Jordan: I wish I could tell you that this is the first time that we’ve tackled this subject. I really wish I could tell you that it’ll be the last time. Neither of those things are true. What is true is that this discussion probably includes the most graphic content we’ve described while covering this. So consider that a warning. And when I’m putting a graphic content warning on a discussion about junior hockey, that should tell you everything you need to know.
News Clip: Daniel Carcillo and Garrett Taylor filing a statement of claim with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. They allege the WHL, the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and all 60 teams under their umbrella, inflicted violent hazing and physical sexual assault while they were teenagers.
Jordan: Any reasonable person outside the game of hockey reading allegations in the lawsuit filed last week, would probably acknowledge there’s a problem with hockey culture. And every time we have this discussion, a few more people inside the game acknowledge it too. But not enough so that we don’t end up right back here.
So today, what has to change to make hockey safe and inclusive and everything we want the sport we’re so proud of to be? What needs to happen to really make this the last time we have this conversation? What’s in the way of that and how exactly do we do it? Or is that impossible without burning the whole thing down?
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Brock McGillis played in the Ontario Hockey League. He played professionally in the United States and Europe. And while doing that, he became the first professional player to come out as gay. Today, he’s an advocate for LGBTQ-plus issues in hockey and elsewhere. He also counsels countless kids going through hard times in hockey locker rooms. Hi Brock.
Brock: Hey Jordan. Thanks for having me.
Jordan: No problem. I really wanted to talk about this stuff because it seems to keep coming back and we seem to keep dancing around having a real conversation about it every time it does. And maybe this is the time something changes?
Brock: I mean we’ve seen NHL insiders already say, ‘well, the culture’s better’. I know that at the other levels, whether it be Hockey Canada, USA Hockey, there isn’t enough done, and they’re not looking at themselves to shift this. So I don’t know, I don’t believe that it’s enough or going to be enough.
It’s too big of an issue and too many people don’t want to shift it.
Jordan: So before we get to the lawsuit and what happens next, cause I’m going to ask you about that, speaking broadly, what was your experience as a junior player in the Ontario Hockey League?
Brock: Well it was a mixed bag. I had some really good people. I had some great coaches who treated me exceptionally well. I had some struggles definitely. The language used in locker rooms is typically very homophobic and sexist and there’s racism. And because then I was struggling with my sexuality. I wasn’t out, I conformed fully to the culture in the sense that I became a hypermasculine hockey bro, who was a womanizer, who partied, who walked around like I was a gift to the world and I began to hate myself and wanted to die.
And in fact, on more than one occasion while I was in the OHL, I tried to take my life.
Jordan: What did the people in power, be that either coaches or general managers, do about it? Did they see you struggling? Did they know about it?
Brock: I think when I was in Sault-Ste. Marie, part of the struggle was I think a lot of my injuries were psychosomatic due to the fact that I was dealing with so much emotionally, psychologically, I was constantly injured.
I had a season ending injury every year from 15 until I retired in my late twenties. I through my career had mono three or four times, which is like borderline impossible. So I was always out. And when you’re not playing and you’re injured or ill, nobody’s really checking on you. They rely on billets for that.
And I had lovely billets, but they have their own lives and their own kids and everything else. And they’re just helping out a team by taking a player into their home. And it shouldn’t be their responsibility. It should be the teams to ensure that everyone is mentally sound and physically sound and feeling good.
But when I was in Sault-Ste. Marie, my coach there, Craig Hartsburg, one time pulled my dad aside. And I stopped working in practice completely. I was so lethargic and I just wasn’t myself at all. And he told him, he said, this isn’t the same kid. He’s not working hard. He’s not the same.
And you know, I masked it and hid it enough that nobody kind of figured it out, but it was definitely a struggle and something that they didn’t realize on any other teams.
Jordan: Tell me about the culture in junior hockey in general, both from the time that you were there, which you kinda mentioned briefly and to this day. How much of an open secret is what goes on in the locker room and buses?
Brock: People know and have things on buses improved? Yeah, absolutely. They’ve put in rules and mandated some things, which is a lovely start, but it’s just a start and there’s so many times where coaches, managers, et cetera, team staff aren’t around the players.
Jordan: And what happens then?
Brock: Well, we just saw with Eric Guest, they had a team party and at 16 years old, cocaine was forced up his nose.
So, and that was two years ago. So I mean, that stuff does happen. There’s pressure to drink, there’s pressure to do different things. There’s still forms of hazing or abuse. There’s a definite homophobic, sexist, racist language that is constant and consistently used through the culture.
And this isn’t just a junior thing. This is hockey. This is hockey culture from the top right down to the minor hockey at the 10 year old level. But in terms of the hazing, that is something that, there’s ways around things and people know that. They’ve had curfews forever. People have always broken curfews.
