.

People’s lives are too valuable to be entrusted with anything less.

Jashvina Shah is the co-author of ‘Game Misconduct’, which can be purchased here