Now is the time to push boundaries. Now is the time for action. In the United States of America, at least 25 major cities have imposed curfews as a response to the public’s outrage over police brutality and racism. Society has reached a tipping point. Riots are taking place all over the U.S. as violence litters the streets of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Seattle, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Washington, New York and other cities across the nation.
For far too long, those who support social reforms have muzzled themselves out of fear. Their voices have been lost because they are afraid of the potential consequences to their careers. Those who have been outspoken have, historically, been ostracized. It takes courage not to be concerned about this. Frank Serpico risked his life to expose the corruption in the New York Police Department. Curt Flood revolutionized sports.
That selfless sensibility is exactly what society needs in order for any change to take place.
Flood sacrificed his career for the freedoms of athletes throughout the sporting world.
The reserve clause gave a player’s team the sole right to that player for the duration of their career and forbade them from signing with anyone else (Eric Whitehead, The Province, January 18, 1958). Every major sport had its own reserve clause. It was compared to slavery.
“The [hockey] professionals are not over-harsh slavemasters. In some ways they are generous. But they do these things:
Sign boys at 18 — sometimes without consent of parents — to contracts that commit them to playing all their careers with one club — until the club chooses to get rid of them. The contract gives them the right to send players away to remote towns in their farm system, at small pay.
Punish a contract breaker by exiling him from professional and amateur hockey — under the terms of amateur-professional agreement. If a youngster signs a ‘C’ tryout form, then changes his mind, he can be thrown out of all hockey.” - G.E. Mortimer, The Globe and Mail, March 12, 1963.
Curt Flood, of African-American heritage, challenged baseball’s reserve clause, suing Major League Baseball in 1970. He refused to report to the Philadelphia Phillies because he felt that the team’s fans were racist. It was a challenge to the MLB’s exempt status from the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, first granted in 1922 in Federal Baseball Club v. National League. The ruling in the case Flood v. Kuhn (1972) upheld the anti-trust exemption but galvanized athletes across the sporting world, giving them hope that they could challenge their leagues’ respective reserve clauses and become free agents. His actions also gave credence to the idea of the no-trade clause, which would allow a player to refuse a trade to another team.
Flood’s career was effectively over once he challenged the status quo. Baseball’s owners chose to blacklist him (Geoffrey Smith, The Kingston Whig-Standard, April 18, 1988).
“The reserve clause, the antitrust exemption, and the legal decisions that had accumulated around it all had an aura of irrationality about them. It was as if, as Miller once put it, ‘the courts were saying ‘Yes, you’re an American and have the right to seek employment anywhere you like, but this right does not apply to baseball players.’
When Flood came to Miller, his mind was already made up. ‘I told him,’ recalls Miller, ‘that given the courts’ history of bias towards the owners and their monopoly, he didn’t have a chance in hell of winning. More important than that, I told him even if he won, he’d never get anything out of it—he’d never get a job in baseball again.’
Flood asked Miller if it would benefit other players. ‘I told him yes, and those to come.
He said, ‘That’s good enough for me.’’ When Miller realized that Flood understood the odds against him and was still determined to go ahead with the case, he told him, ‘You’re a union-leader’s dream.’” - Allen Barra, The Atlantic, July 12, 2011.
Baseball ultimately annulled its reserve clause in a 1975 decision by arbitrator Peter Seitz. Flood paved the way for a new bargaining agreement that allowed players free agency after six years of service in the MLB.
His actions eventually led to the U.S. Congress’ passing of the Curt Flood Act of 1998, which recognizes the protection of MLB players by the same anti-trust laws that protect players in other sports, thereby overriding the previous anti-trust exemption. Until then, the MLB had been exempt from general anti-trust legislation.
Flood was a three-time Major League Baseball All-Star, two-time World Series champion and seven-time Gold Glove Award recipient.
The MLB has not honored Curt Flood. He has not been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Establishment has chosen not to celebrate his legacy. He was labeled a dissident.
He put principle ahead of his own well-being. His sacrifice was not for his own benefit, but for everyone else’s. Those who wish to facilitate social reforms must model themselves after Flood and after Serpico. When circumstances are dire, order and decorum only serve to bind us. The status quo is no longer acceptable.
In order for change to occur, the boundaries that keep change from occurring must be overstepped.
Too many people are unwilling to take action, and thus issues of injustice are allowed to fester. The scope of this article is to investigate abuse in hockey, but the principle of doing everything possible to affect social change applies to our civilization as a whole. Historically, change has occurred when order can no longer be maintained, and when the public can no longer be contained. The Revolutions of 1989 led to the collapse of the Iron Curtain. The antiquated and often tyrannical monarchical systems of the past 2,000+ years crumbled through force.
This week, cities in America have been lit ablaze. These demonstrations reflect the consequences of injustice, but awareness is just the first step. Change requires a community approach and support from people at all levels of the social ladder. Politicians and academics must participate in the upheaval of the status quo. Education reform is necessary to bridge the gaps between groups who do not relate to one another. Political reform is necessary to protect society from tyranny. Social reform is necessary to encourage communication from those in positions of weakness. Those who can affect change must be willing to overstep the limits that have been placed upon them. The ultimate objective is cultural reform.
“During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people.I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all people will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs to be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” - Nelson Mandela, April 20, 1964.
To sacrifice what you possess for the betterment of others takes more leadership than anything that athletes can exhibit from playing sports.
There are issues larger than sport, but the sporting world remains intertwined and can often set an example for the rest of society. As this is a sports platform, we will discuss much of this in the context of sport.
Football player Colin Kaepernick is a prime example of a player whose actions have cost him his career, but whose message extends beyond the scope of football. In 2016, when he kneeled during the American national anthem in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, he was excommunicated from the NFL.
In 2018, the NFL instated a rule allowing punishment for any players who kneel during the playing of the national anthem.
Kaepernick is very much a modern successor to Curt Flood. One voice, however, is not enough. There must be solidarity. Others must be willing to go to similar lengths in order to alter the status quo. The NFL’s hand must be forced through the actions of its players and even its executives. Protest the league’s operation en masse and they will reconsider their position.
Sport is a microcosm of society. Canada’s former Heritage Minister, Sheila Copps, said as much in 1999 when she discussed hockey and racism: “Hockey is a reflection of where we are as a society, like any chunk of who we are... Times have changed. Hockey has changed. But times don’t change as quickly as we’d like and I don’t think hockey’s changed as quickly as we’d like” (James Christie, The Globe and Mail, May 28, 1999).
Athletes, celebrities and those in privileged positions must participate and utilize their leverage to uproot the status quo. Whatever authority they possess can be channeled towards a greater cause. Those whose demonstrations go beyond the limitations of social decorum are the leaders of change.
For our purposes, we will apply these principles to issues that plague hockey and that have only begun to receive some publicity: bullying, abuse, mental health, racism, and the fear of individual expression. All of these issues are tied together.
Chapter I: Silence in Hockey
Hockey, like America, is in a state of crisis.
Abuse of all forms remains rampant throughout the sport, and yet victims remain in silence.
In May 2020, The Athletic published a piece about the racial abuse that former NHL prospect Akim Aliu suffered during his hockey career. Few responded.
San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane was among the few to offer an opinion: “I think there’s a lot more stories like [Aliu’s]. This wasn’t racism from another player on another team or another coach on another team, this was from right in his own locker room... That happens as well, it’s happened to me.”
In February 2020, The Athletic’s Katie Strang published an article about the systematic sexual abuse of hockey players in the Chicago area by hockey coach Thomas Adrahtas. Over a period of over 30 years and across multiple coaching positions, Adrahtas sexually abused his players. None of his victims spoke publicly about it at the time, and he can no longer be charged for his alleged crimes during the 1980s due to the statute of limitations. Adrahtas was slated to be inducted into the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame in 2010, but was subsequently rebuffed when former player Chris Jensen reported his actions in a letter to the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois.
USA Hockey president Jim Smith is now being investigated for his handling of the allegations, and two lawsuits have been filed against USA Hockey asserting that they knew or should have known about Adrahtas’ behavior.
All of this information is only coming forth now. Had any of this news been made public any sooner, the necessary conversations could have occurred sooner. The perpetrators could have been identified.
Silence is an epidemic. It breeds corruption and abuse. It enables injustices to occur.
One problem is the authority that coaches have over athletes to control their careers. Additionally, many athletes choose not to cause additional friction between themselves and their peers, so they allow themselves to be victimized. Players are afraid to speak.
According to former NHL player Daniel Carcillo, who shared his own story of abuse in 2018, approximately 400 stories from other players appeared in his email inbox.
“There’s 750 guys in the NHL... not one of them came out with an abuse story... A bunch of them are in my inbox, but they asked, ‘Please, please, please, please, whatever you do, keep this between us,’ because there’s fear of reprisal. There’s no avenues to talk to people about this unless you want your career to end.” - Daniel Carcillo, former NHL player (2007-2015), 2019.
Many NHL players have been silent. Victims have not spoken about their issues, from racial, to sexual, to other forms of physical and verbal abuse. Some prominent players have neglected to address the recent bullying scandals that have been brought to the public’s attention. As individuals in prominent positions to affect change, they have done nothing at all.
It is a matter of self-preservation to stay quiet. Those who fear judgment become bystanders. Few players want to uproot the status quo, direct controversy towards their workplace or their boss and be singled out. They are afraid to speak due to the potential repercussions.
They don’t want to be like Curt Flood. They don’t want to be like Colin Kaepernick. They want to reap the benefits of those who fought for their rights, but they don’t want to follow in their footsteps.
Transparency and communication are two keys to stopping the crisis:
“If you perform a Google search with the key words hockey and racism you are bombarded with a series of vile incidents in which race is at the core... [Akim Aliu] was a kid trying to find his way to the world’s toughest league and here was his coach, a man who controlled his future, allegedly tossing epithets around like confetti.
What do you do when you’re that kid? Speak out and you’re branded as a troublemaker and there goes your dream of playing in the NHL. You have no power, no voice. So you keep your mouth shut, like so many who’ve gone before you, and hope it gets better.
Except it didn’t get better for Aliu. He just buried it for a decade. Then it came out. If there’s one encouraging development to come out of this, it’s that players have started speaking out. That’s the only way to confront this monster. Racism starts in a dark place in the human heart but silence allows it to grow, feeding it, normalizing it.” - Ed Willes, Vancouver sports columnist, November 28, 2019.
Superstars might feel that to antagonize the league or draw negative publicity to the sport would dent their relationship with their team, the NHL, and the whole hockey establishment. The average NHL player is concerned about job security.
Likewise, in light of the most recent instance of racially-charged police brutality resulting in George Floyd’s death, Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arradondo spoke about the silence of police officers with regards to the intolerable actions of some of their peers:
“Being silent or not intervening, to me, [means] you’re complicit. So I don’t see a level of distinction any different... But to the Floyd family, I want you to know that my decision to fire all four officers was not based on some sort of hierarchy. Mr. Floyd died in our hands...
Silence and inaction, you’re complicit. You’re complicit. If there were one solitary voice, it would have intervened and acted — that’s what I would have hoped. Unfortunately, that did not occur.” - Medaria Arrandondo, Minneapolis police chief, May 31, 2020.
Too many police officers allow corruption to take place. They worry about preserving their own livelihoods. Corruption proliferates. Inexcusable behavior becomes normalized when there are no deterrents or when the penalties are too weak.
It is the responsibility of the police to remove its abusers and to expose the issues that fester internally. Frank Serpico and David Durk are examples of officers who exposed the corruption of the New York Police Department from within. Their work throughout the 1960s led to the Commission to Investigate Alleged Police Corruption — The Knapp Commission — which ultimately recommended major reforms to the department.
“Through my appearances here today I hope that police officers in the future will not experience the same frustration and anxiety that I was subjected to for the past five years at the hands of my superiors because of my attempt to report corruption.
I was made to feel that I had burdened them with an unwanted task. The problem is that the atmosphere does not yet exist in which an honest police officer can act without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers.
We must create an atmosphere in which the dishonest officer fears the honest one and not the other way around. I hope that this investigation and any future ones will deal with corruption at all levels within the department and not limit themselves to cases involving individual patrolmen.
Police corruption cannot exist unless it is at least tolerated at higher levels in the department. Therefore, the most important result that can come from these hearings is a conviction by police officers, even more than the public, that the department will change.” - Frank Serpico, NYPD whistleblower, December, 1971.
“The fact is that almost wherever we turned in the Police Department, wherever we turned in the city administration, and almost wherever we went in the rest of the city, we were met not with cooperation, not with appreciation, not with an eagerness to seek out the truth, but with suspicion and hostility and laziness and inattention, and with our fear that at any moment our efforts might be betrayed.” - David Durk, NYPD whistleblower.
The NHL discussed the issue of bullying in 2013. Their general managers’ meeting that year included a discussion about the topic after the occurrence of a bullying scandal in the NFL centered around two Miami Dolphins players.
Nothing has changed.
In 2019, allegations about long-time NHL coach Mike Babcock’s conduct towards his players and employees in both Detroit and Toronto became public. He bullied players Mike Modano, Chris Chelios, Johan Franzen, among many others while he was with the Red Wings. He bullied players as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a position he held between 2015 and 2019.
“‘I get the shivers when I think about it. That incident occurred against Nashville in the playoffs. It was coarse, nasty and shocking. But that was just one out of a hundred things he did. The tip of the iceberg,’ Franzen said.
Franzen, who Chelios says was hurt at the time of the incident, has not appeared in the NHL since 2015 due to post-concussion syndromes. In 2018, Franzen told Expressen that he’d been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder while also dealing with severe anxiety, depression and panic attacks.
Franzen said Babcock would say ‘horrible things’ to teammates. He added that beginning in 2011, he was ‘terrified of being at the rink’ after the first time Babcock berated him.
“He’s a terrible person, the worst I have ever met. He’s a bully who was attacking people. It could be a cleaner at the arena in Detroit or anybody. He would lay into people without any reason,” Franzen said.” - “Former Red Wings Chelios, Franzen accuse Mike Babcock of ‘verbal assault,’” CBC Sports, December 2, 2019.
Nothing was done about Babcock’s behavior until Toronto player Mitch Marner spoke publicly about the abuse he was subjected to as a rookie during the 2016-17 NHL season.
Babcock, once considered to be among the most respected and acclaimed coaches in hockey, has not been hired since he was dismissed in November 2019 just prior to Marner’s public comments. The other stories about Babcock only came streaming in afterward.
Athletes are too passive. They have enabled abusive behavior with their lack of action. When Evander Kane and Akim Aliu came forward in May 2020, most of their peers remained silent. Only after the George Floyd protests began on May 25, 2020 did the outpouring begin on social media.
“The truth is that players would much rather talk about their TikToks than provide a thoughtful comment on the issue of race in the NHL. NHL players taking a pass on issues is nothing new, but the silence of white players on this issue is no longer tenable. In the context of the [COVID-19] pandemic, people with much more to lose have had to step up and make difficult choices as our normal way of life crumbles, and yet, the majority of NHL players can’t even bothered to offer up a tweet of support for a fellow player whose allegations speak to the glaring inequalities of the sport.” - Hemal Jhaveri, USA Today writer, May 20, 2020.
Who will fight for change in hockey? Who will expose the systemic issues, even at the risk of their own career?
The NHL is at the top of hockey’s hierarchy. It represents the pinnacle, the highest level, of that industry. Players who have spent their lives dreaming of being in the NHL remain silent out of fear of being ostracized by their peers and the league. They fear that a lifetime of hard work and dedication to the sport will be undone.
The NHL introduced a new ‘no-tolerance’ policy at the end of 2019 due to the Bill Peters incident, but players have continued to be silent about the culture of abuse and past incidents. Those 400+ stories that Carcillo received indicate that there is a much more systemic issue that must be addressed. Players have said little to acknowledge this history. There is a precedent in sports to implement hasty and sometimes poorly-conceived measures as a means of public relations.
When the NHL implemented its substance abuse policy in 1992, psychologists criticized its harshness.
“National Hockey League president Gil Stein has been quoted as proudly saying the league’s policy on substance abuse is ‘Draconian.’... The policy on illegal drug use is simple — anyone who admits to using illegal drugs is suspended indefinietly. This has received widespread criticism from experts in the field of substance abuse for discouraging players from coming forward with their problems...
There is a long list of players with drinking problems which goes back to the NHL’s early days and such men as Howie Morenz. There is a long list of fatalities that can be attributed to alcohol abuse or drinking and driving.
The list of fatalities from drinking and driving includes both players and management. Those who have died in alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents include players Bob Gassoff of the St. Louis Blues and Pelle Lindberg of the Philadelphia Flyers, as well as Baz Bastien, general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The list of NHL players, coaches and general managers charged while driving under the influence of alcohol is far longer.” - David Shoalts, The Globe and Mail, November 5, 1992.
The league was insensitive to the issue.
The NFL, meanwhile, recently responded to the death of George Floyd and subsequent fury by issuing a public statement in support of the protesters.
Colin Kaepernick remains unable to rejoin the NFL. The NFL’s words do not reflect its actions. Its gesture is one of public relations, not civil rights. Their hypocrisy is evident. Numerous players, the media, and the public lambasted NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the league for the hollow gesture.
Public relations gestures do not affect change. Actions speak louder than words.
The NFL’s decision to keep Kaepernick out of its league shows that they do not support the movement, and instead continue to enforce deterrents to muzzle civil rights expressions.
Those in the NFL who support Kaepernick’s cause should follow in his footsteps. Strength comes in numbers.
The stigma in sporting circles towards vocal athletes is also misplaced.
Those less concerned about their own reputation have often been labeled distractions. Evander Kane is one such player. The culture of hockey promotes the shaming of those who try to express themselves individually.
Kane was chastised in 2012 for posing in a photograph above the Las Vegas skyline using a stack of money as a telephone prop — an innocuous moment for the player. The incident contributed to his unflattering public reputation. Reporter Kristina Rutherford, writing for Sportsnet, wrote, “Kane has been called a lot of things. Cocky. Selfish. A jerk. In hockey circles, ‘distraction’ is the popular term.”
He has also been among the more outspoken players in the NHL. He is not concerned about his public image, and he has thus become one of the leaders against racial abuse in the NHL. Until George Floyd’s death and the powerful response of the public, most NHL players remained silent. In fact, most have still said nothing specifically about racism in the NHL. They have done the bare minimum to save face. More can be done. Hockey already publicly condemns racism, but that has not prevented racial abuse from occurring behind its closed doors. Law enforcement officials can say that they condemn police brutality, but few are willing to be whistle-blowers. Kane’s courage to be himself is exactly what has allowed him not to fear judgment.
“In the wake of yet another abhorrent incident of racial injustice, Kane has joined those calling on more voices in prominent positions to speak out, to show their outrage, and to use their platforms to move us all towards meaningful change. That means prominent athletes in hockey and beyond, says Kane, but also all others who could make waves by simply acknowledging these issues.
‘It would make a huge difference, first and foremost,’ Kane told Stephen Brunt, Richard Deitsch and Jeff Blair on Sportsnet 590 The FAN’s Writers Bloc Friday. ‘And I want to say that it’s just not athletes — it’s people with voices, people with big voices. Public figures. Whether you’re an athlete, a celebrity, somebody that works in politics, whatever it may be — it’s people at the top…When you have ethnicities other than the ones that are being affected step up and say something, that causes a real dialogue. It can cause real change. And it can cause people to really open up their eyes and come together, and I think that’s the biggest thing. And we don’t have nearly enough of that, clearly.
