Contributed by Valerie Bean (Pickering, ON)
REVELATIONS OF SEXUAL ABUSE IN SPORTS have come to the forefront in the past few years, but the subject hit close to home when I read personal accounts by Sheldon Kennedy (2006), Theo Fleury (2009), and Steve Danton’s story as told by Toronto Sun sports columnist Steve Simmons (2011).
For a little while, we had a false sense of security because the coach involved had been exposed and naively we believed that none others exist in the world of amateur sports then, a news story about the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s Neepawa Natives hazing victimization surfaced in November 2011, followed by news coverage of Penn State. Now, that we know. What will we do?
I first read about the abuse in hockey when my own hockey-playing son was 10, then at 13, and again at as he entered his minor midget year at 15 years-old. As I read Danton’s story, as told by Steve Simmons, I began to see how easy it must be for paedophiliac coaches to groom players and their parents. We minor hockey parents are just as wowed by the shiny promise of NCAA hockey, of the professional hockey, in our case OHL, and the brass ring—the NHL as our kids are.
For a decade, from the time my son was five years-old, my husband was involved with our son’s hockey, lacrosse, and soccer teams—most frequently on the bench as an assistant coach, while I stayed on the hockey sideline helping to organize fundraising, running the team website, and helping team managers—including my husband’s two-year stint—with administrative tasks.
Parents are in the dressing room tying skates, now the players are showering.
Because we were involved directly with the team, and my husband was in the dressing room, I felt assured that his welfare would not be compromised. When the boys were younger, parents were in the dressing room tying skates and digging through hockey bags for whatever-damn-piece-of-equipment-we-forgot-this-time, but with each passing year there were fewer parents in the room, and eventually, the boys were left with just the coaching staff. Before we knew it, they were showering after games, and that’s when I started to worry. At minor bantam (ages 12–13), the coaching staff excused themselves from the dressing room. The boys were left alone, and I became hyper aware of the potential for abuse—bullying, hazing, sexual assault—and asked so many questions my son finally asked me to stop.
Two years later, when Toronto Sun columnist and author of The Lost Dream, Steve Simmons appeared on George Stroumboulopoulos’ television program along with Danton’s younger brother Tom Jefferson, the interview caught my attention, and held it. Of course I knew the story, it had been covered on the news. However, the impending hockey season was different for our family; our son was minor midget age, in full teenager swing, and at what we hoped was the peak of rebellion. As I read the Jefferson family’s story, I could see how easy it would have been to have trusted someone who promises your kid his dream, and how easily a coach could win in a teen’s battle with his parents.
Parents huff and puff about ice time. I’ve never heard one express concern about abuse.
The politics of hockey is nothing new to anyone who has played at any level for any length of time. Deals are made behind closed doors (birthday skates), money buys ice time (mostly in the GTHL; in other areas it’s friendships), favours for friends provide payback to soothe staggering egos (former coaches’ kids are unjustifiably cut at team tryouts), young players are kept from being repeatedly, and permanently called up (a level, or age group, by coaches unwilling to help out another coach, particularly one they do not like. This behaviour leaves plenty of parents huffing and puffing in their self-importance; we all fume at the bias. Nevertheless, in our hockey circle, there has been little in the way of conversation about Danton’s story and the importance of Sheldon Kennedy’s ground-breaking news. It may be even more worrisome that there is little to no conversation about the topic of sexual abuse.
As a parent, caution, precaution, and concern for the health and welfare of your child(ren) never go away. We all know the reasons for the no fewer than three kids left in dressing room at the end of a practice or game; it is a sensible precautionary measure for 15 and 16 year-old players. It is a reminder to all of us subject matter we prefer not to think about. Maybe in part, we were naïve in believing that raising male children granted us immunity from the worry of rape and sexual assault, especially in our beloved sport of hockey. Statistics tell us otherwise.
At times, it’s the parents who are set-up, seduced first.
As my son graduated from atom to peewee to bantam, increasingly I’d hear stories about sexual abuse at the hands of trusted coaches. This disturbing news was brought to light by a courageous few (who we ought to thank for bravely breaking the silent code in sports) and woke up many of us who were unaware, or refused to believe that it existed. Part of it must be that as a society, we have also become more aware of the potential for abuse by those we trust, and we also have come to understand that paedophiles who exploit children sometimes first seduce parents and gain their trust. In this sort of set-up, as a hockey parent, I have to understand my own wishes and dreams for the development of my son as a hockey player, to be aware of the potential danger, and remain vigilant no matter his age.
It was Simmons’ story that caused me to look at my own blindside. I know I am not a stereotypical “hockey mom” pushing more ice time for her kid, pestering the coaches for a sweater letter, or pursing dreams of fame of fortune via her child, but in Sue and Steve Jefferson, Danton’s parents, I saw many hockey parents I knew, and I glimpsed a bit of myself, too. In our want for our children to fulfill their dreams of professional hockey careers, we may be too willing to turn responsibility over to coaches and agents, to blindly trust men in positions of authority and influence, or because of the authority and influence—as if they are substitute parents— without question and despite misgivings.
And yet, it seems as important now to be on guard for the welfare and well-being of our kids on their mid- to late teens, as it was when they were tyke players. With the increasing frequency of reported incidents, which I believe is indicative of the pervasiveness of abuse, let’s turn up the awareness.
Links to Resources