There’s ways to manipulate systems and people take advantage of that.
Jordan: So the reason we’re talking about this today is it all came to a head last week. Tell me about the lawsuit that was filed.
Brock: Yeah. So Dan Carcillo is an ex-NHL player who played in the OHL in Sarnia and Mississauga. And he and Garrett Taylor are the two people who filed the suit.
And from my understanding, it’s a class action suit where more people will be involved and they’re filing a suit based off claims of abuse that they experienced in junior hockey.
Jordan: Tell me about some of the allegations, which obviously haven’t been proven in court, but certainly made some ugly headlines.
Brock: According to Dan Carcillo in his time in Sarnia, I’m going to read point form a few of them. During showers, rookies were required to sit in the middle of the room naked while older players urinated, spat saliva and tobacco chew on them. At least once, the head coach walked into the shower room while this was occurring, laughed and walked out.
Rookies were repeatedly hit on their bare buttocks by a sawed-off goalie stick, developing large welts and open sores. The injuries were so bad that they couldn’t sit down even while attending local high school classes. They advised team staffs of this abuse, which did not stop.
On road trips, rookies were stripped naked and sent into the bus bathroom eight at a time, the older players would tape the boys clothes in a ball, which were thrown in the bathroom. The boys were not allowed out until they were dressed, which could take hours. Older players would pour chew, saliva and urine on them through bathroom vents. This took place in front of coaches and trainers.
Rookies had to bob for apples in a cooler filled with older players urine, saliva, and other bodily fluids.
Jordan: Jesus. Okay.
Brock: And it’s a very long list that continues.
Jordan: What was the reaction when the suit became public last Friday?
Brock: Quite honestly, I’ve been very disappointed with the reaction in the hockey community.
Jordan: What has it been?
Brock: There’s been a lot of silence. There’s been an incredible amount of silence from people who aren’t speaking up about the abuse. I’ve seen a number of media members say things like, ‘well, this was 10 years ago’ and I’ve seen others say nothing at all. And it’s incredibly disappointing, because it perpetuates the same culture.
Jordan: What was your reaction when you just started reading what you just read to me?
Brock: My reaction, I wasn’t surprised. I had heard these stories. I mean, even Dan Carcillo has a fairly large platform on Twitter and social media, has been shouting about this for years and trying to get shifts to happen and nobody in the hockey community with listen or do anything about it.
I mean, that coach is still coaching, minor hockey. And my reaction, actually, I was more upset with hockey people.
Brock: Well, they sat there and said things like, ‘well, this is 10 years ago’, ‘well, this is eight years ago’. Yet people said the same thing about Sheldon Kennedy. People said the same thing about Akim Aliu, people said the same thing when David Frost, all the allegations against him.
Yet we just saw a kid last week, say cocaine was shoved up my nose at 16 years old and I ended up with something like 45 days in a psychiatric ward of a hospital. By dismissing it or saying, ‘well, it’s improved’, you’re celebrating microscopic improvements to a culture that needs an overhaul. Abuse, harassment, homophobia, sexism, racism still exists in the hockey world, and to celebrate microscopic improvements when we need a full on shift to the culture isn’t good enough for me. And it’s quite disappointing that the leaders in hockey, that the largest visible spokespersons for the game in the media, aren’t speaking up more and demanding shifts.
Jordan: So some people in the wake of this, kind of accused Dan Carcillo of wanting to burn the whole system down. And they did that as though that was a bad thing, which if they come from that system, I guess I can understand. But when I, as somebody who didn’t come up in hockey, and can barely skate, when I read these things, I do want to burn it all down. I think that’s a natural reaction, but you seem to say on Twitter that there are ways to fix this without burning it all down, and I want to know what that looks like.
Brock: Yeah. And I’m happy to share those, but before I do, I am somebody who’s vocal and critical of the culture and I get accused on a regular basis of trying to burn it down. And I think I have a fairly systematic approach to how I want to shift the culture and it doesn’t involve burning it down. And frankly, Dan has gone and met with people and asked them to shift their cultures for three years. I’ve been doing it for four years, and they refuse to shift. So to me, I don’t think Dan wants to burn it down. I think he’s been given no other option in terms of, there’s a coach that coached him that abused him, allegedly, who is still out there coaching junior hockey and coached minor hockey. With everyone knowing this existed and most of his teammates coming forward and saying, ‘yeah, this happened’.
So there’s a problem there and nobody wants to acknowledge it. So I think this is, in terms of burning down culture, this isn’t burning down culture. It could get a lot worse. I have thousands of stories that I try and handle through the inside as opposed to burning down culture.
It can be burned down, but we’re trying to fix it from within, or I am at least, and I think Dan just wants a shift to happen. In terms of shifting the culture. I don’t think the process is that difficult. I think the difficult part is the gatekeepers who are not letting the people in to shift it.