‘In particular to our sport, you know, there’s been a handful of guys that have spoke up and mentioned it and spoke out against what has just transpired, as an example, recently. But nowhere [near] enough. And nowhere [are] the voices that really could make a serious impact... I think it’s a culture thing, for sure. You’re talking about rocking the boat — we can’t even get enough people on the boat to start. So, it would be impossible to rock the boat... The problem is that hockey culture and the way it’s ingrained, especially in terms of Canada and throughout minor hockey, is to put your head down, go to work, and shut your mouth. That’s essentially the message from when you step on the ice from five years or eight years old, whenever it may be. And it’s continuously pounded in to you, to conform to what everybody else is doing.
‘And when you have certain players that don’t conform to what these old-school mindsets that are at the top are telling you to do, then you’re viewed as a bad apple or a problem or a bad guy. And that’s a major problem, and there’s been plenty of examples of that.’” - Sonny Sachdeva, Sportsnet.ca, May 29, 2020.
Kane does not care about his reputation. That is the attitude that is necessary to take action against oppression. He addressed this in an article published by The Athletic on June 2, 2020.
“A lot of people like to pretend it does not happen. That it does not exist. That’s part of the problem. That’s where you get pushback as a minority...
We knew about (Aliu’s) story and some of the things he said. But until it involved someone who was in our league, it then took the articles and stories that had to take place for action to eventually happen.
Hockey is such a culture where guys are worried about what they are saying and how their reputation is perceived. Reputation for me is bullshit... it’s about someone’s character. Reputation is how someone perceives you…
What I do is put stock into people’s character and it truly shows and you truly find out about someone’s character and that things are not all rainbows and butterflies. When it comes to speaking out and saying what is right and what is just and what I believe in? I don’t really care what other people have to say.
Are there consequences in terms of making people uncomfortable? I don’t care. I think we need to make people more uncomfortable...
You look at some of the biggest people in sports. People like LeBron James...
He’s been saying this for years as well. That it is always been about supporting people and issues like racial injustice. If his voice is not going to create the change alone, nobody’s voice is. We need to support one another and use our numbers to our advantage and that’s where you get strength in numbers. That could not be more true. Especially in these circumstances...
We need as many people, as many voices and as many heads put together to help change the way we do things in society, especially in the justice system.” - Evander Kane, The Athletic, June 2, 2020.
The sporting world needs more Curt Floods and Colin Kaepernicks. More athletes need to be willing to push the boundaries and demonstrate selflessness as privileged persons. Barriers can only be broken with pressure.
Speaking in generalities does little. A statement issued on social media is not enough.
How far are athletes willing to go? Who would stage a walkout in the name of social reform?
Imagine baseball, football, hockey, or basketball stopping due to a mass protest by the players. Imagine the impact of such a disruption to the global consciousness. The world is connected by sport, and a forced shutdown would reinforce the public’s cries for social reform. To facilitate change, boundaries must be overstepped. Demonstrations are about education and also about exhibiting the consequences of injustice. They are a verbal and physical manifestation of the people’s frustrations.
There is not enough leadership from the so-called leaders of sport. The real leaders will push the limits of their domain.
Chapter II: Empathy and Tolerance
Anecdotes about bullying within hockey have placed peer and public relations at the heart of a larger cultural discussion in 2020. NHL head coach Bill Peters resigned in December 2019 and NHL forward Brendan Leipsic’s contract was terminated in April 2020 after their intolerant behavior became public knowledge. The league and its players are trained to uphold high public relations standards, and only after these stories were publicly exposed did the NHL react.
After Aliu shared his story, former Carolina Hurricanes player Michal Jordan alleged that Peters had punched him in the head during their time together in Carolina. Rod Brind’Amour, an assistant coach at the time, confirmed this afterward. Jordan played for the Hurricanes between 2014 and 2016.
The behavior exhibited by Peters and Leipsic is much more systemic, as indicated by the 400+ letters Dan Carcillo received. Few players spoke in response to Leipsic’s intolerant messages.
Evander Kane, in late May 2020, asserted that “we’re not going to be able to... fix this massive issue... [when] all we’ve done so far is just cover it up or try to cover it up.”
Those who govern — political bodies, corporate entities or otherwise — must show humility just like everyone else. To be humble is to admit that there is room for oneself to improve and to recognize one’s own faults. There must be cooperation. No one is perfect. Our ability to relate to one another’s faults humanizes us. To distance ourselves is to dehumanize.
Empathy requires humility.
The NHL is very protective of its public relations. The fear of judgment has kept players silent.
Silence is a mistake. Former NHL player and sexual abuse victim Theoren Fleury feared Western Hockey League head coach Graham James because of the latter’s authority to control the fate of his hockey career in the late 1980s. Fleury said nothing when it happened. He said nothing for years out of fear. He felt ashamed and exploited. He buried his head and tried to lock his feelings within. He contained his emotions withinand ventured down a path of self harm.
In 2016, as part of the Hockey Talks initiative, former NHL and WHL player Sheldon Kennedy, another of James’ victims, offered some insight into his own experience. By bottling his feelings of exploitation, he became suicidal. In 1995, he exposed James’ actions by speaking publicly about what had occurred.
“I really didn’t have any goals twenty years ago when I told the world what was going on in my life other than ‘how do I shut my head off and how do I stop wanting to kill myself?’ At that time, all I knew was that I needed to tell somebody what was going on, but I had no clue how to get out of the way I felt. I’ve really learned the journey that it takes and the commitment that it takes to actually get out of the chaos and the craziness that was in my head.
For me, I think the common thought was that, ‘It must be my fault. I must be weak. I must have done something to deserve what happened to me or the way I feel. I don’t know how to explain the way I feel. I don’t even know how to explain it to myself, let alone others. People are going to look at me differently.’ Those were some of the questions that I felt, but I think more than anything, what we understand today is the true impact, in my case anyway, of being stuck in your head...
People that have had adverse childhood experiences, they come in many ways, shapes and forms. It could be: losing a parent, growing up in a divorce situation that wasn’t pleasant. It could be: growing up in an alcoholic home, a violent home. That changes the way that child’s brain is built (and we know that today through the imagining of the brains) which leads to anxiety, mental health issues, depression, violence, addiction, suicidal ideations [sic]. We are in a lot better position to make visible the invisible.
And I think that a lot of times with mental health and people that struggle with trying to explain this to society, is that we have a hard time painting the picture of the invisible.
And, so, the gift that we have today is that we can paint that picture pretty well for people, so that at least they know what they’re dealing with and how to get better.
What we’re teaching with kids right now is: ‘We need to change the question from ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to ‘What happened to you?’” and really to look deeper. Look deeper at the surface issues that are being presented... The magic for us as a friend, as a parent, as a police officer, as a teacher... isn’t to be a PhD and fix the individual. The magic for us is the gift that we can offer to those that are suffering... to take them by the hand and to put them in front of the people that are able to help them.” - Sheldon Kennedy, Member of the Order of Canada (for “his courageous leadership in raising awareness of childhood sexual abuse and his continued efforts to prevent abuse in schools, sports and communities”), 2016.
Kennedy was afraid of being judged, but found enough courage to speak. It was a watershed moment in the exposure of sexual abuse in hockey. It brought awareness to the issue of mental health caused by abuse.
This brings us to the topic of the detrimental effects of silence pertaining to cases of abuse. Why does abuse occur? What can be done? We must begin to understand the mental health conditions of the abused and also the abusers.
There are cases when the perpetrators of crime are irredeemable. They are hazardous to society. People like Graham James are dangerous. However, there is a spectrum of severity with regards to abuse, and most incidents in hockey are matters in which the abuser should, at first, seek rehabilitation. This might lessen the stresses of victims who only wish for the abusive behavior to stop.
Bullying is a learned behavior, and it can often be caused by abuse to that person. Those who bully often have demons of their own, and bullying is the channeling of their hostility and trauma towards another individual. Like a virus, many attempt to project their own experiences on to others, infecting them with the trauma that they also endured.
Victims should not be afraid to identify their abusers. The objective should be to stop abusive behavior through transparency and public awareness of the perpetrator’s malicious conduct. Collective knowledge about incidents of unacceptable conduct can deter repeated behavior from the transgressor of the abuse. The malicious behavior of the abuser should be stigmatized, not the communication from the victim.
From a humanist perspective, it is crucial to identify abusers so that they can seek rehabilitation. One must protect themselves and others from their aggression. The collective mindset must also, however, allow potential abusers the opportunity to seek preventative measures and counseling.
Long-time NHL coach Marc Crawford represents this humanist approach. In 2019, after he was accused of physically abusing his players, he was suspended. However, he admitted that he had spent years in rehabilitation to change his behavior. He was forgiven.
Crawford has been reinstated in the NHL. He also realizes that the public is aware of his past.
“Following a thorough review of allegations levelled against assistant coach Marc Crawford, the Chicago Blackhawks have announced that the veteran coach will remain suspended through the end of the year. He will be eligible to return to his post on Jan. 2, 2020.
In a statement released Monday, two weeks to the day after the Blackhawks announced they would be investigating allegations of misconduct by Crawford during his past coaching stops, the team acknowledged that they do not condone Crawford’s past behavior, but stated they believe, ‘Marc has learned from his past actions and has committed to striving to reform himself and evolve personally and professionally over the last decade.’ Crawford began professional counselling in 2010 and has continued ‘on a regular basis since,’ according to the Blackhawks.
The investigation into Crawford’s past actions, which included discussions with former players, executives and coaching colleagues of the Blackhawks assistant coach, came days after former NHL winger Sean Avery made comments regarding an incident involving Crawford during the 2006-07 season. Avery said that during his time with the Los Angeles Kings, then-coach Crawford gave him ‘an a— kick that left a mark’ following a penalty the winger took that resulted in a goal against.
Following Avery’s comments, another incident involving Crawford and former NHL defenseman Brent Sopel came to light. Speaking on an episode of the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast, which resurfaced following the Avery allegations, Sopel alleged he was kicked, choked and attacked verbally by Crawford.” - “Blackhawks announce completion of review of Marc Crawford, assistant coach can return in January,” The Hockey News, December 17, 2019.
If, as a society, we embrace the understanding that bullies and abusers are also victims of mental illness, we can begin to treat their condition and prevent the behavior. We must neutralize the ego-reinforcing effects of abusive actions. Bullies aren’t powerful. Take action to prevent them from harming others. They need help.
“Hockey Talks” and “Hockey Is For Everyone” are considered to be two separate movements — one is about mental health, the other is about tolerance. In reality, their purposes are intertwined. Abuse often comes from those who are themselves troubled. Abuse causes mental health issues in victims. The behavior is viral. Theoren Fleury is a prime example of both the bully and the abused, as is NHL legend Bobby Hull. We will address their stories later.
Fleury’s story in Chapter IV represents an arc that can be applied within the context of hockey’s abuse crisis. He was a victim of child neglect and sexual molestation who spoke out. He became a bully because of his troubled past. Fleury abused drugs and alcohol, became a gambler and was twice divorced. The NHL suspended him on several occasions. His mental state was so poor that he nearly killed himself. Through years of therapy and counseling, his mental health has been restored to a level where he now lives comfortably with his current wife. He symbolizes transparency, progress, and second opportunities. We also see the consequences that come from silence.
There needs to be more courage from within the hockey community to document and publicize abuse. Society must also treat abusers as people who can be rehabilitated. We can learn from the prison systems of some European nations and their treatment of criminals.
The best advice that one can tell a child who is being bullied or who is a witness: tell others. Stand up yourself and for others. These principles must now be applied to hockey and not be stigmatized.
Let us be reminded now of what we tell our children.
“Bullying is what someone does when they try and force their way or their will upon another person. And they do that by intimidation or aggression. When you see someone getting picked on, [and] you see the bully doing something... Say, ‘Stop,’ and as soon as you say ‘stop,’... go right to your teacher or the principal of the school or your guidance counselor — whoever is in a position of authority at your school. When you see someone getting bullied, you go up to them and you tell them what happened.” - Chris Nilan, former NHL player (1980-1992), 2012.
Former NHL player Chris Nilan, who has recovered from his own battle with drug and alcohol addiction, is now an anti-bullying advocate for kids. He currently hosts his own radio show, Off The Cuff, on TSN 690 in Montreal.
“I try and empower children and educate them to stick up for kids who are so overcome with fear that they can’t stick up for themselves. They’re scared and they’re paralyzed. They don’t know what to do. There are so many kids out there who are capable of speaking up and speaking out for these kids. I think it’s an important message.
I think it’s bullshit when people pick on people that are weak or people that aren’t as strong as them. Anyone who is in a position of power and takes advantage of someone else is, to put it bluntly, just a chickenshit coward... The fact of the matter is that bullying starts at home. These kids learn it from their parents and parents have to get involved more. They have to realize that if their kid’s a bully, they have to do something about it. They have to teach that kid a new way because it’s a learned behavior. And as much as you can learn it, you can unlearn it and learn a new way.
Parental involvement is key. And the fact of the matter is a lot of parents don’t want to think that their little Johnny is a bully. The fact of the matter is that little Johnny is a bully and you should do something about it. Parents don’t. They don’t want to take that responsibility because it’s a direct reflection on them when their kid’s a bully.” - Chris Nilan, former NHL player (1980-1992), 2014.
The situation in hockey is analogous. Too many players are bystanders when their peers are victims. This is the same silence that plagues society and upholds the status quo. Hockey’s executives have turned a blind eye to the victimization of their athletes. They would rather save face and pretend that the issue does not exist than address it. The business aspects of sport take precedence over the humanitarian aspects.
“If you talk to a lot of players who played for Mike Babcock, they will all share the same sentiment: good coach, but very, very questionable about the things he does to certain people... I’m not going to go out on a limb and say he’s a bad guy because that’s not my place — I only played for him for less than half a season — but I can understand why people say he’s a bad guy... I played with guys in Detroit that hated him. Every year in Detroit the leaders would go in and try to get him fired, but [general manager] Kenny Holland wouldn’t even entertain that conversation because he knew what he was getting as a coach.” - Carlo Colaiacovo, former NHL player and TSN 1050 radio personality, November 2019.
Abuse remains a crisis at all levels of the sport. The Canadian Hockey League is Canada’s major junior system, the highest junior level for players aged 16 to 20.
The commissioner of the CHL is David Branch, currently a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee. Now would be a good time for his organization to ensure that its players are safe from bullying and abuse. Now would be a good time for the culture of censorship and public relations management to change.
To stop bullying, a fair, but aggressive approach must be taken. Players must not be afraid to speak up. A player’s career should not have to end after a first-time offence, but their behavior should be known so that future incidents do not occur. There should, for example, be an organized, public registry of NHL personnel who have been cited for bullying and abuse. If nobody wants to be on that list, none will try to harm another individual.
ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski echoed this sentiment in 2019:
“One lesson to be learned from the recent NHL news is not be a giant bullying abusive dickhead because that shit will be shoveled right on your professional grave at the appropriate time.” - Greg Wyshynski, November 26, 2019.
Vocal behavior is a threat to bullies. Silence promotes and reinforces abusive behavior. We must use our voices and take action to eradicate that behavior.
We must also be mindful to stigmatize the abusive behavior, not the underlying conditions from which it manifests.
A look at the open prison systems of Nordic countries, plus Germany, and their humanist philosophy of rehabilitation of criminals might enlighten us on the approach we must take with abusers in sport. There exist closed prisons in which those who are considered dangerous are treated with the same harshness as in American prisons. Sexual offenders, for example, are not part of the open prison system.
Doran Larson is an English professor at Hamilton College who specializes in prison issues among other topics. He directs the American Prison Writing Archive, and he has led the Attica Writer’s Workshop at Attica Correctional Facility, a maximum security campus in New York State, since 2006. Larson is an advocate of the Nordic system.
“Most prisoners are uneducated, riddled with unresolved traumas and ill-treated mental health problems, drug and alcohol addictions, and self-esteem issues far too often bordering on the pathological. The vast majority has never received competent health care, mental health care, drug treatment, education or even an opportunity to look at themselves as humans. Had any of these far less draconian interventions been tried… no doubt many of my peers would be leading productive lives.
We internalize the separation and removal, the assumed less-than status, and hold up the idiotic and vainglorious pride we pretend to, like clown’s make-up, to hide our shame. In the end, the vast majority of us become exactly who we are told we are: violent, irrational, and incapable of conducting ourselves like conscious adults. It is a tragic opera with an obvious outcome.
‘Nothing else works’ is not a statement of fact; it is the declaration of an ideology. This ideology holds that punishment, for the sake of the infliction of pain, is the logical response to all misbehavior. It is also a convenient cover story behind which powerful special interest groups hide.” - Doran Larson, professor at Hamilton College, 2013 (“Why Scandinavian Prisons Are Superior,” The Atlantic, September 24, 2013).
Tolerance begins with empathy. Education provides us the context to understand and address the social issues that have historically been neglected.
“In 1993, Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie (a major influence on Scandinavian penal policy) had already unpacked this phenomenon. In Crime Control as Industry, Christie concluded that the more unlike oneself the imagined perpetrator of crime, the harsher the conditions one will agree to impose upon convicted criminals, and the greater the range of acts one will agree should be designated as crimes.
More homogeneous nations institutionalize mercy, which is to say they attend more closely to the circumstances surrounding individual criminal acts.
The opposite tendency, expressed in mandatory sentencing and indiscriminate “three strikes” laws, not only results from, but widens social distance. The harshness of the punishment that fearful voters [members of society] are convinced is the only thing that works on people who don’t think or act like them becomes a measure of the moral distance between these voters and people identified as criminals.” - Doran Larson, professor at Hamilton College, 2013 (“Why Scandinavian Prisons Are Superior,” The Atlantic, September 24, 2013).
Recividism rates in those countries — the likelihood to reoffend — are far lower than they are in America. According to Business Insider, Norway, for example, has a recividism rate of 20%, one of the lowest in the world. The United States has a rate of 76.6%, one of the highest.
The more alike we realize that we are, the more tolerant we become of one another. Tolerance and empathy are the results of education. When we realize what causes most crime and abusive behavior, we can begin pinpoint the necessary reforms to diminish the behavior and treat the condition. Education of the masses is necessary to promote tolerance and empathy. Rehabilitation of troubled individuals is vital in order to curb dangerous activity. If the condition is not treated, then the behavior manifests. Police brutality is preventable. Violence is preventable. When the condition goes untreated, violence results. The condition can exist in both civilians and officers. In reality, we are all just people.
The solution in America is not to classify anyone as an irredeemable “other.” We should not see ourselves as better than another group. We begin to dehumanize others when that happens. That is how tribalism and hatred manifest. That is where racism is born, and that is one of the problems in American society.
This humanist approach positively affects the correctional officers as well as the convicts. Without such fear, their standard of living has increased. There can be tolerance once there is no longer tribalist fear.
“... inside the four high-security prisons I’ve visited in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, common areas included table tennis, pool tables, steel darts, and aquariums. Prisoner art ornamented walls painted in mild greens and browns and blues. But the most profound difference is that correctional officers fill both rehabilitative and security roles.
Each prisoner has a “contact officer” who monitors and helps advance progress toward return to the world outside—a practice introduced to help officers avoid the damage experienced by performing purely punitive functions: stress, hypertension, alcoholism, suicide, and other job-related hazards that today plague American corrections officers, who have an average life expectancy of 59.” - Doran Larson, professor at Hamilton College, 2013 (“Why Scandinavian Prisons Are Superior,” The Atlantic, September 24, 2013).
Education on an individual basis can change the views of one person or a small group of people. Education reform is one of the many steps required to change society. Sweeping changes are required whenever the status quo is deemed unacceptable. Every few generations, the world sees reforms on a global scale, from the deposition of monarchs in the early 20th century to the process of decolonization in the mid-20th century to the civil rights and labor rights movements. Some reforms are moderate in nature, and some are radical.
