On Jess Allen, the Age of Outrage, and Healing Hockey Culture

It has been a turbulent week in hockey to say the least.

Last Monday’s dismissal of Don Cherry following his comments on the November 9th edition of Coach’s Corner has sparked a massive debate that, despite the insistence by many that hockey unites Canadians, has instead shown just how divisive it can be.

I’m not going to rehash the Don Cherry saga; everyone knows about it by now. He said something, some people were offended, he lost his post on Hockey Night in Canada. I have an opinion on it, and I’m sure you do too. Maybe it’s the same opinion, maybe it’s different. That’s beyond the point. A lifetime’s worth of digital ink has already been spilled on the spread of possible opinions here.

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One particular opinion delivered in the aftermath was that of Jessica Allen on CTV’s The Social. During an episode earlier this week, Allen she spoke of previous experiences with hockey players who tended to be predominantly white and, as she put it, not very nice. The clip and her subsequent tweets on the subject ignited a firestorm in their own right. She has since spoken up again to clarify her intentions, but the damage was done and the internet is aflame.

There have been no shortage of calls for Allen’s job in the wake of her comments, with her detractors looking for some sort of poetic justice following Cherry’s dismissal for divisive comments of his own. Let’s be honest though, if your argument is that firing Cherry for his comments was wrong, firing someone else isn’t going to right that wrong – it’s designed to quench a thirst for revenge.

On top of that, as Pass It To Bulis’ Daniel Wagner astutely pointed out, campaigning for job loss doesn’t exactly demonstrate that hockey is devoid of bullies.

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In the same vein, there has been an outpouring of outright denial of the existence of problems in hockey culture, as many people insist that they have had nothing but good experiences in hockey.

It is patently fallacious to suggest that because one has had good experiences in hockey, that no one else has had bad experiences. The fact of the matter is, hockey players are diverse, not only in there ethnicity and socioeconomic status, but also in their attitudes and behaviours.

Issues in Hockey Culture

I played minor hockey from age five through age 19, and in that time I met some wonderful people and made some lifelong friends. I also had plenty of experiences with players (and parents for that matter), that didn’t treat other people very nicely. I’m not the least bit surprised that Jess Allen had negative experiences with hockey players. I’m also not surprised that these people were predominantly Caucasian, as despite an increase in diversity among registered youth players, hockey is still a sport that is predominantly played by Caucasians.

Take a look at some of the responses on social media when it comes to how players of different ethnicities are treated. Two recurring themes (and there are of course exceptions) is Caucasian players proclaiming that they have seen no more than one or two incidents of racism in 10, 20, 30 years in the sport, while players who clearly belong to a visible minority tell stories of routine racism and bullying. These two situations may seem hard to reconcile, but it makes perfect sense when you consider the fact that is easy to forget something that doesn’t directly affect you.

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That doesn’t even begin to account for stories from professionals like Wayne Simmonds and Willie O’Ree, who have felt the effects of racism in the past and spoken of its continued existence in a present. In 2011, while playing for the Philadelphia Flyers, Simmonds had a banana thrown at him. Following the game, Simmonds noted: “When you’re black, you kind of expect (racist) things. You learn to deal with it.”

“I still go to the games and I watch and still see racial remarks and slurs directed to the players and I just shake my head.” O’Ree, the NHL’s first black player, said earlier this year. “It’s not going to end overnight. It’s going to take still a long time to overcome the racial problems that we have in hockey.”

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Denial of the fact that hockey culture has had problems stretching back generations with both racism and bullying, or that those problems still exist in some places, is flat out irresponsible.

This isn’t all to say that I agree with all that Allen said or the way she said it. I think that she could have chosen her words a lot more carefully (and it appears that she was able to reflect upon that in her later tweets). Moreover, such targeted criticism strikes me as unwise and bound to incite outrage, especially singling out a specific group of people. Outrage is rarely a path to healing.

As an aside though, I can’t imagine how people that have been subjected to real, debilitating racism for their entire lives feel when they see a bunch of Caucasian accusing a Caucasian woman of being racist against Caucasians because she generalized hockey players as Caucasian. I suspect it’s somewhere between amusement and annoyance.

