Saturday, 15 June 2019

This Is A Wake-Up Call

It's not often that a story breaks in a Russian publication that has all the potential to shake a Canadian institution to its core, but the Canadian Hockey League was delivered a withering blow to the midsection from Sport Express as they interviewed former QMJHL player Yaroslav Alexeyev. Alexeyev suited up for the Sherbrooke Phoenix and Baie-Comeau Drakkar for three seasons from 2016 until 2018, and he went on record with Sport Express to discuss the hazing that he witnessed and experienced at the hands of his teammates during his three seasons in Quebec. We've heard people like CHL President David Branch condemn any act of hazing, often re-iterating that this type of activity is anything but normal. For Alexeyev, however, it seems that this was par for the course as he witnessed it two seasons in a row with Sherbrooke. If this doesn't scream "wake-up call" to anyone at the CHL front office, I'm not sure what will.

We'll start with the Sport Express interview with Alexeyev. I warn readers here and now that the description given by Alexeyev to Sport Express is graphic in nature and is disturbing. For parents who have kids who read HBIC, I warn you now that this interview is definitely rated PG with a strong likelihood of dancing near R-rated territory. You've been warned - carry on if you wish.

The interview has been linked here, but I think it's key to point out some key passages in Alexeyev's interview. Let me clear here: I side with Alexeyev here. I believe hockey's culture is broken in so many ways, and I feel his story is likely true despite the infinite denials we're likely to hear. Let's break down some of his interview.
Vanya Chekhovich was lucky - he lived in the same family, and I changed four. Basically, everyone spoke French. The first family is the strangest. Every evening they asked me how are you. 15 minutes passed, and they again asked the same question. And with everyone in the house so. Three children, mother - a stupid blonde, all "made", can not cook. There were problems with washing.
This falls directly on the Sherbrooke Phoenix franchise and their vetting of the billet families they use. While I respect that the French language is the mother tongue in Quebec, the fact that there are langauge barriers between a Russian player and a French family would pose all sorts of problems. At best, you would hope to have a bilingual family who spoke enough English to allow the two parties to find common ground when communicating, but it sounds like Alexeyev's communication problems with the family only led to further problems that saw him bounce to new billets. The Sherbooke Phoenix have to do a better job in helping their international players.
Oh, the most important is the newbie party. I was smart and immediately bought off for 20 bucks. Then all the newcomers were given diapers for adults, in which they went all day around the house, but this was only the beginning. The first round - everyone drank five glasses of beer, the last one was added five more shots of vodka. The very tin began later, when everyone was obliged to insert into the anus through the cookies and run around the house for speed. During the race, elders ran out of the bushes and pushed in the back. The latter would have to eat his cookie. And in the end - forced everyone.
While something is lost in translation via Google Translate, the issue here is not. This is a hazing incident, and that is entirely despicable. While Canada has no formal anti-hazing legislation in place as of yet, I'm pretty certain we need this legislation more than ever. Spare me the rhetoric of "boys will be boys" and the other frat-house garbage that people tack onto incidents such as this because no one should ever be forced to participate in something as invasive and humiliating as this.

You don't build teams through fear and intimidation, and I challenge anyone on this planet to show me a team where those traits are endorsed as being vital to the team dynamic within that locker room. You won't find one. Hazing is cowardly, and everyone who was involved and didn't put a stop to this is a coward. Period. End of sentence. Except it gets worse.
"I didn’t like the party next year." They put thongs on all the guys, gave them a small crown and gathered them in a small barrack. The older man put on a black apron, a gangster mask, cleaning gloves, a broomstick and a condom on its end. He called one at a time, and each thrust a broom into the ass so that the person would scream and scare the others. Garbage some kind of inadequate.
Let's see: intimidation, humiliation, and sodomy? I'm pretty sure this is now a criminal act. Whatever you want to say about these players now, it's all moot. Two years in a row, they went off and committed acts of hazing, and there was nothing done to the players doing the hazing nor was there any help for the players who were hazed. This is all sorts of wrong, and head coach Stephane Julien, assistant coach and former NHL player Pascal Rheaume, and the entire Sherbrooke Phoenix organization need to be held accountable for the actions of their players.