The world is young and should not resist innovation. 2020 is a watershed year as the current generation is now realizing that issues must be forced to break barriers.
Humility allows us to improve.
Returning to abuse: we must differentiate between the behavior, not the condition. We must create and maintain an environment in which the condition can not germinate. A safe environment protects severyone and mitigates the mental disorders caused by abuse.
A safe, harmonious environment born out of compassion and empathy is the ideal that we must strive to achieve, not only in sports, but in society.
Abuse is unacceptable. It is a symptom of mental illness, and in many cases has been passed down from generations when violence was thought to be normal. Corporal punishment, e.g., spanking children, used to be standard practice. People continue to expose one another to trauma and violence. It is a virus.
We must treat the condition and prevent the behavior.
No one should be afraid to report their abusers. If the penalties towards bullies are fair and allow for rehabilitation and even reconciliation at a future point in time, we can promote a culture in which human beings are not afraid to intervene in abusive situations.
Former enforcer Georges Laraque’s own story of trauma, forgiveness, and racism offers us another perspective. He was abused by his father. He also forgave him. What we see is Edy Laraque’s warped understanding of ethics and moral values. He believes that he was justified. One might fathom that he, too, experienced the abuse that he projected on to his son.
“When he was eight years old, Laraque was on the verge of quitting hockey. The N-word coursed through his ears every time he stepped on the ice in the homogenous French Canadian city of Sorel-Tracy, Quebec. The racial slurs came from parents in the stands, players on the other team, and even players on his own team.
Edy Laraque and Evelyne Toussaint desperately wanted their son to stop playing, and they wouldn’t even come to games because of the abuse. So Georges trudged through the snow on his bicycle for an hour—while carrying his equipment on his back—in order to reach his place of torment.
He put on a strong face in the face of his abusers, but late at night, in the privacy of his own room, the tears flowed...
In addition to the prejudice Laraque was subjected to at the rink, he also had to deal with growing up in a house run by Edy Laraque.
Edy Laraque immigrated from Haiti to Canada in 1975 when he was 22 years old.
He’d been disciplined in a physical manner by his parents, which carried over to the way he brought up his own children.
‘My dad was very, very severe with us,’ said Georges. ‘I got beat up a lot as a kid because my dad wanted perfection.’
Any transgression by Georges would result in up to fifty blows from his father’s belt. If he had less than a 90% average at school, he’d get lashed. If he misbehaved in a minor way in a social setting, he’d face his father’s wrath.
Edy Laraque confirmed to VICE that his son’s recollections of him were accurate.
‘I strongly believe that parents should always discipline their kids,’ Edy Laraque said. ‘This is the only way kids will learn the principal respect for society.’” - Peter Mendelsohn, VICE, May 6, 2020.
Laraque told George Stroumboulopoulos in 2011 that fighting caused him great anxiety. While others in his role would turn to drug and alcohol abuse, he found respite in charity work, using it as fuel not to be afraid:
“Fighting gives you a lot of anxiety. Every time I fought, I was always afraid in the build up to it. It’s a really hard job to do. I could go to a movie theater and watch a movie, and if I knew the next day that I had to fight, I could sit for an hour and forty-five minutes not knowing I’d seen on TV because the anxiety grabbed me so much. I can understand some of those guys why, not to think about the anxiety, they would turn to drugs, alcohol and depression because of that.
For me, the recipe to that was charity work. Every time I go and see a kid in the hospital fighting for his own life, I would see a kid that would rather be in my place fighting, on the ice, someone rather than fighting for his own life.” - Georges Laraque, George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, 2011.
There are circumstances far worse in life than anything that might happen from speaking out about hockey’s problems. A sense of perspective is key. That comes from understanding the historical context of the world. Players must be courageous. They must be willing to take action.
When their fear of consequences disappears in the context of advocacy and reform, the process of fixing the world’s problems can begin.
We see now that there are much greater issues at play in the world than the potential repercussions, if any, that can occur as a result of speaking out about abuse in hockey, or in any sport for that matter.
Silence is an enabler of abuse and exploitation. Hockey has too many bystanders. Individuals in sport must go above and beyond their role as mere athletes. They must speak their minds as human beings and force conversations about issues that matter. Hockey needs people on the side of history. Long after the standard player and star have been forgotten, those who influenced and forced change will be remembered.
According to USA Today’s Hemal Jhaveri, “After the resignation of former Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters [in late 2019], players offered milquetoast condemnations of his use of a racial slur, but hedged their words with so much double speak that George Orwell would have been proud.”
Many important conversations about the world have not taken place.
We now must address the fact that abuse in sports has not been a major topic of concern. Athletes must keep this in mind as they continue to fight for their rights. They must be vocal. They must be agents of change.
The world remains naive. Many crucial conversations remain in their infancy.
Dr. Charlene S. Shannon, professor of kinesiology at the University of New Brunswick, stated the following in 2013:
“Research on bullying, bullying prevention, and bullying intervention has focused mainly on the school settings and the role of school administrators and teachers (Monks et al.,2009). Bullying occurs in out-of-school settings including recreation and sport settings, but limited research exists...
The school setting has been the primary social environment within which bullying research has focused, but there is a recognized need to conduct research in other environments in which youth function (Monks et al, 2009). Recreation and sport programs and facilities are important environments for youth, yet limited research focuses on bullying in this context.
Existing research has investigated types of bullying that occur (Deakin, 2006) and characteristics of individuals who are victimized or who act as the aggressor (Brackenridge, Rivers, Gough, & Llewellyn, 2006; Faith et al., 2002).
Little attention, however, has been given to the social environment and/or situational factors within the recreation or sport settings that may influence bullying behavior.
For example, are there particular factors related to a recreation and sport organization’s philosophy or policies that contribute to a culture that protects participants from bullying behavior or enables such behavior? What situational factors do leaders and administrators in youth-serving programs or services experience or perceive as protecting against or enabling bullying? How do leaders or coaches and administrators handle observations or reports of bullying behavior?” - Charlene S. Shannon, 2013 (“Bullying in Recreation and Sport Settings: Exploring Risk Factors,Prevention Efforts, and Intervention Strategies,” Journal of Park and Recreation Administration 31(1), p.15, p.18).
Professor Shannon’s special interests of study include youth at risk. In her article, “Bullying in Recreation and Sport Settings: Exploring Risk Factors,Prevention Efforts, and Intervention Strategies,” she made the following observations:
“Some organizations engaged in practices that could create a climate that promoted or perpetuated bullying. Some administrators did not acknowledge bullying as an issue or anticipate elements within programs or services whereby bullying behavior might occur (i.e., during unstructured time). Therefore, leaders (who described witnessing or managing bullying behavior regularly) were not trained to prevent or respond to bullying behaviors effectively.
The data demonstrated that in these organizations’ staff working directly with youth struggled with how to respond and, in some cases, ignored bullying behaviors until they escalated. Research has shown that how adults view bullying (e.g., as harmful vs.being a part of normal development) and the resulting outcomes can influence how they intervene when situations arise (Bauman & Del Rio, 2006; Mishna, Pepler, & Wiener,2006).
A lack of understanding of the serious consequences associated with bullying might explain why some administrators did not make prevention a priority or develop a protocol for responding to bullying...
A comprehensive approach to bullying that emphasizes both the prevention of and the response to bullying is necessary. An organization’s culture and attention to program elements can create climates that encourage and support positive peer relationships.
It may also be necessary for recreation and sport organizations to form partnerships within the community and advocate for a whole-community approach to bullying to effectively address bullying, protect youth, and ensure they can enjoy recreation and sport experiences and the associated developmental outcomes.” - Charlene S. Shannon, 2013 (“Bullying in Recreation and Sport Settings: Exploring Risk Factors,Prevention Efforts, and Intervention Strategies,” Journal of Park and Recreation Administration 31(1), p.27, p.29-30).
Bullying and abuse have simply not been taken seriously enough. The topic has been neglected. As Dr. Shannon observed, a whole-community approach is necessary to stop abuse. Transparency between victims and the public is key in order to identify, remove, and rehabilitate abusers. Education is necessary to promote tolerance. Empathy is needed to remove the barriers that segregate us.
In a 2019 research article by Anna Skuzińska, Mieczysław Plopa, and Wojciech Plopa published in Advances in Cognitive Psychology, the researchers concluded the following: abuse breeds mental illness.
“Workplace bullying leads to consequences for both the company and the employee, namely, their professional performance as well as their physical and mental health. In extreme cases, bullying can cause mental disorders or suicide of the bullied individual (Matthiesen & Einarsen, 2004; Leymann & Gustafsson, 1996). Less intense bullying can lead to distress, lowered subjective perception of the quality of one’s life, or changes in subjective well-being (Cassidy, McLaughlin, & McDowell, 2014; Nielsen & Einarsen, 2012).
It has been empirically demonstrated that in comparison to employees who were not bullied, those who experienced bullying report statistically significantly higher scores for anxiety, depression, irritation, psychosomatic symptoms, tiredness, sleep disorders, and professional burnout; they are also characterized by significantly lower self-confidence (Agervold & Mikkelsen, 2004; Bonde et al. 2016; Brun & Milczarek, 2007; Butterworth, Leach, & Kiely, 2016; Einarsen, Matthiesen, & Skogstad, 1998; Mikkelsen & Einarsen, 2002a; Niedl, 1996; Soares, 2006; Vartia, 2001).
Negative experiences in the workplace are negatively correlated with mental health, as measured with the Hopkins Symptom Checklist-25 (HSCL-25, Mikkelsen & Einarsen, 2001) and the General Health Questionnaire-12 (GHQ-12, Hoel, Faragher, & Cooper, 2004), as well as with satisfaction with life.” - Anna Skuzińska, Mieczysław Plopa, and Wojciech Plopa (“Bullying at Work and Mental Health: The Moderating Role of Demographic and Occupational Variables,” Advances in Cognitive Psychology volume 16(1), p. 14).
In their 1987 study of the relationship between corporal punishment and crime, Adah Maurer and James S. Wallerstein found that the more violent a person’s childhood experiences were, the less educated they were and the more extreme their violence behavior became as adults. In their survey of 200 psychologists, 372 college students, 52 slow track underachievers, delinquents, and prisoners, they discovered that every violent inmate at San Quentin Penitentiary had been subjected to extreme corporal punishment. The less frequent the abuse, the more likely they were to succeed educationally.
“Adrenalin output increases sharply during fear, anger and physical punishment. When this is prolonged or often repeated, the endocrine balance fails to return to baseline. The victim becomes easily angered and prone to poor impulse control and spontaneous violent outbursts.” - Adah Maurer, Ph.D. and James S. Wallerstein, “The Influence of Corporal Punishment on Crime,” 1987.
This is a crisis for the abusers and the abused. Poor mental health is a factor that promotes malicious and violent behavior.
The fact that athletes are afraid to take charge is an indictment of the current public relations construct of the NHL as well as the failure of society to protect victims. Players and coaches maintain a facade for the public but are often brutally transparent with one another. The circumstances should be reversed as a bare minimum. In the interim, at the very least, players and staff should be respectful and maintain a high standard of professionalism with one another, and be transparent with the public. Ideally, no facade would be required if athletes empathized with all of their peers. It would be naive to expect people’s prejudices to be removed overnight. Major cultural reform is required. Empathy requires education about context and history. That is the objective we must seek. There needs to be a paradigm shift. Vile, abusive behavior must no longer happen.
Players must speak. The forefathers of hockey spoke. They fought for players’ rights and were courageous enough to challenge the status quo at a time when the NHL ruled with an iron fist. They also proved why transparency is important. It is time to educate athletes about the risks that their predecessors took so that they could enjoy their current freedoms and so that they may continue to push for change.
Chapter III: The Era of Leaders - When Athletes Risked Their Careers For Improved Conditions
The NHL’s players formed a union in 1957.
Its leaders included Ted Lindsay (NHLPA President; Detroit), Doug Harvey (1st Vice President; Montreal), Fern Flaman (2nd VP; Boston), Gus Mortson (3rd VP; Chicago), Jim Thomson (Secretary; Toronto), Bill Gadsby (Treasurer; New York), along with New York lawyers Norman Lewis and Milton Mound (“NHL Rlayers’ Association Formed,” The Globe and Mail, February 12, 1957; “NHL Players ‘Not Looking For Trouble,’” The Victoria Daily Times, February 12, 1957).
Within a year, the NHLPA had disbanded. The owners obliterated it from existence, using coercive measures to create disunity.
The players were timid. Many were scared to challenge the status quo. They lacked the knowledge and historical context that could have aided their pursuit against the owners. Marxism and unionization were not new terms. The Industrial Revolution was a hallmark period in modern civilization.
The players lacked the education to fight back. They had spent their youth chasing their dream of playing hockey. Many did not come from a privileged background that could afford them the knowledge required for their own benefit. Their lack of knowledge kept them in the dark.
Thus, they were afraid of the consequences of speaking out against the NHL.
“Of course, each of us might have individual problems but we have not a group complaint right now... Maybe we might try to have the pension so inviting that more and more boys would want to play hockey but we have no such plan at present. We aren’t going to try to change the league” - Ted Lindsay, NHLPA President and Detroit Red Wings star, February 1957 (“NHL Players ‘Not Looking For Trouble,’” The Victoria Daily Times, February 12, 1957).
The NHL laughed at the players. The NHLPA’s leaders were far too cordial. They banded together, but did not push for change. The owners walked all over them, altering the narrative and filling the players’ heads with nonsense.
NHL president Clarence Campbell: “[Ted Lindsay’s remarks] represent about as fine a public relations statement as the National Hockey League could hope to have, because it is quite evident that the officials of the new association are completely satisfied with the treatment they have received from the member clubs of the NHL, both individual and collectively... Under the circumstances, it wold be difficult to know what interests, rights or privileges there could be which would require the protection of a formal association” (“NHL Players ‘Not Looking For Trouble,’” The Victoria Daily Times, February 12, 1957).
Detroit Red Wings coach Jack Adams: “The players have the finest pension plan I know of and always have had a representative in the pension plan. I don’t know what they need a lawyer for” (“NHL Players ‘Not Looking For Trouble,’” The Victoria Daily Times, February 12, 1957).
Boston Bruins general manager Lynn Patrick: “ This is all new to me. I do know they don’t need any association to help them out. They have been treated as well as any group of professional athletes. I missed the pension plan by one year so I’m not too interested in it but I’d say they are lucky to have one” (“NHL Players ‘Not Looking For Trouble,’” The Victoria Daily Times, February 12, 1957).
The NHL was, in fact, far behind the rest of the world in terms of labor relations. The NHLPA hired Norman Lewis and Milton Mound, lawyers who had previously worked with baseball’s players.
“For years the firm of Lewis and Mound has been associated with labor relations work, but until asked to represent first, baseball players and latterly hockey players had usually presented the case for the employer.
It is therefore interesting to hear his reactions to dealing with such successful hockey players as Ted Lindsay, Doug Harvey, Bill Gadsby, Fern Flaman, Jimmy Thomson and Gus Mortson.
One of the first observations was the reticence of the players to fraternize, even in a lawyer’s office, during the playing season. When the six chosen representatives of the players met in New York during the winter, the atmosphere was apparently tense. Obviously too many memories of rough and tough exchanges filled the minds of the debates...
Mr. Mound’s next observation was the business-like manner in which each member of the executive exhaustively explored every avenue of their problems in a desire to maintain cordial relations with management and the public.
It becomes quite apparent that while the players are anxious to improve the pension scheme and cut themselves in for a slice of television fees, there is no desire to undermine the structure of hockey. In fact any such movement would find the executive split asunder.
The six hard rocks and their legal advisers have been careful to the point of frustration as far as newsmen are concerned. Their few releases to the press have been meagre in explaining their aims. They will only go as far as to say they are studying their problems and hope to meet management on congenial terms.
There is one disturbing note and that centres around Secretary Jimmy Thomson, whose most recent deterioration in value as a player as far as Toronto is concerned coincides with the formation of the players’ association and announcement of its officers. The executive clearly hopes to undo any damage that may have been done with regard to this player’s hockey future.
It would also appear to this observer that the players’ association is acting with a maximum of decorum. They have as much right to organize, according to the laws of our land, as a newspaperman or a paper hanger.” - Jim Vipond, The Globe and Mail, April 23, 1957.
The players showed weakness in their inability to express their demands. They lacked leverage. The association attempted to become certified in 1958, but the Detroit Red Wings’ players decided to disavow the NHLPA. The Red Wings had been coerced.
“Detroit Red Wings, who have played this season as if they don’t belong in the National Hockey League, decided Tuesday they don’t belong in the NHL Players’ Association.
The players ‘publicly disavowed’ themselves from the... association and its lawsuit’ in a press release issued by captain Leonard (Red) Kelly, attorney John A. Bird and signed by all other 19 players...
Hird said a $3,000,000 anti-trust lawsuit filed last month against the owners and president Clarence Campbell was ‘unauthorized —, and we can prove it.’
The release said ‘the president and counsel of the association have acted in detriment to the players and hockey in general.’...
The players said they agree with the ‘purported purpose’ of the association. However, they could accomplish these goals in direct talks with management.” - “Wings In About Face; Drop Union Movement,” The Victoria Daily Times, November 13, 1957.
Lindsay alleged that the Red Wings’ players were “compelled by outside pressures.”
“It is obvious the Detroit players are not free agents, but are being compelled to do and say things dictated by ‘outside pressures,’... They said they were not consulted about the bringing of the anti-trust law suit... The truth is that the last meeting of the board of directors was held in Montreal on Friday evening, Oct. 4. The meeting was attended by four of the Detroit players: Alex Delvecchio, Gordie Howe, Red Kelly and Marcel Pronovost... To make doubly sure, every director, including the representative of the Detroit team, was contacted again on Oct. 10 by telephone and confirmed his approval before the law suit was filed...
The power that has been exerted on the players further proves how necessary it is for all of us, including the Detroit team, that we keep our association active and strong.” - Ted Lindsay, NHLPA president, November 1957 (“Pressure Used on Wings Players Prexy Charges,” The Globe and Mail, November 14, 1957).
Tactics of coercion were used to prevent players from uniting. The owners had taken measures to intimidate their athletes.
Players were told not to disclose their individual salaries nor speak to the press about certain issues. They were threatened with the possibility of being banished from hockey at a time when the reserve clause existed and the entire hockey system was ruled by the NHL elite. No player wanted to lose their job, and no job action would be taken. Without solidarity, the NHLPA had no power whatsoever.
The story is featured in the book Net Worth (1991) by David Cruise and Alison Griffith. The book inspired a 1995 television film about the ordeal directed by Jerry Ciccoritti.
Too many players chose to remain victims as a result of their inaction. The NHL did not recognize the NHLPA, instead introducing a package of fringe improvements to the players’ working conditions and the creation of a player-owner council featuring 13 player representatives: “The new council will meet at regular intervals and on request of either the player or owners... The minimum salary was set at $7,000 a year, a figure which the owners said was informally in effect” (“Stanley Cup Champs,” The Globe and Mail, February 6, 1958).
The players latched on to that option. This group did not wish to pursue the work and sacrifice required to challenge and revolutionize the sporting world.
The players wanted the abolition of the reserve clause. That was the dream of every athlete in every sport. No one did anything about it until Curt Flood in 1969.
In 1958, Coleman E. Hall, general manager of the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Canucks, called the reserve clause “little more than legal slavery,” and stated that it “needs an overhaul” (Eric Whitehead, The Province, January 18, 1958).
“The demand that really has the pot boiling in the front office is the one concerning the always controversial reserve clause... The association asks that a player become a free agent after five years’ service to one club... From it, [the owners] predict nothing but chaos — and the odds are that they are right. Frank Selke, representing what is on the surface the most prosperous hockey club in the business, is already pleading near-poverty even under the present setup, which admittedly operates a legalized slave-mart as far as player-control is concerned.” - Eric Whitehead, The Province, January 18, 1958.