Jordan: First of all, why aren’t they doing that? What are they protecting?
Brock: I believe they’re protecting themselves. I think hockey culture has been something that has needed to shift for a very long time. And it has been problematic for a very long time, far before I was involved in the game or played the game.
And a lot of people have skeletons in their closet, and we also see it in society where straight white men right now feel attacked. And feel like they’re losing their place and they’re not. It’s just that other people want to sit in that restaurant and eat too. Nobody’s taking their tables. Everyone wants to eat. So they feel attacked and they’re trying to hold onto their power and control.
It’s all about power and control.
Jordan: So is there a way to change the culture while working with the people that are right now, refusing to give up power and control?
Brock: I think they have to relinquish some, and I think it has to be forced upon them otherwise they never will. I had a prominent professional hockey team willing to go into the GTHL, which is the largest minor hockey association in the world, and work with me on shifting culture. We were turned down by the minor hockey. That’s problematic. When you have influencers at the top levels willing to come in and you’re saying no, and you’d rather try and put something together yourself as straight white men who don’t understand the oppression that minorities, and maybe some of them have experienced abuse, but most abuse victims have gone through.
That’s like men deciding a woman’s right to choose. It’s so shortsighted and it’s all about power and control. I think the more I think about it, the hockey world is very much the Republican party. And that’s a struggle and that’s tough to break through to create shifts and create social shifts, but it is possible.
To me, first and foremost, you have to recognize the issues. Issues include racism, sexism, homophobia, abuse and mental illness to name five of the major ones. From there because the world is so insular, you need to bring people who have the lived experience within that world in to humanize the issues.
And we’re seeing that through the black lives matter movement and then more players of color coming out and sharing their stories. When that happens, we’ve seen 150 to 200 NHL players speak up in regards to racism. So we need to humanize these issues. Once they’re humanized, then we bring in academics. Because now, as we’ve seen again with the racism at the top level, we’re seeing that these players want to learn more. They want to engage.
There are so many academics who study these different social issues within the sport of hockey, specifically men’s hockey. And yet they’re not being utilized by anyone from the NHL right down to minor hockey. It boggles my mind. They are the leaders in their fields and they’re not being utilized.
So once you humanize, you then have them develop programs and education components specifically geared for this culture. And then after that, you work on reforming it. You put in different structures in place when, instead of just straight ‘well, look, we have suspensions’. Suspensions, aren’t shifting anything. There’s a player that came out a month or two ago in minor hockey who said he was called, he is a black player who was called racist words every game. So suspensions don’t work and they’re not being called. So we have to find other ways to reform it. And whether it’s additional education, sit downs with parents at the minor hockey level, additional education right up to the top level.
And then from there we have to break the conformity. There’s three things you’re allowed to talk about in the hockey locker room, women partying, sports, and that’s because of the insularity of the culture. So from the age of seven, you’re shifted off and you’re in this little bubble, this arena with 20 players who you spend six nights a week with, through your minor hockey career. Then you hit junior and you move away from home at 16.
It’s the only sport that really does that consistently. Now you have 20 teammates or 22 teammates, and they become your only friends in this new town because you all came from somewhere else. So you become a product of that environment. And your influencers at the younger levels are ex players who came through the same system.
So it’s just a vicious cycle that continues to perpetuate itself. We have to break that conformity. When I go into locker rooms now, one of the things I do after I’ve humanized, is I say, ‘you call yourselves brothers or family, or some analogy like that, share something with me. You wouldn’t typically tell a teammate.’
Jordan: Do they?
Brock: Yeah. Once things have been humanized and they feel like it’s a safe space to start doing that. I had a tough guy on a major junior team stand up and say, I write poetry. I had a veteran player say if I don’t make the NHL, I;m going to be a zoologist. And then a first year player literally jumped out of a seat and said, I love animal documentaries.
The coach stood up and said, and this is with the coach in the room. The coach stood up and said, I love Broadway musicals and my wife and I go to them every summer. Like now they’re bonding on a deeper level. Now we can shift culture because the reality is we’ve seen it with Dougie Hamilton.
Dougie Hamilton, for those who don’t know, is that six foot five right-hand shot defenceman who can skate. That’s an anomaly in hockey. That’s very difficult to find. It’s such a rarity. He’s been traded twice in the NHL because they say he doesn’t fit into the culture. And the reason that is, is Dougie Hamilton prefers going to museums. He prefers art, and he prefers reading to going out for beers.
Think about that for a second.