Some will say that the players should have spoken up about this. It's true that they likely should have, but these are rookie players looking for acceptance into the team where the captains and veteran players have bullied and hazed them through fear and intimidation already. Do you really believe they'd speak up about this sort of treatment? And while you can certainly say that you would speak up because it's wrong, these are teenagers whose hockey lives can be made or destroyed based on whether they're accepted into the team's inner circle. Don't kid yourself: hazing is barbaric and disgusting, but it's about establishing power in a locker room.

In 2017, "a Canadian study of university-aged students found that of the 434 participants surveyed, 59 per cent of them were hazed. More than 60 per cent of those who were victims of a hazing incident said it made them feel more connected to the team," according to a CTV report. I took the liberty of bolding the important part of that statement because if over half the students at university state that a hazing incident makes them feel more connected to a team, there's little reason to believe that a hazing incident in junior hockey would be any different.

It was November 28, 2018 when Dan Carcillo and other members of the OHL's Sarnia Sting came forward to discuss the hazing they experienced as junior players while playing for the Sting, and, at the time, CHL President and OHL Commissioner David Branch stated, "We had failed Dan and the other players involved in my view, and it's shocking. You know, I don't know how else to put it."

While the frequency of hazing rituals have dropped since 2005 when the OHL put a zero-tolerance policy on these incidents and instituted a number of mental health programs, players on teams still engage in these activities. From the alleged crimes at St. Michael's College School in Toronto to the bullying of players at the University of Lethbridge to a McGill basketball player reporting all sorts of hazing practices, it's pretty clear that all sports, not just hockey, has a significant hazing problem. The scary part? All of these Canadian institutions have specific harassment and/or hazing policies clearly defined, and all three of these incidents took place in the last two years.

What should concern people about the Sherbrooke Phoenix incidents is that the sickening things done to the rookie players is actually a common occurrence. In 2005 at McGill University, the university opted to cancel the football season after an investigation found rookies were subjected to a nude hazing ritual in which they were gagged and forced into a degrading position and prodded with a broom handle. Once more, here's what Alexeyev said happened at one of the incidents.
The older man put on a black apron, a gangster mask, cleaning gloves, a broomstick and a condom on its end. He called one at a time, and each thrust a broom into the ass so that the person would scream and scare the others.
14 years later, what happened at McGill happened in Sherbrooke. McGill cancelled their football season as a result. Do you really believe that Sherbrooke would cancel a season of hockey? Hint: it'll never happen.

David Branch and QMJHL Commissioner Gilles Courteau need to take a long look at these reported incidents and understand that there likely won't be many, if any, players who will come forward and corroborate Yaroslav Alexeyev's story out of fear of reprisal within that locker room and the guilt of destroying the brotherhood among his teammates. Just as he admitted in the Daniel Carcillo report of what went on in Sarnia, the CHL and the QMJHL have failed these players once again.

The hockey culture in this country is still broken in so many ways, and no one will talk about it because it is continually reinforced behind closed doors. Until someone has the fortitude to apply real punishments that may include legal ramifications, the hazing problem in Canada will likely never change. Ultimately, that's the entire problem.

We talk about how tough our hockey players are in Canada. We love how they can score, hit, and fight like some sort of modern-day gladiator who can make us rise to our feet when they do amazing things. The truth of the matter is that we turn out heads away from what these kids undergo when it comes to major physical abuse that may result in serious emotional and psychological damage. We praise these kids for the sacrifices they make to get to the highest levels of hockey, but we rarely ask for reviews of the institutions that facilitate this ascension to greatness. We trust that the overseers of leagues and teams are providing a nurturing environment, but the sad fact is that they're often the first to fail these talented athletes by keeping incidents in-house, by not punishing those who who do morally-objectionable things, and by putting on a facade of "we're a tight-knit group" when players fear reprisal for speaking out when hazing incidents go down. And we naively accept that all is good because no one says anything despite what may be happening otherwise.

It turns out that we're a nation of cowards, folks. We secretly cross our fingers that this kind of stuff doesn't happen, but it's pretty evident that it does and continues to happen today. And when these incidents are discovered and revealed, we just pass the incidents off as "boys will be boys" and "that doesn't happen here" rather than having these people punished to the fullest extent that can be had based on what happened.

We're cowards. If that offends you, you might be part of the problem. Because if hearing how teenaged boys were sodomized with a broomstick by other teenaged boys doesn't offend you more than hearing that we're cowards, you're officially turning your head away from what should be reprehensible behaviour and focusing on the wrong thing.

You're part of the problem. And this is your wake-up call.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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