The NHL had total control over its players. None wished to challenge the status quo.
It was this clause that ultimately barred five-time Stanley Cup champion Bert Olmstead from returning to hockey after his retirement from the NHL in 1962. The Rangers had bought his rights from Toronto that year for $20,000. However, he felt that he could no longer play at the NHL level upon his retirement; thus, he turned down an $18,000 contract with the Rangers, an offer $12,000 shy of the highest-paid player in the league, Doug Harvey. When the Trail Smoke Eaters, an amateur club, invited him to represent Canada as a player at the world championship in Austria in 1963, the NHL denied him the opportunity (Scott Young, The Globe and Mail, January 25, 1963).
Scott Young of The Globe and Mail added: “Doesn’t hockey owe Bert Olmstead something more than a bitter taste in the mouth, after all those years?... It’s too bad the NHL Players Association they had going a few years ago folded. They might have had much better standard contracts by now, including a clause that would send a good old pro home from the wars for the last time with a handshake instead of a suspension.” (Scott Young, The Globe and Mail, January 25, 1963).
Olmstead never played hockey again, and spent time selling savings certificates and farming upon his retirement (Scott Young, The Globe and Mail, January 25, 1963). He briefly returned to hockey as a coach a few years later.
The NHL also lied to the press when there was an opportunity to profit off of an incident involving Olmstead.
“Olmstead said he thought he’d made some bad friends in the NHL and that this was why no one would help him get loose to play for Trail.
One bad friend, he thought, was Muzz Patrick, Rangers general manager...
You may recall one night Lou Fontinato was kicked and injured in a fight in Maple Leaf Gardens. ‘I was angered,’ Olmstead said. ‘I didn’t do it. I asked Conn Smythe to show the pictures of that game to prove I was innocent. It was never done.’
Meanwhile, the New York publicists built up the Olmstead-Fontinato feud as a gate attraction. This feud could have been labelled bunkum, hokum, sham, nonsense (and all those other words) if films had shown Olmstead to be innocent.
But never knock phony publicity, chaps. Not where they need money. Might anger the promoters, you know.
The next time Leafs played in New York the feud story had worked. The rink was full and people were turned away.
‘I asked Patrick who fingered me with the papers... He admitted he did it. After that, we never got along.’” - Scott Young, The Globe and Mail, January 25, 1963.
The players’ weak position led to their exploitation at the hands of the league. They remained afraid to speak.
There were a few who used their status to force change. Among the most aggressive and outspoken individuals was Bobby Hull. During the 1960s, he was widely regarded as the NHL’s best player and the player with the most monetary value.
He was a celebrity along the lines of Gordie Howe and among the three best players to ever play hockey at that point along with Howe and Maurice Richard.
Bobby Hull was once the greatest hockey player on Earth. As early as March 1962, if not earlier, was nicknamed “The Golden Jet,” or “Le Comet Blonde” in Francophone Canada, because of his explosiveness on the ice and his blonde hair (Hawks’ Hull Satisfied With Goal a Game,” The Victoria Daily Times, March 12, 1962; Trent Frayne, Maclean’s, January 22, 1966). During the 1960s, no other player came close to scoring as many goals as Hull.
He was the NHL’s preeminent superstar of the 1960s, altering the fortunes of the Chicago Black Hawks who had previously plumbed through the 1950s without much success. In nine of the eleven seasons prior to Hull’s arrival in 1957-58, the Black Hawks finished last in the NHL standings. They missed the playoffs in all but one of those seasons dating back to 1946. With Hull, they reached the Stanley Cup Finals four times including three times in a span of five years, won the Stanley Cup in 1961, and only missed the postseason once.
Bobby Hull gave the Black Hawks a legitimate chance to contend for the first time since 1944. Chicago finally had star power, the likes of which it had never seen before. When his supremely-skilled teammate Stan Mikita, a star in his own right, invented the curved blade in 1965, Hull adopted and popularized it. The two changed the game on a technological level as well.
The strength of Hull’s shots and his ability to overwhelm the opponent with powerful, explosive rushes made him a league-wide attraction. He was a player of Herculean strength. No player at the time possessed his combination of physical attributes. He quickly established his position among the league’s elite. Only a handful of players in the sport’s history would ever rival Hull’s prowess as a sharpshooter. He led the National Hockey League goal-scoring race seven times during his fifteen years with the Chicago Blackhawks — the only player to do so in the first 100 years of the league’s existence. This remained an NHL record until Alexander Ovechkin matched and then eclipsed that mark in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
He commanded respect for his dominance over his peers and was often a contender for the Lady Byng Trophy as the league’s most gentlemanly player. The public adored him, and on March 1, 1968 he was featured on the cover of Time Magazine.
At his best, Hull set new standards for goals and points in the NHL. He won three Art Ross Trophies between 1960 and 1966. He had won seven goal-scoring titles by the time he was 30 years old in 1969. He was to Gordie Howe what Howe was to Maurice Richard — a megastar above all others, and the next face of the NHL.
Knee injuries — torn ligaments — severely hampered Hull’s ability to perform in the early-to-mid 1960s and effectively neutered the speed element of his game by the late-1960s. In spite of this, he continued to smash records and rewrite the NHL’s record book. The 1964-65 season is an example of just how unmatched he was. Hull scored 35 goals and 57 points in the first 37 games of 1964-65 before his fortunes began to shift. A few games later, he tore the ligaments in his right knee due to a collision with Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Bob Baun on February 6, 1965 (Kenneth McKee, The Globe and Mail, 8 Feb 1965). During those first 37 games, Hull’s totals led the league by substantial margins. Second in the goal-scoring race was Detroit’s Norm Ullman with 19 goals; Chicago teammate Stan Mikita was second in the points race with 44. After the injury, he scored just four goals in the final 24 games of his campaign. Ullman won the goal-scoring title with 42 goals, and Hull finished fourth in the point-scoring race, but everyone knew it was supposed to be Bobby Hull’s historic year. He still won the Hart Trophy with 88 first-place votes. His runner-up, Ullman, received 22 first-place votes.
Hull was also the only player to receive 90 out of a maximum 90 points on the league’s mid-season All-Star Team voting ballots in a survey of sports writers and broadcasters across the industry (“Hull Leads First,” Vancouver Sun, 15 Jan 1965). The following season, when he became the first player in NHL history to eclipse the 50-goal plateau with 54, he finished with a 68.75% margin over the runner-up, Frank Mahovlich, who scored just 32. No player has ever come close to this margin over second place in NHL history except his own son, Brett, whose 1990-91 total of 86 led second-place by a 68.62% margin.
Bobby Hull was, in modern terms, a generational talent.
New York hockey reporter Al Laney, who had represented the Herald-Tribute in New York since 1926, said of Hull, “the plain fact is that any time Hull gets a shot... it is a potential goal. He is the most spectacular player in the game and he may be the greatest from this point of view that hockey has ever known, in spite of the fabulous Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe. Hull is a popular figure with the crowds, too, even when he is murdering the home team. There never has been a faster skater or one with stronger leg action. It is very likely that Hull fires the puck faster than any man who ever played the game” (Trent Frayne, Maclean’s, 22 Jan 1966).
Maclean’s magazine called him “the game’s most flamboyant figure” and “the most dashing and attractive player in hockey. On the ice, who can miss him? He is beautifully right for the game... In television commercials, he’s a dimpled pitchman for hair tonic... In magazine advertisements, he models swimsuit and sweaters and socks... Or, back on television, there he is... with a nice warm gratifying smile and a nice warm rewarding touch of humility” (Trent Frayne, Maclean’s, 22 Jan 1966). He was “an unbelievable mass of knotted muscle — possessor of one of those physiques that you see on the covers of health magazines in the news stands” (Paul Rimstead, The Globe and Mail, 8 Feb 1966).
He used his status as leverage. He was charismatic and authoritative public speaker. Changes took place once he began threatening to leave hockey. At that point, he had the power to flex his popularity over the league. The NBA’s LeBron James similarly used his authority in 2014 when he threatened to lead a boycott if Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was not removed from the league.
Hull led, but he also recognized the need for solidarity among the players.
“Some players are better at negotiating than others... If knowing what other players are being paid helps him, a player has the right to know... The players all grumble about their salaries, but they won’t stick together to do something about it.. Some of them are afraid to be holdouts in case they are sent to the minors... They tell me I don’t have to worry about this and maybe I don’t understand. But they won’t be sent to the minors — not if they stick together.” - Bobby Hull, October 1965 (Paul Rimstead, The Globe and Mail, 8 Oct 1965)
A sports league can oust one player such as Colin Kaepernick or Curt Flood, but it can not operate properly when many, if not all, of its marquee players refuse to play. A boycott is an immediate threat to those who wish to enforce the status quo.
The issue of bribery and other coercive means to deter players from speaking out are real, and one could easily envision a player, coach, or the peers of the victim receiving incentives, possibly monetary-based, to protect the reputation of the team.
Strength comes in numbers. Ted Lindsay was courageous enough to form a players’ union, but the union began to crumble once outside pressures dissuaded the players from remaining within it.
When one person takes action in the name of justice, others must follow suit. There must be solidarity. The greater the number, the greater the strength of a movement.
If other star players follow in Colin Kaepernick’s footsteps and walk out of the NFL, football would need to reconsider its stance towards the public gestures of its players in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Bobby Hull’s voice has always been a major part of his reputation. The reserve clause was abolished partly due to his participation in a war against the NHL.
After 15 seasons with the Black Hawks, Hull departed. It was the result of a bitter, near-decade-long war with the team’s management over words, principles and earnings.
Throughout his time in Chicago, he did not hesitate to challenge his employers for a better salary and increased player benefits.
These contract disputes with the Black Hawks were not isolated to Hull alone. Other star players, including Stan Mikita, developed a reputation for their holdouts. This led only to positive publicity and increased popularity in the 1960s. According to The Globe and Mail’s Paul Rimstead, “Hull is known as the toughest contract negotiator in the National Hockey League. The public admires him for it. He stands up to management, demands payment for his services, then goes out and proves he is right” (Paul Rimstead, The Globe and Mail, 12 Feb 1966).
These principles appealed to the public. Along with Mikita, whose tactics were fierce but whose price was usually lower, Hull played a significant role in the elevation of player salaries. Hull and Mikita pushed the boundaries of what NHL teams wanted to pay. They used their status in the league to force the issue.
The average salary among NHL players in 1957 was $9,194 (“NHL Players’ Council,” The Globe and Mail, 12 Dec 1957). As a rookie in 1957-58, Hull earned $6,500 — the unenforced but commonly-accepted league minimum that year, before a formal minimum was established (“Maple Leafs Want,” The Vancouver Sun, 22 Nov 1957).
In a survey taken by Weekend Magazine’s Andy O’Brien in 1962, one NHL executive suggested that Bobby Hull was worth $250,000 as an NHL player — the highest figure given for anyone in O’Brien’s investigation (O’Brien, The Vancouver Sun, 17 Nov 1962). Toronto’s Andy Bathgate was second, with a valuation of $150,000. After that was Stan Mikita with an estimated value between $100,000 and $125,000.
These figures did not represent the reality. At $30,000, teams felt that Doug Harvey, 38 years old and believed to be on the verge of retirement, was overpaid in an effort to lure him back to hockey (O’Brien, The Vancouver Sun, 17 Nov 1962). The Rangers named him both player and coach of their team. Harvey had the league’s highest salary in 1962.
By 1963, the league average salary was just $14,415, while the maximum gross income of any team was reportedly about $1.5 million (Stewart MacLeod, Victoria Daily Times, 26 Nov 1963; Andy O’Brien, Vancouver Sun, 17 Nov 1962). The six teams’ owners were millionaires with successful ventures outside of hockey. The Norris family, who owned the Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers, and a stake in the Black Hawks, for example, originated as railway, ship and grain tycoons (G. E. Mortimer, The Globe and Mail, 12 Mar 1963). They were also involved with the mafia (Mike Guiney, The Whig-Standard, December 21, 1991). The Norrises, who effectively owned half of the NHL, operated a major business empire. Among James D. Norris’ friends were Frankie Carbo and Sammy “Golfbag” Hunt, both of whom had once murdered for mobsters. Norris was connected to America’s criminal underworld.
The athletes were underpaid.
Mikita had a popular catch phrase, “Prestige doesn’t buy groceries” (“Stan Mikita Interested,” Victoria Daily Times, 7 Jan 1964). He held out at the start of the 1961-62 season, skipped the 1964 NHL All-Star Game, and was the final holdout prior to the 1965-66 season (“Balfour Signs,” The Globe and Mail, 11 Oct 1961; “Stan Mikita Interested,” Victoria Daily Times, 7 Jan 1964; Paul Rimstead, The Globe and Mail, 23 Oct 1965). His contract in 1965-66 was for $35,000 (“Chalk Up Another,” The Globe and Mail, 23 Oct 1965).
Hull, meanwhile, generated immense debate when he suggested during the summer of 1965 that he deserved a $100,000 contract. His salary in 1964-65 was believed to be $32,000, but he wanted a significant raise, as he had been on pace to shatter the league’s scoring records prior to suffering knee problems that year (“Hawks Sign Bobby Hull,” Victoria Daily Times, 21 Oct 1965).
While attending a dinner at the 1965 Hawaii Open golf tournament in Waikiki, Hull was quoted as saying, “I am not being conceited when I say I am worth $100,000 to the Hawks... I am the big draw of the club and feel I am to hockey what Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays are to baseball” (“Golden Boy Believes,” Victoria Daily Times, 5 July 1965; “Phillies Unload Thomas,” The Vancouver Sun, 5 July 1965).
Mantle and Mays, baseball’s stars of the day and Hull’s counterparts, received $100,000 and $105,000 salaries, respectively — the highest sums in baseball at the time (“100-Grand Suits Mick,” The Province, 16 Feb 1965).
Hull wanted to triple his previous year’s salary. The amount was unheard of in the NHL. The news spread throughout the hockey world.
Hull had leaked the information. “I shouldn’t have said it... I didn’t expect it to be picked up. I wanted to talk with management first. I didn’t want it to be public. I’m noted for saying things out of school and I’ve been watching myself. And then this happened... I didn’t want management to know second-hand” (“Golden Boy Believes,” Victoria Daily Times, 5 July 1965).
$100,000 became Hull’s benchmark asking price until 1972. During every negotiation, he pushed to increase his salary closer towards that illustrious, six-digit figure.
He continued to be combative at that year’s training camp. The team failed to contact Hull sufficiently during the 1965 off-season about his contract (“Sons Barred,” The Globe and Mail, 28 Sep 1965). General manager Tommy Ivan contended, “We have a lot of hockey players in camp, and the rules have to be the same for Bobby as anyone else” (“Sons Barred,” The Globe and Mail, 28 Sep 1965).
At training camp, Hull and the team feuded once more.
Black Hawks coach Billy Reay refused to allow his sons Bobby Jr. and Blake, five and four years old, respectively, to enter the dressing room during a Saturday practice. This was in spite of the fact that Hull claimed they had been allowed to do so for two seasons already.
“I’ve always taken my kids to practice. I want them to skate. In Chicago they don’t have skating facilities as we have in Canada. I see nothing wrong with bringing them out to do a little skating,” Hull said (“Bobby Leaves After,” The Victoria Daily Times, 28 Sep 1965).
The team said otherwise — their policy was to keep children, family and friends out of the dressing room, which Coach Reay had apparently reiterated earlier that Friday (“Bobby Leaves After,” The Victoria Daily Times, 28 Sep 1965). Hull, thus, walked away on September 25, citing his departure as “a matter of principle” and “asserting that “I am not going to back down” (“Sons Barred,” The Globe and Mail, 28 Sep 1965).
“I told him if my boys weren’t welcome, I didn’t want to be here. That’s the last I’ve heard from the Hawks... But if they aren’t interested in having me play or practice, I wish they’d hurry up and make a deal to get me out of here. I’d be better off playing for a club that appreciates me... I’ve been trying to get a hold of Mr. Norris since Saturday, but apparently he’s on vacation in Florida. He’s the one I’ll have to talk to about my contract anyhow... I don’t think I’m being pig-headed about this... I dislike not playing or working when the other guys have to.” - Bobby Hull, September 1965 (“Sons Barred,” The Globe and Mail, 28 Sep 1965).
Hull’s feeling of malcontent and mistreatment would manifest itself again on numerous occasions.
He ultimately settled for a three-year contract worth $40,000 per season (“Hull Signs Contract,” The Globe and Mail, 21 Oct 1965; “Terms Not Revealed,” The Globe and Mail, 14 Oct 1968). A salary of $55,000 or more “would have raised the entire NHL salary structure,” according to The Globe and Mail (“Hull Signs Contract,” The Globe and Mail, 21 Oct 1965). He also reinforced the arguments of Toronto Maple Leafs winger Bob Pulford about salary transparency.
His wife Joanne spoke on his behalf as well. “Bob doesn’t think anybody would ever try to take him... He’s too... what? Modest? He really does downgrade himself. It’s the difference in our upbringing, I think. Bob’s dad’s way of being an admiring father was to tear him down a little. My family was always praising me. So I give him that; I praise him. For example. I honestly feel he’s worth a hundred thousand dollars to hockey... But he wouldn’t tell Mr. Norris that... He and Mr. Norris get along great but he wouldn’t ask for a hundred thousand dollars... he doesn’t really think he’s worth it. He wouldn’t actually ask Mr. Norris” (Trent Frayne, Maclean’s, 22 Jan 1966).
More public posturing, and also insight into Hull’s relationship with his father that will be explored later.
Journalist Patrick Nagle, writing for Weekend Magazine, wrote in 1967, “Bobby Hull, the best hockey player in the world, earns about $40,000 a year. And the journeyman wage in the N.H.L. is about $12,000. It’s not that much when you consider the physical pounding involved” (Patrick Nagle, Vancouver Sun, 12 Aug 1967).
Bobby Hull was the king of his sport and wanted his earnings to reflect his stature. The New York Jets of the American Football League made headlines in January 1965 when they signed Alabama quarterback Joe Namath and Notre Dame quarterback John Huarte to contracts worth $400,000 and $200,000 over three years, respectively — unprecedented amounts in the world of sports (“Jets Sign Joe,” The Globe and Mail, 4 Jan 1965; “Irish Star Accepts,” The Globe and Mail, 11 Jan 1965).
Two years later, the NHLPA formed once more with lawyer Alan Eagleson as its director. Eagleson would eventually be convicted of three counts of mail fraud in 1998.
“Many of the demands appear to reflect trifling irritations felt by the players. The majority of them — 75 per cent in [Alan] Eagleson’s view — do not receive a copy of the contracts they sign. Two copies are made, one for the club and one for the NHL head office, but the association will ask that the player also receive a copy of the document he signs...
Eagleson said: “So far as I know, the minimum salary in the NHL is $7,500 and we are told that the average is $18,200. These are not our figures, however, and I believe the average is closer to $15,000, not including bonuses. Naturally we’ll be seeking to raise the pay scale.” - “Owners Agree to Formation of NHL Players’ Association; Group Begins Task of Upgrading Loop Working Conditions,” The Globe and Mail, June 8, 1967.
In 1967-68, Hull won his sixth NHL goal-scoring title. Without any notice whatsoever, a few months later, he announced his retirement in October 1968.
One day before the team’s season opener against the second-year St. Louis Blues, he issued a statement proclaiming the end of his National Hockey League career. A press conference was held at the Chicago Union League Club that noon. Hull presented his words to the media in attendance and then moments later exited (Gord Walker, The Globe and Mail, 11 Oct 1968). His wife, as well as their business manager Lester Stanford attended the event (Gord Walker, The Globe and Mail, 11 Oct 1968).