Jordan: Where does that change need to start? Who’s the gatekeeper to bring that humanity into the locker room? Is it the owners of the various OHL teams? Is it the GMs? Is it alumni that need to put out the message that it’s okay? Because what you’re talking about sounds like a really constructive way to do it, but unless you get people into every single dressing room, which seems like a huge feat, I don’t see how it changes on a ground floor level. Does that make sense?
Brock: Yeah, and it is a huge feat, but you know, Jordan, I’ve done it by myself.
I went across the OHL. I’m actually the only program they have that they wouldn’t make mandatory. And I had to fund it basically out of my own pocket. Teams would pay one night’s hotel and my gas, not even mileage.
Jordan: So how does your work become a part of the system?
Brock: Maybe it’s lawsuits like Dan’s. I’m working on an initiative right now, Queer Hockey Alliance, where I want to lobby to government. I want to lobby to the sponsors of these various leagues, right from the top at the NHL, because I believe it’s a three tiered system. This can’t just happen at minor hockey. It can’t just happen at major junior. And it can’t just happen at the NHL level because without everyone being on the same page and everything being streamlined throughout, there’s going to be a disconnect at some point.
Jordan: As I mentioned, I think off the top, we’ve talked about this a couple times on this program and you know, it comes back and it comes back. And when we spoke to Donnovan Bennett last year about bad coaches and their locker rooms, he said that as bad as it is, he was a little bit hopeful because the stuff was finally seeing the light of day.
Do you feel the same way about hockey culture when you see something like this lawsuit?
Brock: I don’t, I don’t feel the same way. And I don’t feel the same way, because again, even with the incident in Carolina or Bill Peters or the accusations or the things that came out against Mike Babcock, no active player spoke on it.
No active players spoke on any event. No active players are speaking out on abuse in major junior, no active players are speaking out on abuse or any of these things at the NHL level, except for many of the black players uniting and creating a diversity Alliance. Some racism has come out, but not to the extent that it exists or microaggressions and whatnot.
Many of the players that are speaking out on it are former players. No active players in the sport of hockey speak out. You’re taught that at the age of eight or nine, what’s said in the room stays in the room. And I know a coach last year, who was calling ten-year-olds fags, and a parent spoke out, his kid got cut the next year.
The association said, ‘well we’ll monitor him’. I brought it to the Federation, the Ontario Federation. They did nothing. Didn’t even investigate. There’s worse claims than that, that coaches have received small suspensions or just taken off staffs, and still able to coach. The influence is too powerful and too strong without a third party overseeing it that isn’t tied to it. That when this stuff happens, nobody speaks out. That’s why stories come out 10 years after. Because nobody will speak out while they’re still playing.
Jordan: How do we make it safe for people to speak out and not lose their careers?
Brock: I think it has to come from sponsors. I think it has to come from government.
I think if you hit their pocket books and you know, like the NHL has said, they’re going to create a hotline, well run by who? The same people. When players started speaking out, like ex-players, on those coaches, the NHLPA put something out telling players not to talk. When their own union is telling them not to speak then what happens? There needs to be an overhaul and there needs to be a third party group that comes in and oversees this stuff.
Jordan: My last question for you, I guess, because much like every time we do this, it seems like we could talk about how much it needs to change forever, but you’ve given us some concrete practices. What do you say, and I know from talking to you that you have this conversation a lot, for maybe a parent of a young hockey player, who’s listening to this, or even a young hockey player themselves who’s dealt with this or is dealing with it now, what can they do? What should they do to hopefully protect themselves without making it worse for themselves or blowing their chance?
Brock: I think first and foremost, find people you can confide in and talk to. People like myself who will take it above and beyond. I’m always available for any kid. And I have kids that reach out daily in and out of the sport. My social media DMS are always open. From there, I think it’s important for players to recognize and for parents to recognize, that their child’s identity isn’t solely the sport hockey. Because that’s another issue where, somebody like myself, I didn’t come out because I felt like I was a hockey player, and a hockey player can’t be gay. So we need to create fully well-rounded hockey players. Fully well-rounded people who play the sport of hockey. We have to join and band together so that when things do happen, it’s not one person on their own trying to fight a system that wants to oppress them. We have to start chatting and talking as a whole.
Jordan: I hope we can do that. I will not hold my breath, but I will cross my fingers. Brock, thank you for talking to us today.
Brock: Thank you, Jordan. And I won’t hold mine either.
Jordan: Brock McGillis has some great ideas about how maybe we can fix this culture and I wish more people would listen to them. If you want to talk to him, as he said, his DMS are open, you can find him on Twitter @Brock_McGillis, like he said. If you’re having a tough time, reach out.
That was The Big Story. For more from us, head to thebigstorypodcast.ca, you’ll find all our episodes there, including the one about coaching with Donnovan Bennett that I mentioned. You can also talk to us on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn, and you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find us in every podcast player, leave us a rating, leave us a review.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. Thanks for listening. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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