What I see when I look at Allen’s original comments and the associated follow ups, is a person whose experiences with hockey early on have left unhealed wounds. She strikes me as a person who has been wronged by people connected to the sport, and it’s coloured her perception ever since.

“Not every boy or girl who plays hockey is a privileged white person,” four-time Olympic gold medalist Hayley Wickenheiser told the media on Friday. “Yes, hockey is predominantly a white sport and it’s very expensive. I kind of got where (Allen) was trying to come from, but those comments are inflammatory, it’s not what the game needs.”

I agree that Allen’s comments were inflammatory, and aren’t what the game needs, but nor does it need folks to attack her for her opinions. Instead of punishing her for this outburst, I think the more pressing question is: how did she come to feel this way, and how can it be avoided in the future? She certainly isn’t the only person to develop these impressions about hockey players. Can those broken relationships be mended? Attacking and firing all of those critical of the sport and its participants doesn’t seem like a step in the right direction to me.

Which begs the question: is there a better way to approach this issue?

Healing the Divide

If that were the end that one wished to achieve, a more appropriate tact might be demonstrating the good that hockey is doing currently. The was clearly the impetus behind Mikael Kingo’s video, shown below.

Mikael is clearly on a path to doing good, but there are a couple of bits of constructive criticism that I would dole out here.

One: Mikael begins by stating that he was outraged by Allen’s comments. However, as he speaks to the camera, he neither looks nor sounds outraged. He sounds offended, sure, possibly hurt; but otherwise calm and relatively composed. His demeanor is at odds with his word choice, and I think that’s a good thing. We live in an age of outrage, and I get the feeling that Mikael felt compelled to proclaim his outrage, but I think it detracts from his heartfelt point.

Two: Mikael calls Allen a bully in the tweet to which the video is attached. Regardless of whether her comments make her a bully (I’m skeptical), I don’t believe that throwing such labels around is helpful. Moreover, Allen was professing a negative reaction to being bullied by hockey players when she was younger, and she has certainly been bullied again since her comments on The Social. Like the video after the outrage comment, the tweet following the bully comment displays a greater commitment to unity.

Three: Mikael states in his video that Allen claimed that all hockey players are white and male, and proceeds to refute this point with examples of female mentors, and experiences with teammates and opponents of varying ethnicities. Of course, that’s not remotely what Allen said, and has continued to clarify this in the aftermath. If you want to prove someone wrong, it’s important to get a handle on what they actually said.

The only reason that I pick at these three particular points is that, apart from them, I think Mikael’s video does an admirable job of demonstrating the good that hockey can do, including his support for the Angel Project, a charity that raises funds for complex care patients in Ontario.

If somebody wanted to respond to Allen’s comments and show how hockey is working to improve its culture, they should look to a kid like Mikael and help guide his message towards the righting of wrongs – not denial of them.

The one other thing missing is an admission that wrongs have occurred. Anyone who has had any sort of experience in interpersonal relationships of any type can attest that admitting to wronging someone is not an easy thing to do. But it is a necessary thing to do in order to heal and move forward. Mikael might be too young to be fully cognizant of the extent of those issues, but with a little guidance, I think he and others like him can to a world of good to all manner of disaffected Canadians.

I have seen no shortage of former players or hockey parents weigh in with their positive experiences in the sport, no doubt meant to be perceived as messages of hope, such as “hockey saved me”. This is a fine sentiment, but would be strengthened if couched by an admission of problems of the past and how one is addressing those problems. Perhaps something like this:

Yes, there are segments of the hockey playing population that has done damage in the past, and there are places where hurt is being done still. But here are some things that we are doing to improve it to make sure that non-white, non-male hockey players and hockey fans feel welcome in this great Canadian game.

That would be my message to Jess Allen and others who have had negative experiences with hockey and hockey players in the past, provided that they’re open to and interested in giving the sport a second chance. Don’t deny that their negative experiences occurred, don’t attack them for feeling differently about the game. Show them how hockey can heal, and how hockey can unite.