“Today I wish to announce my retirement from Chicago Black Hawks. It is with a great deal of regret and much sadness that I face the fact that my contribution to the Black Hawks and hockey is a matter of dispute... Therefore, under the circumstances I have no alternative other than to wish my team good luck and say good-bye to the game.” - Bobby Hull in a statement from Bobby Hull Enterprises Ltd., October 1968 (“Superstar Hull,” The Vancouver Sun, 10 Oct 1968).
Just as he exited, a member of the media asked, “Can you tell me the nature of the dispute?”
“A salary dispute,” responded Hull (Gord Walker, The Globe and Mail, 11 Oct 1968).
He was once more eligible for a new contract. He asked again for $100,000, as did Stan Mikita. Hull pushed the envelope. He wanted a three-year deal and had spent the previous two weeks negotiating the new terms (“Superstar Hull Says,” The Vancouver Sun, 10 Oct 1968).
Some players and executives felt he was bluffing. “Who’d believe that?” said Stafford Smythe, president of Maple Leaf Gardens. Vice president Harold Ballard agreed, “It’ll push baseball off the front pages” (Gord Walker, The Globe and Mail, 11 Oct 1968).
Hull was known for drawing attention to the league, and he once again pushed the boundaries.
This incident foreshadowed a groundbreaking event to come.
According to The Globe and Mail, “asked if he would pay a million dollars for Hull, [Leafs president Stafford] Smythe said he would. He added he would give a ‘whole team as long as I have enough players left to play with Hull,’” but believed that the Black Hawks would not make him available (Gord Walker, The Globe and Mail, 11 Oct 1968).
The Montreal Canadians reportedly offered to trade a nine-player package to Chicago in exchange for the star’s services (“Hull Signs Minutes,” The Globe and Mail, 14 Oct 1968).
Hull had that much leverage.
An arbitration meeting between the Black Hawks and Hull, with NHL president Clarence Campbell in attendance, was slated to take place at 1 p.m. that day, an hour after his press conference. Hull did not attend (Gord Walker, The Globe and Mail, 11 Oct 1968).
However, he did not sign the necessary voluntary retirement papers in order to officially quit the NHL. “Right now he is on the active reserve list and can return any time he signs a contract,” reported NHL president Campbell (“Toronto Offers Million,” Victoria Daily Times, 11 Oct 1968).
October 13, 1968: 79 hours after Hull announced his retirement, a police escort and another vehicle rolled up to the front of Chicago Stadium with 15 minutes to spare before that night’s match. The New York Rangers were in town. Stan Mikita had already signed two days prior with 47 minutes to spare before that night’s season opener against the Blues (“Hull Signs Minutes,” The Globe and Mail, 14 Oct 1968). The Mikita contract was worth $70,000. However, the team was still missing its greatest showman. There had been no news about his whereabouts that day. He was still “retired.”
Hull had signed, and he made his season debut that night.
His new salary was “roughly between $85,000 and $100,000” (Dick Beddoes, The Globe and Mail, November 8, 1969). It was revealed to be a four-year deal, slated to expire in 1972.
When the team did not honor some of the terms in 1969, Hull announced his retirement again. Eventually, the team relented (“Hull returns to Black Hawks,” The Globe and Mail, November 11, 1969).
“Robert Marvin Hull has announced his retirement from the National Hockey League.
Hull abandoned the NHL last week, in a telegram to Thomas Ivan in Chicago...
Hull revealed, ‘When [Black Hawks owner Bill] Wirtz made no concessions, I sent Ivan a wire announcing my retirement. They haven’t announced it yet, so they must be trying to sweat me out.’..
The consequences of Hull’s absence are apparent... Without him, Coach Billy Reay hears derisive serenades from Chicago partisans, ‘So lo-n-g, Billy, it’s been good to know you-u..’ This was disenchantment expressed by customers now gouged out of $8 for the best seat in Chicago Stadium.
Hull, more than any other hockey mercenary, has the shine of show business. He is an attraction that generally means excitement. When he is in town, scalpers on the street outside Maple Leaf Gardens demand, and get, $18 or $20 for a pair of blue tickets worth $11...
‘Some people are untradeable,’ New York manager Emil Francis says. ‘Hull is one of those. You’d have to give up too much to get him.’” - Dick Beddoes, The Globe and Mail, October 21, 1969.
He was defiant off the ice despite being one of the game’s most gentlemanly players on it.
Hull represented the power of an individual whose authority was greater than the entity that governed him. Like LeBron James, he could force conversations. He took full advantage of that.
Others, including LeBron James, need to use their authority now in the context of social change.
Not long after, Curt Flood made his intentions known.
The newly-formed NHLPA, along with unions representing athletes from North America’s other major sports, joined together to enact major changes, following Flood’s footsteps.
“Players’ associations representing professional baseball, basketball, football and hockey in North America will fight any attempt by owners to obtain anti-trust exemptions, R. Alan Eagleson said yesterday...
He revealed that the players’ associations meet as frequently as possible, ‘at least four times a year, and we a result, we are able to join forces in many areas.’...
The reserve clause is the major issue of controversy...
‘Every sports executive has stated that removal of the reserve clause would create chaos in sport. In June, 1969, the president of the NHL, Mr. Clarence Campbell said: ‘If the NHL owners were to vote for an option clause (rather than the lifetime reserve clause) they would vote themselves into oblivion.’ In January of 1970, Joseph Cronin, president of the American Baseball League, said: ‘The reserve clause is the backbone of baseball. Without it, the game would collapse.’...
Eagleson suggested the action by baseball player Curt Flood in challenging the reserve clause ‘which in baseball connotes total and outright ownership’ was not surprising.
Flood was traded, earlier this month, by St. Louis to Philadelphia. ‘Under baseball’s system his alternatives were obvious. He could either report to Philadelphia or retire...
‘This action had to come. It might well have arisen in hockey last year if Bobby Hull had challenged Chicago’s right to restrain him from employment away from Chicago.’” - Jim Vipond, The Globe and Mail, January 30, 1970.
The National Basketball Association followed suit in its efforts to liberate its players. In 1970, 12-time NBA All-Star, former league MVP, and NBA Players Association president Oscar Robertson challenged the NBA in Robertson v National Basketball Ass’n (1977). The case enabled players the right to become free agents, while also giving teams the first right of refusal to match offers.
The NHLPA wanted to replace hockey’s reserve clause with a new option clause, giving players the ability to become a free agent after the expiration of their contract plus one year (Jim Kearney, The Vancouver Sun, January 31, 1971).
The emergence of the World Hockey Association expedited this process. A group of rogue business people decided not to abide by the process of purchasing an NHL franchise. Upon their declaration of existence, the WHA offered Bobby Hull a ten-year contract worth $2.5 million, including a one-million dollar, up-front signing bonus and a player-coach role. Hull, who had sought a $100,000 deal throughout his career with the Black Hawks, had suggested to Winnipeg Jets owner Ben Hatskin that he would sign with the Jets if the tendered a one-million dollar offer to him.
The WHA obliged, pooling its finances in order to make the offer. He accepted their offer out of principle and became the league’s poster boy and primary ambassador.
He left the NHL at the age of 33 following a 50-goal 1971-72 campaign. At that point, he had 604 career NHL goals, directly behind Gordie Howe’s 786 goals. Howe had retired from the NHL the previous year at the age of 42 on the basis that he felt he could not longer play at a high level. Howe would come out of retirement in 1973-74 to play with his sons in the WHA, made possible due to the challenge to the reserve clause.
Bobby Hull, meanwhile, forfeited the opportunity to chase Howe’s record. He continued to be a high-end goal-scorer in the WHA, and did not retire from professional hockey until the age of 41.
His defection from the National Hockey League encouraged other players to leave their NHL teams and sign with the WHA.
The contract made Hull the highest-earning player in all of professional sports. The NBA’s Wilt Chamberlain, for example, earned a salary of approximately $250,000. Baseball star Hank Aaron earned $200,000. Bobby Orr earned approximately $180,000 per season (“WHA Opens Up Vault,” The Province, June 28, 1972).
The NHL barred Hull from participating in the 1972 Summit Series. The WHA held its own summit series with the Soviet national team in 1974.
The fight spilled over into the domain of the courts.
The NHL placed injunctions on the various players who tried to join the WHA, including Gerry Cheevers, J.C. Tremblay, and Derek Sanderson (“Campbell sees injunction to stop WHA’s big fish,’” The Globe and Mail, August 4, 1972). The Black Hawks sued Hull on the grounds that they still owned the rights to him even though his contract had already expired (“Hull can promote WHA Again,” The Globe and Mail, September 12, 1972). Philadelphia Blazers player-coach John McKenzie, a member of the Boston Bruins the previous year and slated to earn $300,000 with the Blazers, filed an anti-trust suit against the NHL (“Judge takes stand,” The Globe and Mail, October 10, 1972).
The players had initiated a full-scale war with the NHL.
During all of this, the NHL swiftly awarded Nassau County, New York a franchise in order to block the WHA from expanding into the brand new Nassau Coliseum. The league offered the county a team, rather than any individual buyer. Neil Shayne, president of the New York WHA franchise, filed a $33 million anti-trust suit against the NHL (“Anti-trust Suit Filed,” The Globe and Mail, November 30, 1971).
In October 1972, Philadelphia District Court judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. declared that “hockey is not immune” from anti-trust laws (“Judge takes stand,” The Globe and Mail, October 10, 1972). The next month, he granted a preliminary injunction to the WHA against the reserve clause in exchange for the payment of a $2.5 million bond to the NHL “Injunction Hits NHL’s Reserve Clause,” The Globe and Mail, November 9, 1972).
The WHA could not pay the $2.5 million bond, but in 1973, Judge Higginbotham blocked the NHL from enforcing the reserve clause on any contract signed before 1972. The logic was that contracts signed in 1972 included an arbitration clause, while older contracts did not (“Judge Rejects WHA Demand,” The Globe and Mail, May 30, 1973). If a team and player disagreed about salary, an independent arbiter would be involved in the negotiations (Christine Blatchford, The Globe and Mail, August 29, 1973). The competition between the two leagues was good for the growth of player salaries.
“Competition between the leagues will boost average NHL salaries ‘another 30 per cent this season,’ according to Eagleson. ‘I would think the average is going to be $55-60,000.’” - Dan Proudfoot, The Globe and Mail, July 31, 1973.
After a two-year court battle and numerous law suits, the NHL and WHA finally reached an out-of-court settlement in 1974, signed before Judge Higginbotham. The agreement included the following terms:
The NHL and WHA could collaborate on potential inter-league exhibition, regular season and playoff matches. The WHA would not be opposed by the NHL for the usage of its arenas by NHL teams. The Toronto Toros would not challenge for the use of Maple Leaf Gardens. The NHL would also pay the WHA $1.75 million in legal fees (“No Merger Contemplated,” The Vancouver Sun, February 20, 1974).
Most importantly, the NHL’s reserve clause was eliminated, and the WHA would recognize the NHL’s new option clause (“No Merger Contemplated,” The Vancouver Sun, February 20, 1974).
“I wouldn’t say anybody won, it was a sensible compromise for both leagues. The key points as far as our league is concerned are recognition and the elimination of the NHL’s reserve clause.” - Jim Pattison, Vancouver Blazers owner and WHA committee member (“No Merger Contemplated,” The Vancouver Sun, February 20, 1974).
The reserve clause was eliminated. The next year, Curt Flood won his fight against baseball.
The players’ fight for free agency did not end, however. To replace the reserve clause, the NHL implemented a new, similarly-restrictive rule as part of its subsequent collective bargaining agreement: the equalization rule.
In the aftermath of the reserve clause’s abolition, a new compensation system replaced it. The NHL called it “equalization,” which meant that any team who signed a free agent would be required to compensate the player’s former team with something of equal value. In the NFL, the Rozelle rule forced teams to give up significant draft picks as compensation for free agent signings. This deterred teams from signing players who did not already belong to them.
“[New York Islanders star] Denis Potvin could never go to Edmonton the way things are now... because there’s a one-in-10 chance New York Islanders would be awarded Wayne Gretzky.” - Alan Eagleson, NHLPA executive director, 1982 (Neil Campbell, The Globe and Mail, July 22, 1982).
In the NHL, Dale McCourt became the challenger to the system. After the Red Wings signed Los Angeles Kings goaltender Rogatien Vachon, arbitrator Judge Edward J. Houston awarded the Kings McCourt (Donald Ramsay, The Globe and Mail, August 18, 1978). Teams stopped signing free agents after realizing that their stars could be lost as compensation (Clancy Loranger, The Province, May 27, 1980).
McCourt sued the NHL, the Kings and the Red Wings. After having his request granted at a Detroit District Court, then reversed at the U.S. Court of Appeals, he threatened to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court (“Kings receive Andre St. Laurent,” The Globe and Mail, August 23, 1979). The Kings reached a settlement with the Red Wings for forward Andre St. Laurent and two draft choices: their 1980 first-round pick and the choice of a 1980 second-round or 1981 first-round pick (“Kings receive Andre St. Laurent,” The Globe and Mail, August 23, 1979). All players under the age of 33 were affected by the equalization rule (William Houston, The Globe and Mail, June 7, 1986).
McCourt sacrificed money to make his point. He turned down a six-year, $3 million contract from the Kings that would have made him the highest-paid player in professional hockey (“Made his point,” The Globe and Mail, August 24, 1979).
The equalization rule was problematic, and it created a free agency stalemate in the NHL. He showed that players could refuse to play by the league’s rules and to use means outside of the league’s jurisdiction to achieve a desired result. He also forced the NHL to implement protected player lists and a new compensation scale (“Players, Owners Like New Contract,” The Vancouver Sun, August 18, 1982).
His case was a landmark moment with regards to labor relations in sports, creating opportunities to challenge clauses within a collective bargaining agreement that violated antitrust laws (Robert C. Berry, William B. Gould, Paul D. Staudohar, Labor Relations in Professional Sports, 1986, p. 218).
There are some important takeaways to consider with regards to the NHL’s public relations culture.
Not every player thinks alike, and not every hockey player possesses the same personal values. The NHL, however, has ensured that every player maintains a uniform public stance. The manner in which one presents themselves and represents their organization is the league’s top priority, and it remains crucial to each player’s standing in the hockey community.
This extends to the process of screening junior-aged players prior to the NHL draft. The interview process ensures that players who do not adhere to the league’s fundamental values are identified and, in some cases, blacklisted. Moreover, it also produces a culture of deceit and dis-ingenuity. The players’ real personalities are veiled beneath a dishonest mask. The league strives to maintain an wholesome, impeccable public image, and players are penalized for being transparent. To maintain the facade, the faults of the league are kept hidden from the public.
The interview process is partly a matter of testing a player’s dedication to the sport, but it is also a test of public relations mastery. Teams do not want their players to disgrace them publicly. This, in turn, cultivates a sense of fear among players not to speak out of line in the public sphere. This sense of decorum has been disregarded in the private sphere among the players, their peers and their coaches.
Prospect interviews are now a major component of pre-draft scouting combines. Players have fallen and risen on draft lists because of their interviews.
Interviews are conducted to determine both on-ice and off-ice behavior, the latter of which is a matter of public relations. Bosses do not want employees to speak out of line and harm their public image. There are past instances when the league has chosen not to make its players available to the media, as the NHL has felt uncomfortable with the potential fallout.
When some NHL players and organizations began to express their support for the Black Lives Matter movement after George Floyd’s death, New York Rangers and Knicks owner James Dolan sent a private memo to his employees to remain silent.
“We know that some of you have asked about whether our company is going to make a public statement about the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. I want you to know, I realize the importance of this issue. Therefore, I want you to understand our internal position.
This a turbulent time in our country. The coronavirus and civil unrest have taken their toll on our way of life. We at Madison Square Garden stand by our values of a respectful and peaceful workplace. We always will... As companies in the business of sports and entertainment, however, we are not any more qualified than anyone else to offer our opinion on social matters.” - James Dolan, New York Rangers and New York Knicks owner to his employees, June 1, 2020.
The memo was leaked. It became public knowledge. The next day, he reversed his stance.
The organization’s employees have since banded together to discuss their position regarding Dolan’s conduct.
Athletes need to be courageous enough to push the boundaries of their sport for any cause they feel is just. The world needs more people in power who are willing to forego their privileges in order to stretch the limits of society. Progress is made by challenging the status quo. Change occurs when the majority overwhelm the oppressors.
True leaders fight for their rights no matter the cost. They don’t back down. They don’t stay silent.
Chapter IV: Case Study #1 - Theoren Fleury, Victim and Bully
Perhaps unsurprising is the degree to which former NHL star Theoren Fleury represents this issues that plague hockey, and so we will frame our observation of the crisis through the lens of his career. From being a victim of sexual abuse to suffering through years of poor mental health and then being ostracized for his vocal opinion, Fleury’s story is a case study that reflects the entirety of the abuse crisis.
Theoren Fleury’s number fourteen has not yet been retired by the Calgary Flames. Year after year, he longs to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. It seems obvious to anyone who looks only at his statistical achievements as a National Hockey League player that he should bestowed at least one of these honors. Fleury scored 364 goals and 830 points in 791 games as a player with the Calgary Flames, the team he captained and with whom he established new franchise records. His NHL career ended with 455 goals and 1,088 points in 1,084 games. He won an Olympic gold medal in 2002, a World Junior gold medal in 1988, and a Canada Cup gold medal in 1991. He was a champion.
Based solely on his contributions as a hockey player, there are few members of the Flames alumni more deserving of such honors. He achieved an elite level of success in the NHL’s tumultuous clutch-and-grab era spite of his undersized, 5’6’’ stature.
Fleury was a fan favorite due to his abrasive and skilled style of play. Based on his achievements as a player with the team, he should be regarded as one of the best to ever don a Calgary Flames uniform. He currently possesses the fifth-highest points-per-game average of anyone who has played 200 or more games with the franchise and the highest of anyone who has represented Calgary in over 700 matches. He helped the Flames win their only ever Stanley Cup championship in 1989 and defied all odds by entering the league as an undersized player in a league where players towered over him physically.
The Calgary Flames organization, however, has not honored him in any form. His words have resulted in his greatest triumph, but have also been his undoing. He has damaged his relationship with the NHL over the years, has used social media in the past to attack the current hockey establishment, and has been very vocal on social media. Fleury has no qualms about speaking his mind. This was not always the case.
He has dedicated the past decade of his life to charity work and mental health campaigns. He has devoted his post-retirement career towards helping people in need and speaking about trauma. In 2019, he was the speaker at a TED Talk in Vancouver. He has participated in NHL and Calgary Flames alumni events as well.
Despite all of this, eleven years have passed since he retired from the NHL and he continues to wait for the honors that a player with his résumé would usually receive.
Fleury has thoroughly documented his own life experiences. He published an autobiography in 2009 called Playing With Fire: The Highest Highs and Lowest Lows of Theo Fleury. In the book, he reflects on his personal demons and his lifelong struggle to overcome the trauma of his youth. He overcame obstacles of all sorts in order to play in the NHL, but eventually unraveled chaotically. His career was marred by alcohol, drug abuse and depression.
Fleury was a bully. He is not shy about this. The culture of abuse that surrounded him transformed him into a vile individual: “I became a bully at school... Every day, I intimidated people. I was always picking on somebody I shouldn’t have picked on. I was aggressive, putting schoolmates down, calling them out, trying to make myself feel better. I could pick out a weakness within five seconds” (Playing With Fire: Playing With Fire: The Highest Highs and Lowest Lows of Theo Fleury, Theoren Fleury and Kirstie McLellan Day, 2009, p. 7).
In his book, he recounted the hostility within his parents’ household.
“My dad was always drinking and screaming at my mom, and she was always angry with him. Chaos, chaos, chaos, always chaos. Somebody mad at somebody. Not physical violence, just arguing. Swearing, yelling. When I think about my mom and dad, I realize their behaviour was unacceptable for kids to see.
Being the oldest, I took on the role of protecting my mother. The first time I stepped up I was ten. I remember Dad was hassling her. We had no money for groceries because he’d spent his entire paycvheque in the bar. She was crying and begging him to stop doing that. He started calling her all sorts of awful names... He started moving closer and closer to her, really threatening... I was a lot smaller than both of them... Seeing him looming over her so unsteadily and feeling how scared she was, something snapped in me...
I ran at him. I was violent, screaming and forcing him all the way down the lawn and into his car, telling him to get the hell out and never come back. I remember he looked confused, but he understood. My anger made me dangerous. When you’re raging and you have absolutely no fear, you can do a lot of damage. That quality would really become a part of who I was on the ice. Because when you act crazy, people back away.” - Theoren Fleury, 2009 (Playing With Fire: Playing With Fire: The Highest Highs and Lowest Lows of Theo Fleury, Theoren Fleury and Kirstie McLellan Day, 2009, p. 6-7).
His malicious and erratic behavior created rifts.
During the filming of a documentary about himself, he admitted, “I don’t have any teammates that I’m really, really close with...” (Theo Fleury: Playing With Fire, Pyramid Productions, 2012).
He has spent years mending his ways and has had significant help with his therapy. His reformation is a major element of his life. He also deserves credit for his transparency, honesty, and courage to identify his abusers. He has been on both sides of the fence. He represents both sides of the coin. His story is about rehabilitation, and it may offer a lesson about how to better approach the issues of abuse in hockey.
“The only thing that I can do now about these stories [of my behavior] and let them understand that this is where the abandonment issues from my parents, this is where the abuse issues from Graham James [shaped me]... The behavior matched the crime. Because I was a professional hockey player and I was very successful making an insane amount of money, because I lost my power as a boy, money is power. You can control people, you can make people do things. You can have the prettiest girls on your arm. It’s an addiction unto its own. Do I behave that way today? No. I don’t. Am I sorry for the things that I’ve done? Absolutely.” - Theoren Fleury, October 2009 (The Bill Good Show, CKNW 980, 22 Oct 2009).
The NHL suspended Fleury in February 2001 during his time with the New York Rangers. He entered the league’s substance abuse program at that time.
When he returned to play hockey at the conclusion of the 2001 off-season, Wayne Gretzky, general manager of the 2002 Team Canada Olympic team, was among those who extended their support to Fleury. Gretzky never dismissed Fleury as a candidate for his Olympic squad. Team Canada, thus, underwent the process of screening Fleury as a potential roster member even though the easier decision would have been to select a different player. Fleury attended Team Canada’s September 2001 training camp, which was held even before his return to the NHL that year.
Fleury embodied all of the qualities that Gretzky valued.
“Before we even talked to Theo, we talked to [agent] Don Baizley, to Glen Sather and to Theo’s doctors... We went through the proper channels... We think that he deserves to be here... There are so many players in the NHL that you get to know over the years- guys as great as Mario [Lemieux], the elite players of the world,” Gretzky told reporters. “But there was always something about Theo that was very special... In life, people go through rough times... He went through a rough time and straightened himself out. We’re very proud of him” (“Spotlight Squarely on Fleury,” Toronto Star, 5 Sep 2001).
Gretzky wrote the foreword to Fleury’s book. Among other words of support, he wrote:
“The kid had no fear. We played together for Team Canada several times over the years and I was always amazed at how he was a force at crucial times... When it came time to choose a team for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake, I wanted Theo there. Nobody came through in a big game like he did... I knew that Theo represented who we really were, a team that deserved to win, not because we were lucky, but because we worked harder than anyone else.” - Wayne Gretzky, 2009 (Playing With Fire: The Highest Highs and Lowest Lows of Theo Fleury, Theoren Fleury and Kirstie McLellan Day, 2009).
For a decade, Theoren Fleury was the heart of the Calgary Flames. Despite his stellar play and his relationship with the city of Calgary, the organization was forced to trade him to Colorado in February 1999. The Flames, suffering financially during the NHL’s mid-1990s Canadian-market crisis, sent him to the powerhouse Colorado Avalanche in order to save money. At the time, he was the team’s all-time points, goals, and game-winning goals leader. He had been the team’s All-Star Game representative six times. The team lost its most outstanding player.
During the season when he was traded, he scored 30 goals and 69 points in 60 games with the Flames. However, he was a pending free agent, and the team feared that it could not sign him. Star players were becoming more expensive than ever, and not even a reasonable pay cut could allow Fleury to remain in Calgary and be paid fairly. He ranked seventh in total points that season with 93 tallies, tied with Eric Lindros and three beneath Joe Sakic. Four years prior, Fleury signed a five-year, $12 million contract with the Flames after holding out along with captain Joe Nieuwendyk. The Flames could not reach an agreement with Nieuwendyk, but were ecstatic to retain Fleury. He succeeded Niewendyk as the team’s captain and was given credit for taking a lower salary than some of the league’s other stars.
“We don’t need to stand here today and talk about the pros and cons of Theo Fleury as a hockey player or what he means to our club. All of that can be found in the record book... What we have here is what we feel is a great player. One of the best in the game today who has not only chosen to play for the Calgary Flames, but has chosen to become an integral part of this community on a year-round basis...
It epitomizes what we are trying to accomplish with this organization... There are a lot of teams out there that would like to be in our position where they have their top player saying ‘I want to stay with you.’ Right now you have a lot of top players saying ‘Put me where the most money is’...
Salary compensation was important but I don’t know that it was the most important thing to Theo.” - Al Coates, Calgary Flames executive vice-president and lead negotiator, September 1995 (Mike Board, Calgary Herald, 23 Sep 1995).
Upon re-signing in the fall of 1995, Fleury became just the 26th-highest paid player in the NHL with an average salary of $2.4 million per season, a raise from his previous $850,000 salary. The next-highest paid player on the team was Phil Housley, who earned $2.2 million. During the previous season, much like in 1998-99, Fleury was seventh in NHL scoring with 29 goals and 58 points in 47 games. He was fifth in Hart Trophy voting in 1994-95.
The team’s brightest star at the time expressed his gratitude.
“When I was playing junior hockey in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in 1987, the Flames gave a small player an opportunity to come to training camp and show what he could do... I basically carried out that part of it and was awarded a contract. I guess I have become a very loyal Calgary Flames employee.” - Theoren Fleury, September 1995 (Mike Board, Calgary Herald, 23 Sep 1995).
The team embraced him. The fans adored him. He was a role model and a hero in Calgary.
The Avalanche, who had already won a Stanley Cup in 1996, sought and valued his services. He was a champion in their eyes. He offered every possible morsel of effort to his team and never backed down from an on-ice challenge. In 15 regular season games with the Avalanche, he scored 10 goals and 24 points. In that year’s playoffs, he scored five goals and 17 points in 18 games. The Avalanche were within one game of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. The Dallas Stars ultimately eliminated them by a series score of 4-3 in the Western Conference Finals.
“When you get into the playoffs, you want players you can go to war with... Theo has been the ultimate warrior his entire career, taking on the biggest and baddest players without hesitation to win a game,” told Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix to the media that May (Larry Wigge, The Kitchener Record, 20 May 1999).
Fleury signed with the New York Rangers after they extended a four-year, $28 million offer to him. It was a mistake.
Theoren Fleury suffered from depression throughout his career as a result of trauma during his youth. He lived in a violent household with neglectful parents, and his head coach in the Western Hockey League, Graham James, sexually abused him. He tried to keep his secrets bottled within himself. He had been an alcoholic since his teenage years, and first used cocaine at the age of 19. When, in 1995, his Calgary Flames teammate and former teammate in the WHL, Sheldon Kennedy, publicly disclosed his stories of abuse at James’ hands, Fleury was triggered, and he began a downward spiral into a hellish world of chronic drug and alcohol use. Fleury did not yet feel ready to tell his stories. He suffered alone.
He told interviewers during the production of the 2012 documentary Theo Fleury: Playing With Fire, an accompaniment to his 2009 book, “I look back on some of those highlight tapes of me playing in New York and just how much anger I had inside of me” (Theo Fleury: Playing With Fire, Pyramid Productions, 2012).
In July 2001, after being placed into the league’s substance abuse program, Theoren Fleury told reporters that he had begun to properly address his troubles.
“I’m not getting into details, only to say I felt it was time to deal with certain issues in my life... This is a day-to-day thing, something that’s going to continue to be this way. But I’ve got a great support system in place. I know where I’ve been and where I’m going. Everybody in life is dealt cards. I didn’t play the hand I got properly... When you’re an athlete, particularly when you’re younger, you feel invincible. Well, you’re not.” - Theoren Fleury, July 2001 (George Johnson, The Ottawa Citizen, 31 July 2001).
In 2009, he told CKNW 980 radio host Bill Good that he did everything he could to become sober in 2001 in order to become eligible to play in the 2002 Winter Olympics. He willed himself back into a sufficient condition so that he could play in Salt Lake: “I went to treatment. I did, like, 60 days of intense therapy. Then I lived a couple weeks in sober living, and then I went back to Canada and started preparing for the season... I wanted to be on that team... I focused... Once I have a goal and once I have something to achieve, I can really focus in on that” (The Bill Good Show, CKNW 980, 22 Oct 2009).
Fleury won an Olympic gold medal with the 2002 squad. However, he relapsed afterward, and his reputation continued to deteriorate. His state of mind was fragile.
In the 2002 off-season, he signed a two-year, $8.5 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks, but his attendance at training camp was not consistent (“Fleury Explains Absence,” The St. Catharines Standard, 4 Oct 2002). He missed numerous preseason practices, the first of which, on October 2, 2002, he did not disclose beforehand to the team. He notified the team before missing a second practice session the following day. At the time, he was participating in the NHL’s after-care program. On October 8, 2002, the NHL suspended Theoren Fleury indefinitely (Jim Coyle, Toronto Star, 10 Oct 2002).
He returned to practice on November 26, 2002 and, nearly two weeks later, made his season debut against Anaheim (Ken Warren, The Ottawa Citizen, 2 Dec 2002).
Not much later, Fleury’s problems developed into a distraction for his team. In January 2003, he was involved in an incident at a strip club in Columbus in which he was “roughed up by bouncers” (“Life Without Theo,” The Cornwall Standard-Freeholder, 18 Sep 2003). No charges were laid, but Blackhawks general manager Mike Smith targeted the incident as a reason for the team’s decline in the latter half of the season:
“Up until that point we were playing at a 96-point rate... For 25 games following that we were playing at a 39-point rate. Then we made a bunch of deals at the trade deadline and went back and played at a 97-point rate... So when you look at those three different parts of the season, my conclusion is that for whatever reason, that incident was devastating to our team.” - Mike Smith, Chicago Blackhawks general manager (2000-2003), September 2003 (“Life Without Theo,” The Cornwall Standard-Freeholder, 18 Sep 2003).
His reputation was sullen. He was unwanted. The Blackhawks blamed him for their on-ice issues.
Not long after, in March 2003, the Blackhawks placed Fleury on waivers. No team claimed him (“Fleury Suspended,” The Kitchener Record, 12 Apr 2003). The NHL again suspended him on April 13, 2003, this time for a minimum of six months without pay, and placed him into Stage Three of its substance abuse program. If he ever wanted to play in the NHL again, the NHL now required him to submit an application for reinstatement (“Life Without Theo,” The Cornwall Standard-Freeholder, 18 Sep 2003).
He continued to struggle, each day its own battle. He became a gambler and lived a volatile home life that resulted in divorce. Many relationships were ruined in Fleury’s chaotic frenzy.
At that point, his professional career was effectively over.
“Once you get a handle on one thing, then something else creeps up, then once you get that under control then something else creeps up, that’s the nature of the disease that people really don’t understand. This is a lifelong sentence,” Fleury said in 2004 (“Fleury Admits Battle,” The Leader-Post, 2 Nov 2004).
His actions alienated him from the league. Theoren Fleury was angry and confused. He nearly committed suicide in 2004 (George Johnson, Edmonton Journal, 15 Oct 2009). He remained silent.
Fleury was often reluctant to seek assistance. As journalist George Johnson described him, “Fleury has always had a ‘Screw the world!’ type of attitude. He has always felt he had to do it all himself, go solo, depend strictly on his own talents and instincts” (George Johnson, The Ottawa Citizen, 31 July 2001).
In 2001, the troubled star emphasized that while asking for help was crucial to his well-being, he struggled to do so: “I’m someone who has a hard time asking for help” (George Johnson, The Ottawa Citizen, 31 July 2001).
“I’m looking for help. I’m asking for help. I need help. Nobody should ever be afraid to sit down and ask for help. I guess I’m known as a cocky player, but I’m not too cocky to think I can do this alone,” Fleury confessed in November 2002 (George Johnson, The Gazette, 29 Nov 2002). “All my life, I thought I had to do everything on my own, prove everything on my own. It was a lie.”
Despite rumors that he had been one of Graham James’ victims, Fleury kept this information to himself. He did not speak about it. He was ashamed, and he internalized his suffering.
There remained hope. A story from a fellow addict at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting awakened Fleury to the realization that he could conquer his addictions. It was a mental barrier that he needed to overcome.
“There’s this lovely, little old lady sitting at the [Alcoholics Anonymous] table. And I’m going, ‘Oh, man. This is going to be boring. What the hell is she going to have to say?’ But it was one of those things... I needed to be there because what she said was:
‘I’ve been drinking for pretty much my whole life and I had one glass of wine every day... You know what I thought about the other 23 hours? That one glass of wine.’
That makes me understand that the alcohol is an obsession of my mind. If I don’t clean up those... if I don’t get rid of the hamster that’s running around [in my mind], I’m not going to be successful. And that was my process... Four treatment centers, all of the psychotherapy, all of the individual therapy got me to September 18, 2005. I hit my knees and I said to God, ‘That’s it. No more. I can’t take this. I know you’ll only give me as much as I can handle, but I’m done.’ And the next morning I woke up and I looked in the mirror and it was gone.” - Theoren Fleury, The Bill Good Show, October 2009.
He began to heal once he took care of his mental state.
A redemption arc churned in his mind. It became clear to him that a comeback was not only the dream of his fans. It was his too. He could finally return to Calgary pridefully and bid farewell to his career with his dignity intact.
In 2009, after meeting with league executives, including Gary Bettman, the NHL reinstated Fleury and he signed a tryout with the Calgary Flames. The hockey world was fascinated. He then proved during the Flames’ 2009 preseason that he could still play. In fact, he played well enough that some would argue he should have been on the team’s 2009-10 opening night roster.
He officially announced his retirement from the NHL on September 28, 2009. He published his memoir on October 16 of that year. Flames forward Brian McGrattan, at the time ten months sober and having also graduated from the substance abuse program, expressed his appreciation for Fleury’s communication with him.
“We’ve talked quite a bit when he was here... He’s always there for me if I need someone to call or someone to talk to, which is a good feeling. He’s been a good guy for me, obviously having similar issues... Also being in the league’s program, words can’t explain what it’s done for me. Maybe to have a guy like him work for the league or something, I think it would be good to help players like me.” - Brian McGrattan, former NHL player (2005-2014), September 2009.
Fleury’s subsequent book tour was a success. He was now in a healthy state of mind. He had triumphed. With the book’s publication and the release of its accompanying documentary, Theoren Fleury had seemingly finished telling his personal tale. He had written the final chapter of his book and could now look ahead to the future.
In his discussion with Bill Good during the 2009 media tour, Fleury discussed forgiveness within the context of his actions.
“The listeners would be appalled at how frivolous I was and uncaring [I was] of so many people in my life. Am I sorry about that? Absolutely. 100%. I take full responsible for my actions... I want people to know that, no matter how far down the ladder you go, and no matter how many people you think you’ve hurt or injured, if you’re honest and open with that person and are willing to make amends and then live your life the best way you can, one day at a time, you can get some sort of recovery and get your life back.” - Theoren Fleury, October 2009 (The Bill Good Show, CKNW 980, 22 Oct 2009).
His story was not over. In fact, there were a few more items for him to accomplish.
Two new dreams arose. They seemed elusive. His storybook ending had not yet been written. As he stood in the Saddledome where he played for ten seasons in Calgary and gazed up above at the banners, Fleury pondered.
“So much time has gone by, but whenever you come back here [to the Saddledome], you just remember being out here all the time. Right from winning the cup in 1989 to today, so much has happened, and I’m extremely proud of the work that I did as a Calgary Flame, and if they feel that it’s fitting, then yes, I would be honored to [have my number] go up [to the rafters] with Lanny [McDonald] and Mike [Vernon]’s.” - Theoren Fleury, speaking in the 2012 documentary (Theo Fleury: Playing With Fire, Pyramid Productions, 2012).
In 2009, during his retirement announcement, he expressed a desire to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame: “Do I want to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame? Absolutely. Do I deserve it? I think I do. Four years ago, did I deserve it? No, I didn’t... I’m going to continue to have to live my life the way I’ve chosen to.”
A few obstacles blocked his path.
Just months after his comeback attempt, he lashed out on his official blog against the Calgary Flames and personally targeted Craig Conroy in his tirade. Conroy is currently an assistant general manager with the Calgary Flames and was a player with the team at the time. Fleury also insinuated that the team should have traded long-time Flames defenceman Robyn Regehr. His comments were negatively received (“Theo Fleury Rips Flames,” The Ottawa Sun, 8 Jan 2010).
He taunted the Flames and disrespected the league.
“Wow, what a year! At this time last year, I was 45 pounds overweight and thinking about making a comeback. HAHAHAHA! Anyway, we put our nose to the grindstone and boy did we make a comeback. At one hundred and eighty pounds, I finished 11th out of 56 guys at camp in the fitness test and scored a historic shootout goal in an exhibition game after being out of hockey for six years. What does that say about the talent level in the NHL? 4 points and a plus 4 rating in four exhibition games and I get cut. What a joke! Craig Conroy goes the first 37 games of the season with zero goals.
I wonder how many I would have had. Even with all the stupid people that run the game of hockey, it’s still a great game. Go figure. Anyway, then the book comes out and starts flying off the shelves. The truth will set you free! 100,000 copies and counting. Thank you for all your support.” - Theoren Fleury, official blog via SB Nation, January 6 2010 (verbatim).
The incident prompted Fleury to respond, “Oprah and Larry King don’t have to take calls and explain every blog they write,” only for the blog post to be deleted hours later that day (“Theo Fleury Rips Flames,” The Ottawa Sun, 8 Jan 2010). The day after, he issued a follow-up post:
“My intention wasn’t to hurt anybody — I have an opinion like everybody else... Do I feel the same way today, maybe not. Why should I get heat? I have nothing to do with hockey anymore... Sorry I’m not politically correct — I’m just making observations” Fleury wrote on his website (Eric Francis, The Toronto Sun, 8 Jan 2010).
The ordeal finally resulted in a formal apology days later.
“To all the fans of the Calgary Flames, I am truly sorry for the comments I made this past week... I sometimes say and do things without thinking. I want to apologize to Craig Conroy and Robyn Regehr for my comments. I will never forget my 2 and a half weeks this September and how great it was being with the boys again. The Calgary Flames organization is one of class and integrity and the comments that I made were uncalled for.
Please accept my apology. My comments in the future will be more directed to what I’m doing with my life and will reflect the causes that matter to me which are helping people who have suffered from abuse and the great things we have on board for the future.” - Theoren Fleury, Official Blog via The Toronto Sun, January 12, 2010.
Fleury was chastised for his disgruntled expression.
Calgary journalist Eric Francis wrote, “Burning perhaps the last bridge he had to the hockey world by referring to those in the Flames organization and the NHL who gave him the chance to clear his name with a comeback attempt last fall as ‘stupid’ the 41-year-old went further by suggesting he never should’ve been cut... There’s a lot inside Theo Fleury — exactly what will come out next is anyone’s guess” (Eric Francis, The Toronto Sun, 8 Jan 2010).
A decade later, the Calgary Flames still have not retired Fleury’s number. He has not been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
He professed during the filming of the 2012 documentary that he did not care what people thought of him. Any sort of ceremony seemed extremely improbable, especially once he began to flaunt his 2009 preseason experience.
Social media and online platforms have enabled Fleury to speak his mind and vocalize his opinions. A few vulnerable moments undid quite a lot of the good will that he had acquired.
In a 2017 interview with Lance Phillips of Newcap Sports, Fleury offered some insight into his vocal behavior.
“I very rarely think about my hockey career because this [mental health initiative] consumes seven hours when I’m sleeping. The other sixteen hours that I’m awake, I’m consumed with helping people in any way that I can, whether I’m using social media or helping someone... This matters. This needs not only my full attention, but it needs the world’s attention, and I have a voice, and it’s a very loud voice, and I’m going to use it.
I have lots of avenues now because I have Facebook, [YouTube, podcasting, blogging] all that stuff... So I’m going to use everything that I can to, not only bring [mental health] awareness... [but] healing.” - Theoren Fleury, Newcap Sports interview, 2017.
In 2012, he bragged on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight about how easy the preseason experience was: “When I went back for my comeback, I had been out of the game for six years, and I couldn’t believe how easy it was to play because it’s just a position game. You don’t really have to think. You just have to be in the right position. You just go to camp, learn the system, plug yourself into that system, and you wait for that opportunity and that turnover, so for a guy like me it was pretty easy to play.”
There was a lack of humility in his tone, consistent with his outburst in 2010.
The public will be the judge of whether a person’s opinion serves the needs of society. What Fleury represents is the principle of speaking up about what one feels is right and wrong. If their moral compass is askew, then it is the responsibility of society to have that conversation with them.
He has attempted to atone.
Since retiring from hockey, Theoren Fleury has participated in numerous NHL alumni events. He has served as a motivational speaker and advocate for child abuse issues. Fleury also participated in the 2015 NHL Alumni Charity Poker Tournament, finishing second in the competition. He matched the $15,000 prize with his own $15,000, donating the sum to the Alberta-based Little Warriors organization (“Theo Fleury Wins,” Canada NewsWire, 7 Apr 2015). He also participated in the 2013, 2015, and 2017 NHL Alumni Benefit Tours (“NHL Alumni To Rally,” Marketwire, 19 Mar 2003; “NHL Alumni Benefit,” The Canadian Champion, 28 Dec 2017; “NHL Alumni,” The Intelligencer, 2 Dec 2015). In 2019, he participated in an alumni poker event in Banff with nine other former Flames; the proceeds went to a charity in support of trauma survivors and PTSD sufferers in Alberta (Marie Conboy, Bow Valley Crag and Canyon, 29 Apr 2019).
Fleury continues to wait to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. The Calgary Flames have not honored Fleury in spite of his contributions to their team over the course of a decade. The league continues to penalize and stigmatize outspoken behavior.
He is candid about his opinions, unlike the majority of current NHL players. Most players are afraid to speak, especially when their voices matter most.
We must be clear that hate speech can not be condoned. Businesses are not subject to freedom of speech laws, except in certain states in America. Athletes can still be disciplined for discriminatory and inappropriate remarks. The public is not on their side. Our progress as a civilization hinges on our compassion, tolerance, and unity. We must strive to seek and improve both civil and human rights.
The world is not ideal. We can not pretend that it is.
Those in positions of authority will always try to downplay injustices. There must be pushback from the oppressed.
Chapter V: The Silent Superstar
Some of hockey’s most esteemed icons set the standard for gentlemanly behavior off the ice. Gordie Howe may have been the greatest of all. He was also exploited by the Detroit Red Wings.
Gordie Howe was humble, gracious, and naive. He was underpaid for years and was never curious enough to challenge his superiors about it. He was a model citizen, for many years obedient to a fault, and he was also among the Red Wings players who were bullied into disavowing Ted Lindsay’s original NHL Players’ Association. Lindsay called Howe naive.
Sidney Crosby, like Howe, is an emblem of civil obedience. Crosby is one of the NHL’s best players, and has been among its most successful on-ice achievers of the past 15 years. While others were speaking out in the first week after George Floyd’s death, Crosby was silent. When Evander Kane and others were discussing racism and abuse in hockey, he was silent. After weeks of public pressure, he issued a PR statement on June 3, 2020 akin to what others had already done.
While some continue to express themselves publicly about the current civil unrest in America, many others, even those on the verge of retirement with little to lose, have said nothing. They don’t want to be controversial, even when disobedience is necessary to achieve justice.
Howe came from a life of poverty, was alienated from his schoolmates because of dyslexia, and dropped out of school to work at a steel mill in Galt, Ontario. Through hockey, he made friends, and by the end of his life he was the sport’s most beloved figure. That was his dream. He achieved it. His peers did not appreciate his approach.
He was everyone’s friend, from Soupy Sales to Richard Nixon. When he retired in 1971, he received a private telegram from President Nixon:
“As a friend and fan... I wholeheartedly applaud the tremendous contribution you have made to the game of hockey and to the lives of its many enthusiasts by our splendid sports career.” - President Richard Nixon via telegram, 1971 (“Room at the Top,” The Province, September 10, 1971).
Ted Lindsay: “We never know what we’ll do in life until there comes a point in your life, and I recognized that this [NHLPA] had to be. We had to have a voice.”
Budd Lynch [Red Wings play-by-play announcer, 1949-1975]: “We were hoping that the players from every other team would make sure that the key players, the [big] name players on their roster would say, ‘Okay, we’re in your corner. Let’s see what happens.’”
Harry Howell [former New York Rangers player]: “We had our own team meetings. In New York, everybody in New York was for it.”
Narrator: “And in Detroit, where unions were king, the Red Wings formed a solid front. But Howe wasn’t with them.”
Bep Guidolin [former NHL player, recounting NHLPA stories]: “We [the players] got everything on but our skates. Jack Adams comes in and says, ‘What are you guys doing!’ Ted says, ‘We’re not going out on the ice until Mr. Campbell talks to us.’ Teddy said, ‘Stand up. Who wants the association, or union, or whatever! Everybody stand up.’ We all stood up. Except one guy. Gordie Howe. So Red Kelly says to Gordie, ‘What is wrong? This is going to help you. You’re going to be around for 25 years.’ [Howe:] ‘Yeah, but Mr. Adams treats me good. He gave me two jackets this year. You know, he didn’t have to do that.’
Ted Lindsay stood up and said, ‘I’ll buy you five jackets. Don’t worry about a jacket.’”
Karl Samuelson [of Hockey Digest]: “Gordie wasn’t an activist. If anything, Gordie was a bit of a pacifist off the ice. He just wanted to play the game. He didn’t want to get involved in the politics of the game.”
Narrator: “The window of opportunity was closed by Howe’s pro-management stand. It would take another decade before the NHL players’ union was successfully organized.”
Budd Lynch: “I’m sure Theodore Lindsay believes that if Gordie Had stood up in that dressing room in the Olympia [Stadium] and said, ‘Well, let’s go for it and see what happens,’ things might have changed.”
Milt Schmidt [former Boston Bruins player]: “Gordie Howe, with the reputation that he had, he could have been a great asset in forming this union and getting a little bit more for us.”
Brad Park [former Boston Bruins player]: “Gordie was the best player in the game at that time. It’s never been written that the best player should be the biggest force off the ice.”
Ted Lindsay: “Gordie was a very naive young man. He just, he believed everybody. And he has to live with that for the rest of his life.”
Howe’s opposition to the NHLPA created disunity.
There must not be silence. Those who remain silent are complicit, just like the three officers who stood idly while George Floyd gasped for air.
Only after Howe’s retirement did he realize that he needed to stand up for himself. Upon retiring, the Red Wings offered him a front office job. It was a miserable experience. Howe felt that he was not involved with the team’s operations. The Red Wings showed no appreciation for the greatest player in their sport’s history (“Howe Hints at Friction,” The Sun, January 5, 1972). When the WHA was formed and his sons Marty and Mark were drafted by the Houston Aeros, he came out of retirement to play with them.
He was fortunate enough that his wife Colleen was a natural businessperson and entrepreneur. Colleen became a consultant for the Houston Aeros and managed the Howe family businesses. Harrison Vickers, a business partner, called her “one of the finest businessheads he’s ever encountered” (Nora McCabe, The Globe and Mail, May 10, 1975).
By the 1990s, Howe’s tone had changed. He believed in action. Led by former player Carl Brewer, he, Bobby Hull, Andy Bathgate, Allan Stanley, Leo Reise, and Eddie Shack sued the NHL in April 1991 over a dispute about pensions (Randy Starkman, The Ottawa Citizen, November 29, 1992).
“Things today are pretty darn nice - salaries and everything else... But it’s the future that is at stake. They (today’s players) have seen what the future has done to a lot of the older players...
[In the 1950s,] we didn’t really fight that much (for the future)... I was a young man out of Floral, Saskatchewan, and because I got into hockey, it’s no excuse, but my education ceased, and I was lacking in that department - especially in executing what was important for the future with the inflation of the dollar...
Leo Reise was playing in Detroit, and he said, ‘Gordie, the money we’re going to get from the pension won’t be worth the paper it’s written on because of escalating costs,’... But I thought, ‘This is pretty nice: I’m getting $6,500 a year; I’m putting $900 into the pension. And it will protect me for the future, because when I get 15 years or so in the league, when I turn 45, I’ll get as much as I’m making now.’ That sounded pretty good...
As it turned out... I’m around $14,000 or $15,000 a year.” - Gordie Howe, March 1992 (Frank Brown, Toronto Star, March 29, 1992).
The seven former players alleged that the NHL had “mis-allocated surplus pension money.” They won the case, and ten years’ worth of misspent money was reimbursed to the players (“NHL Pension Fighter Carl Brewer,” Prince Albert Daily Herald, August 27, 2001.).
Gordie Howe remains perhaps the league’s greatest player of all time, especially if one asks Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, and his protégé, Wayne Gretzky. On the ice, he was vicious and crossed the line on many occasions. His on-ice contemporaries knew him as “Mr. Elbows” rather than Mr. Hockey.
Off the ice, he was exploited. For too many years, he submitted to the will of his bosses. He put his head down and contributed to the end of the NHLPA when his friend Ted Lindsay needed him most.
It was appropriate, thus, that when the two played together for Detroit, Lindsay was the captain of the team. Real leaders fight for justice, even at their own expense.
Gretzky has been silent about the Black Lives Matter movement. Crosby waited until everybody else spoke.
Leaders have emerged in these dicussions. Among them, Evander Kane. He realizes that there is more to the world than his reputation.
Not all leaders are remembered for their efforts. Not all leaders care about that. The ones who don’t fret about prestige are the ones who risk everything of their own for the sake of others.
We must reconcile the fact that the experiences that motivate people to seek justice can also have negative consequences for their mental health.
Bobby Hull remains exiled. His on-ice contributions make him one of the obvious candidates to be considered the fifth-best player of all time. His story away from hockey is one of torment and misguidance. His trauma as a boy undoubtedly gave him that lack of fear about the consequences of his actions.
Chapter VI: Case Study #2 - Bobby Hull and Trauma
A broken system failed Bobby Hull. Many are quick to label him as an abuser. Indeed, his ex-wife and the nanny who looked after their children during the 1960s both attest to the abusive behavior of Hull within their household.
Bobby Hull was abused as a child. He needed someone to intervene. None did.
There are generally two topics of interest with regards to Hull’s poor public reputation: the aforementioned allegations of domestic abuse and a racist remark credited to him by The Moscow Times in 1998. He was never convicted of any of the actions attributed to him by his ex-wife to whom he was married for 20 years, Joanne Hull Robinson (née McKay). The one time he was taken to court in 1979, he was cleared of the assault charge (Rick Ouston, The Vancouver Sun, September 22, 1979).
Joanne Hull needed to speak. She remained silent, and as we will discuss, she enabled him to continue his behavior.
The incident with The Moscow Times demonstrates the effect that publicizing incidents can do to a sport. It can deter repeat incidents and also generate important conversations.
The publication of an article about Hull in The Moscow Times resulted in his filing of a $27 million libel suit against both the Moscow paper and the Toronto Sun, who reprinted the comments along with many other outlets. Gennady Fyodorov of The Moscow Times, the author of the contentious article, reported that Hull had said “Hitler, for example, had some good ideas. He just went a little bit too far.” The incident occurred in Moscow during an interview between Hull and a reporter for the ITAR-TASS news agency. Fyodorov, originally not part of the interview, was said to have joined partway through the interview.
The interpreter who witnessed the events, Svetlana Murashkina, recounted the story differently than Fyodorov:
“While a Moscow newspaper stood by its report that Bobby Hull voiced pro-Nazi sentiments, a translator who heard the interview said Thursday he may have been misunderstood or quoted out of context.
Svetlana Murashkina told the Canadian Press she was helping another reporter interview Hull when a Moscow Times reporter joined the informal session. She said the former NHL star, who has strongly denied the newspaper’s report, was asked about Hitler and other world leaders for a feature story on the 21st century.
‘As far as I remember, the question was, ‘What do you think, is it possible that in the next century there will appear some rebel like Hitler and Stalin?’ something like this,’ Murashkina said. ‘In fact Bobby Hull answered not directly. He made some speculations . . . just talking on the item. The word Nazis wasn’t mentioned at all.
‘He said that, for example: ‘I raise cattle, I know something about genetics.’ He told that maybe . . . Hitler tried to make some perfect race but went too far, and that was not good,’ Murashkina added.
When asked about Hitler, ‘He immediately transferred to the analogy about cows,’ she said.” - Examiner Staff and Wire Reports, “Hull Was Just Talking Cattle,” August 28, 1998.
Hull, who spent the following months adamantly denying the allegations, explained his position during the week of the article’s publication:
“I recall talking about world leaders... I know we got talking on the cattle breeding and got talking about genetics, and I’ve had many years of experience, from 1959 until today, about breeding cattle and I talked about breeding good genetics into our cattle...
When I was trying to explain the genetics of our cattle business, that it was on the tail of the question asked about the world leaders. This possibly could have been misconstrued that I was talking about Hitler and the master race...
All I was talking about was genetics in the cattle business... when Hitler was brought up, of course, you think of this perfect-race deal...That’s how I got talking about genetics... As soon as the two [other] reporters left, this guy started in again and I had to go... I talked in generalities because the questions they were asking threw me, because it wasn’t typical of the sports reporters I had been talking to in interviews I had been doing for nine days before that.” - Bobby Hull, August 1998 (Justin Kingsley, The Kingston-Whig Standard, August 28, 1998).
The scandal shook the hockey world and was the talk of every sports columnist in the weeks leading up to the 1998-99 NHL season. The Toronto Star offered a glimpse of the events from Hull’s perspective:
“Very likely, Hull thought he was strolling toward just such an enjoyable reminiscence last month when he headed for an interview in Moscow. Very likely, Adolf Hitler or race relations were the last things on his mind.
For Hull, however, all hell broke loose over what he did or didn’t say during those few minutes. This week, the former hockey great met with Jewish and black leaders in Toronto to try to resolve the mess that media reports of the interview have created and announce a planned libel suit against those who published them.
Hull’s denials were unequivocal, his hurt palpable and his version of events one his lawyer suggests will find greater favor with a jury than the media because it makes more sense than sensation.
As Hull tells it, he was at a game near the end of a 10-day Russian tour that had taken him to pig and cattle farms as well as promotional events for the sport that made him famous. He agreed to a between-periods interview with a reporter for TASS and an interpreter. Hull says he became baffled when asked for opinions on what might happen in the 21st Century, or what might occur were certain world leaders still alive.
On the face of it, these are odd questions for a superannuated jock who professes no clairvoyance. And on the face of it, the circumstances and subject matter seemed tailor-made for misunderstanding.
Translation is always a problem. The interview was not taped. And during the session another person, someone Hull says was never introduced, joined in. Hull says the man carried no notepad. He says the man was several times asked to stop interrupting. But Hull says he put up with it in hopes of killing two media vultures with one interview.
He maintains that, whatever he said that day, the name Adolf Hitler never crossed his lips nor did any slurs against blacks. He acknowledges saying something when presented with a list of leaders - Stalin, Napoleon, Hitler, various czars - to the effect that some of them might have had some good ideas but went too far.” - “Hull’s explanation has strong ring of truth,” The Toronto Star, September 19, 1998.
It seems possible that the journalist, Gennady Fyodorov, quoted Hull out of context. Neither the Itar-Tass reporter nor the interpreter, both of whom were present, confirmed Fyodorov’s account. Svetlana Murashkina had her own version of events.
Regardless of the truth, the allegations have kept him cautious. Racists, and misogynists will be deterred if they are identified and shamed publicly. They are on the wrong side of history.
The incident sparked a conversation about racism in hockey and left a paper trail that, 22 years later, gives us an opportunity to consider the lack of progress that has occurred since then.
Everybody from Stephen Brunt to Maclean’s Magazine reported and opined about Fyodorov’s report. When Hull sued The Toronto Sun and the Moscow Times, the Sun’s statement of defence made headlines and caused a stir throughout hockey. The document identified professional hockey as having “a reputation as being a white domain with few or no minorities and repulsion towards gays and minorities.” This stance was important. This comment led to the Heritage Minister’s remarks drawing parallels between hockey and society at large.
The NHL’s players were incensed. They defended the league and denied that racism was an issue.
This was the wrong approach. Considering the progress that had been made over the previous 50 years, from African-American hockey star Herb Carnegie and Chinese-Canadian star Larry Kwong effectively being kept out of the NHL, the league was more tolerant than it had ever been.
However, further progress needed to be made, as we are currently witnessing right now.
According to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Glenn Healy, “That could be as racist a defence as I’ve ever heard... I don’t think you can group each of us individually as a group of racist characters. There is no room for racism in the NHL and the league does not support it. I’m not naive enough to believe that it would never go on ever, but the NHL doesn’t breed it” (James Christie, The Globe and Mail, May 28, 1999).
The allegations made by Joanne Hull in 1970, 1977, and again in 2002 pertain to matters that have been discussed throughout this article: physical abuse, alcoholism, childhood trauma, and mental illness.
In his 2011 book The Devil and Bobby Hull: How Hockey’s Original Million-Dollar Man Became the Game’s Lost Legend, Gare Joyce explored the relationship between the two Hulls, and extrapolated a theory regarding Bobby’s behavior. Bobby’s own father, Robert Edward Hull, was an abuser. He explained the relationship between Joanne and Bobby.
“... as strange as it sounds, Joanne sympathized with [Bobby]. ‘Joanne told me that Bob had been raised in an abusive home, that his father was physically and emotionally abusive to his wife,’ the Hulls’ former nanny said.
‘I remember the stories of how his father treated his mother, [daughter] Michelle Hull told ESPN. ‘[It] was exactly the way he treated my mother. He looked for a reason to hit my mom or hurt her in some way.’
Twenty years after Robert Hull’s death, stories of his abusive behavior, to his wife and to others, still circulate around what’s left of Point Anne and the rest of Prince Edward County. ‘Robert Sr. was an angry man, not versed in the social graces, and he could be very cruel [to his family],’ said Charlie Roebotham, a former teammate of Bobby Hull in Belleville in the early ‘50s. ‘It’s hard to imagine but if he didn’t like how Bobby was playing he wouldn’t take him to Belleville to his games and Bobby would have to walk seven miles each way or skate across the Bay of Quinte that far. [Robert Sr.] got away with murder — it wouldn’t happen today.’
Hull’s older sister Maxine had referred to her father’s ‘abuse’ in a Fox Sports’ documentary series ‘Beyond the Glory.’ And even Bobby Hull hinted at it in an interview with Ken Howard in an episode of “Greatest Sports Legends” in 1982 saying that his mother mitigated the ‘abuse’ he was subjected to by his father.
Hull’s friends from his boyhood remember him being desperate to please his father, fearful of him. They all thought Bobby’s mother was a saint. That she would be a victim of Robert Sr.’s emotional and sometimes physical abuse wounded other family members and had to damage the first-born son. To some it might explain if not excuse Bobby Hull for a social compass that was askew.” - Gare Joyce, The Devil and Bobby Hull: How Hockey’s Original Million-Dollar Man Became the Game’s Lost Legend, pp. 212-213.
The Hulls operated an unhealthy relationship that reinforced and rewarded Bobby’s abusive behavior. Joanne was submissive. She did not speak against her husband, and instead enabled his behavior. Their relationship was sexually-charged and toxic. Her desire to remain in the relationship played a role in encouraging her husband’s behavior. The dynamic between them was that of a silent victim and an abuser whose own trauma manifested into violence towards his spouse.
This is a reminder to anyone who is suffering from abuse to protect themselves from their abusers. Speak up, leave a dangerous domestic situation, do anything in your power not to allow your situation to continue. There are many resources available and many people who can support you. Do not remain silent.
According to their nanny, Hull was never physically abusive to his children nor did he hurt her. He was physically abusive towards Joanne and Joanne alone. Game days tended to be when Hull was at his most aggressive within the confines of his home (Gare Joyce, The Devil and Bobby Hull: How Hockey’s Original Million-Dollar Man Became the Game’s Lost Legend, pp. 47). Joyce and Hull’s children speculated that Bobby might have suffered from Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease caused by head trauma during his playing career. His aggressive behavior was discussed in light of Reg Fleming’s posthumous diagnosis of CTE in 2009. Fleming was violent. In any event, whether brain injuries played a role, Hull’s childhood experience was undoubtedly an influence.
“The Hulls’ former nanny, who was with Joanne after their separation and reconciliation in 1970, discounts the idea that Joanne stayed in the marriage all those years for the welfare of the kids. By the nanny’s account, Hull wasn’t physically abusive with the boys or Michelle but he was far from an ideal father. ‘It was just the fooling around,’ the nanny said. ‘He could be very harsh and critical. The breaking point for me was when he ordered Bobby Jr. to his room. I went to talk to him and Bobby Jr. said, ‘My father doesn’t love me’... [he thought] that he and his brothers were what made the marriage unhappy. I couldn’t take working there anymore. I felt like I was enabling Bob to be abusive to them.’
How did Joanne and Bobby Hull stay together almost 20 years? It can be gleaned from Joanne’s own words after the divorce was finalized. She described her former husband as ‘the best-looking man I had ever seen in my life.’ At the time she was already in a relationship with Harvey Robinson, a Vancouver accountant whom she married a couple of years later.
‘People don’t talk about [physical] attraction, that it was real,’ Bart Hull said.
The Hulls’ former nanny seconds the idea. She recognized it when the boys were too young to fully appreciate it. ‘There was a sexual energy between them,’ the nanny said. ‘I remember them arguing and he put his hand between her legs. Her eyes just glazed over and five minutes late you could hear the bedsprings springing. He always stuck to his routine on game days and didn’t want any change: steak, asparagus with cheese, salad and ice cream. Then from one to four he’d have his nap. He insisted on the house being quiet and he wanted Joanne to have a nap with him. After a while you could hear the bedsprings again.’
The nanny said that it went beyond simple sexual attraction. ‘Joanne got back together with him because she didn’t want anyone else to have him,’ the nanny said.” - Gare Joyce, The Devil and Bobby Hull: How Hockey’s Original Million-Dollar Man Became the Game’s Lost Legend, pp. 211-212.
Vic Grant, a long-time Winnipeg sports writer and Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame member, stated in Joyce’s book that Hull treated his son Bobby Jr. the same way that his own father treated him:
“The one boy that I knew fairly well was Bobby Jr., the oldest... Bobby Jr. played on a team with the sons of some of the others players. He wasn’t the best. He was a good kid but he wasn’t the smartest kid. He didn’t stand out in any particular way. Bobby taunted him. He basically told Bobby Jr. that he wasn’t good enough and he didn’t mind who was around when he said it... I didn’t have a lot of admiration for Bobby Hull because I saw what the public didn’t see. Just like his teammates did. He was a hard man to admire and I doubt many of his teammates did, even if they would never admit it.” - Vic Grant, Winnipeg sports writer (Gare Joyce, The Devil and Bobby Hull: How Hockey’s Original Million-Dollar Man Became the Game’s Lost Legend).
In 1985, Bobby recounted his father’s verbal abuse towards him in an interview with TnT Productions for WGN-TV’s Once a Star series. Robert Edward Hull was a bully and a tormentor:
“My dad was likely the driving force behind me, although if it hadn’t been for my mom, I would have never made it. I couldn’t have stood the abuse that I took from my dad.
When I look back on it, it was just his way of keeping me down to Earth and not letting me think that I was too much better than anyone else. I’d go out and score six or seven goals playing minor hockey as a kid, and I’d come in and thought I’d really cut a mean swathe and he’d be there: ‘Well, you lazy sucker. You should have had fifteen.’
And, of course, this was right in front of all of my peers, and I felt like going right under the bench.
Out on the ice, my dad always sat at one end of the rink and my mom at the other... When I’d go around the net with the puck at the one end, my mom would be there saying, ‘That’a boy, Robert, you can do it.’ And I’d build up a head of steam, and I’d beat everyone, go in on the goaltender, and I’d either hit him in the pads, or hit him in the belly, or shoot the puck six or eight feet wide of the net.
My dad would be right there behind the bench: ‘Well, you couldn’t put the puck in the ocean.’... Dad used to, no matter if I was playing ball — and I used to play ball; I pitched fastball at 12 inch — everything would be quiet in the stands while I was fanning everybody out and hitting the ball out of the park.
But let me strike out one time, or let someone get a hit off of me, and then that’s all you could hear. It would be him criticizing me.
But, as I said earlier, I think that he did it just to keep me down to Earth. I remember the year, the summer before I scored 50 goals the first time... he said, ‘Ah, you’ll never score 50 goals.’ So, I said, ‘I’ll show him.’ And then, the next year, I scored the 50 goals...
I think my dad was calculating, and everything that he did, he did to bring out the best in me or to provide me with that desire to go on and better myself no matter how good I may have thought I was.” - Bobby Hull, 1985 (Once a Star, WGN-TV and TnT Productions, 1985).
Hull’s held a warped view. He attempted to justify his father’s actions, and in turn projected that behavior on to his son. Bobby Hull, the abused, become the abuser.
Bobby Hull was an alcoholic, but never kept alcohol at home. He became violent and aggressive after games. He was tormented, and his descent into rage began once he started to drink. The Black Hawks drank as a group after every game.
“In the wake of a soul-crushing loss like that, even a troop of Boy Scouts would be tempted to knock back something stiffer than a soft drink. And the Black Hawks did. ‘We always went out after games and we’d have been out that night,’ Pappin said. Hull and his wife Joanne attended almost every post-game session and after a few drinks, they would be embroiled in an argument — ‘mostly fun,’ Pappin said. Hull’s teammates got a good laugh out of it, Joanne saying things to her husband that his teammates would never dare say. And it wouldn’t have been one drink that night before farewells. ‘The Hawks went at it hard,’ Hockey Hall of Fame sportswriter Frank Orr said. Others might have gone harder than Hull but it hit none of them harder than Hull. ‘Bobby was a nice enough guy until he got a drink into him and then it could turn pretty dark,’ the Montreal Gazette’s legendary Red Fisher said.
The nanny who gave up working for the Hulls after eight years, just two months before the ‘71 playoffs, saw that darkness long after last call. ‘He was always worse at home after a game,’ the nanny said. ‘It didn’t matter if it was a win or loss, he was always worse after drinking. He didn’t really keep [alcohol] in the house. He just drank when he was out. It just seemed to affect him that way, turning aggressive and violent, arguing, getting out of control. It had gotten worse over the years. I wouldn’t have wanted to be around when he got back that night.’
Even Hull realized that those hours after a game ate him up. ‘If I play a bad game, I feel like crawling through a knot-hole somewhere,’ he told Scott Young in a CBC documentary in 1964. ‘I feel terrible. It goes on not only an hour afterwards but through the night. Usually I don’t sleep a great deal... until I play the next game and possibly play a little bit better.’” - Gare Joyce, The Devil and Bobby Hull: How Hockey’s Original Million-Dollar Man Became the Game’s Lost Legend, pp. 47.
The anxiety and the anger stemmed from trauma. Hull needed help. He was restrained enough to keep his public image intact, signing autographs and developing a reputation as one of the league’s most popular family men.
However, there were demons that needed to be sorted out. Without any sort of outlet to fix his behavior, he channeled his rage towards his family. Occasionally, his family would be featured in articles about his home life. They were a high-profile family. His wife and children were known in the community.
“His public image: A handsome young man from a small town in Ontario, completely unaffected by public acclaim. Wavy blond hair, a physique rivalling that of one of those Greek gods. Still a farm boy at heart with a deep affection for bulls. Always says the right thing. Patience to the point that he will sign autographs for two hours at a time. Wearer of a perpetual smile.
The real Bobby Hull: little things irritate him at home, his teeth are sometimes clenched behind that famous smile and maintaining the public image is sometimes as tough as a hockey game.” - Paul Rimstead, journalist, The Globe and Mail, 12 Feb 1966.
The public saw one side of Hull. His family saw the other side. Something needed to be done about a man whose helplessness led to the suffering of his family.
Joanne needed to act. She almost left him in 1970. Instead, she allowed his abusive behavior to continue until she filed for divorce in 1977. In 1979, she filed charges after he attempted to forcefully enter the house in Vancouver that they co-owned.
According to The Vancouver Sun’s Rick Ouston, “Joanne Hull, who has been separated from her husband for two years and is seeking a divorce, had charged her 40 year-old husband with common assault causing bodily harm, claiming he struck her with a piece of the [front] door.
“Judge J.D. Layton found Hull not guilty and dismissed the charges after a two-hour trial. The case involved child custody and the judge said he has found ‘that parents often exaggerate when testifying about things which have happened to them’” (Rick Ouston, The Vancouver Sun, September 22, 1979).
Hull and his wife, not yet divorced, were co-owners of the house.
Joanne contended that Bobby hit her with a piece of the door. Bobby argued that she attempted to hit him with the aforementioned piece and he brushed it aside: “She then ran screaming and yelling to the telephone to phone the Mounties and bring their guns” (Rick Ouston, The Vancouver Sun, September 22, 1979). There was photographic evidence of an injury. When asked by prosecutor Gerry Green, Bobby replied, “They look like [finger] nail marks to me. I in no way inflicted those” (Rick Ouston, The Vancouver Sun, September 22, 1979).
Judge Layton: “The evidence is not overwhelming in the sense of supporting the story of either party... I am in some doubt as to how Mrs. Hull might have received the injury and whether during the confrontation between the two parties [over] whether Mr. Hull was to see the children, the injury was not caused by accident” (Rick Ouston, The Vancouver Sun, September 22, 1979).
Their seventeen-year-old son, Blake, witnessed the events and testified: “I was downstairs, I heard the door shut, and I came upstairs and saw the door [fall] and I ran upstairs and I did not see any hitting or anything taking place... I just saw my dad talking to my mom... My father was having words with my mother” (Rick Ouston, The Vancouver Sun, September 22, 1979).
She first expressed her plight in 1970 when she filed for divorce the first time.
“Joanne Hull, wife of Chicago hockey star Bobby Hull, filed for divorce in Cook country Circuit Court yesterday on grounds of ‘physical cruelty.’
She asked for custody of their five children and an equitable share of Hull’s annual income, estimated at $250,000... Mrs. Hull also asked for the family home in suburban Addison, alimony, child-support payments and a share of Hull’s assets...
Mrs. Hull, 35, charged that her husband kicked her in 1966, slammed a door in her face in 1969, punched her in the mouth and threw her off an elevated porch last July, and again kicked her last month.” - “Divorce asked: Mrs. Hull charges cruelty,” The Globe and Mail, November 13, 1970.
In 2002, she again explained the porch incident during an episode of ESPN’s SportsCentury: “I looked the worst after that Hawaii incident. I took a real beating there. [Bobby] just picked me up, threw me over his shoulder, threw me in the room, and just proceeded to knock the heck out of me. He took my shoe — with a steel heel — and proceeded to hit me in the head. I was covered with blood. And I can remember him holding me over the balcony and I thought this is the end, I’m going.”
She also alleged in the televised program that he threatened her with a loaded shotgun in 1978. Bobby, at the time with the Winnipeg Jets, no longer lived with Joanne and the kids as of 1977.
She never criminally charged him over any of these incidents. She only charged him in the 1979 incident after she became serious about divorce.
Her passivity and reinforcement of her husband’s behavior resulted in years of abuse.
Daughter Michelle, born in the summer of 1970, said in the documentary, “A lot of bad memories stem from how my dad acted when he was drinking... When he had been drinking, you’d just know that you didn’t want to be around here.”
Joanne remained attached to Bobby. She, like the rest of the world, did not know at the time that he was mentally ill. She cared about him and could see the redeeming qualities inside of him. In 1973, three years after the first divorce claim, Joanne spoke about him again:
“He’s an ordinary guy... He hasn’t changed a bit. He still goes around turning off lights and telling me not to spend so much money... Our social life has gone to pot because of this place [Winnipeg].... But it’s one of the few places we can spend any time together. I’ve got hundreds of sores and bruises on me. Bob gets me to hold down those calves and I end up smelling like a billy goat... Bob is a perfectionist... He wants us to be perfect too, and, of course, we’re not. He’s one of those guys who can do anything the first time they try it and he expects you to be the same... When I do something wrong, he has a tendency to shout. One day I just said to him, ‘if you continue shouting, you can find yourself a new farm hand...
He’s really a funny guy... He likes to growl a lot but he kind of enjoys it. There are times I’d like to bean him, but anyone who says they don’t want to bean their husband once in a while is a damned liar... He’s away a lot and he visits the thalidomide children and the crippled children and the kind with polio and if our pediatrician says there is a kid in a hospital, who wants to see him, he goes to visit him. I used to say he was spending more time with them than with our own boys and he said, ‘You do a good enough job with our boys and maybe along the way I can help just one boy.’ What could I say to that? He’s right and he’s around when he’s needed...
I get really hot sometimes... I sit there and seethe, but I always fight for what’s right. Sometimes I go up and say, ‘I’m Mrs. Bobby Hull and I want you to know that I don’t think this is the way things should be done. My husband stands for sportsmanship and he’s just an ordinary guy who tries to do good and help when he can.’ Most people respond nicely.” - Joanne Hull, July 1973 (“Two Buffalo roam, plus deer, geese and cattle: Hulls can commute to home on range,” The Globe and Mail, July 6, 1973).
Bobby Hull was a perfectionist. His father had groomed him through abuse to seek perfection. He snapped at his family just as his father had snapped at him.
Brett, Bobby’s third son, described his brothers: “I’m the only mellow person in my family... My brothers are all intense. Bobby Jr. is just like my dad. Blake has my attitude and temperament, but he has his serious side to him” (Jeff Gordon, The Gazette, September 18, 1989).
As the first-born, Bobby Jr. likely received the most pressure from his father.
Brett, the third son, was famously laid-back.
“Brett was a loving, loving child... He’s always been such a thoughtful little boy. He never forgot my birthday or Mother’s Day, and he always made something or drew me a picture. Those are the kinds of things that meant a lot to me. If he did any wrong, he was always the first to right it. He’s just a great little boy, and he was a great little boy, and to me he’s still a little boy.” - Joanne Hull Robinson, 1991 (Hockey’s Top Gun: Brett Hull, Bud Sports, 1991).
Joanne filed for divorce a second time in 1977. The divorce was public, and was considered to be second in terms of publicity only to that of Margaret and Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Originally filed on the grounds of “mental and physical cruelty,” it was amended in May 1980 to include “allegations of adultery” (“Court grants Hull divorce,” Victoria Times, June 21, 1980).
“... Joanne Hull filed for divorce in June, 1977. Bobby moved out, and a year later, divorce still pending, Joanne won interim custody and moved to Vancouver with four of the five children: Brett, who was thirteen at the time; Michelle, seven; Blake, fifteen; and Bart, nine. By then, Bobby, Jr., sixteen, was in Lethbridge playing junior hockey. (Blake would soon leave home for university and a short-lived run at a hockey career.)
Looking back, the only Canadian estrangement to result in more and better headlines has been Margaret and Pierre Trudeau’s. Joanne Hull filed for divorce on grounds of adultery and physical and mental cruelty, and the divorce went through in 1980. Before and after, the two combatants were often in court and just as often in the papers. In 1978, on a rare trip to the coast, Bobby broke down the front door of Joanne’s North Vancouver home, demanding to see his kids.
It’s not clear how often after the separation Brett and his younger brother or sister saw or even heard from their father. Brett’s mother insists that Bobby had no contact with Brett for more than a decade. ‘I mean no contact,’ she says. ‘No Christmas card, no birthday card, no phone call, nothing.’
When I put that time span to Brett he immediately makes a face. ‘That’s extremely long,’ he says, lowering his voice. ‘They like to barb each other pretty good.’...
He concedes there was a period when he didn’t see a lot of his father. ‘We talked,’ he says. ‘It was just distant. I mean, he was at one end of the country, we were at the other. I understood the situation. My folks hated each other. I had to live with my mother, so we weren’t going to see each other that much.’ His father’s response is in sync. ‘It’s true Brett and I didn’t see one another a great deal, but I saw his two older brothers very often and I believe the message got through.’
... Brett is adamant. ‘... There was never problem with the relationship I had with him. That’s one of the biggest misconceptions there is.’ He sounds fed up. ‘There was distance. But there was never any love lost.’ Perhaps to underline the point, Brett has one of his father’s old hockey cards taped to the wall behind his seat in the Blues’ dressing room.” - “Shooting Star,” The Vancouver Sun, February 6, 1992, p. 93.
In a 1981 article about the divorce, The Globe and Mail’s Brian Gory reported the following, shedding light on the unhealthy elements of their relationship.
“Judge Hall wondered whether Mrs. Hull, who lives in Vancouver, was receiving hidden benefits when she could walk into Victoria Leather (owned by Winnipeg Jet owner Michael Gobuty) and pick out six free coats.... The only thing the judges were sure about was the couple’s extravagance. ‘She (Mrs. Hull) seemed to have the notion there was a never-ending stream of money,’ Judge Hall suggested, noting her purchase of 25 brassieres at one time. Household spending went from $12,000 in 1972 to more than $100,000 in 1978...
Mrs. Hull’s lawyer, Maurice Arpin, challenged the court ‘to put a price tag on all (her) contributions, if you can.’ He said she had to put up with ‘savage verbal and physical abuse.’ Besides rearing their children, she helped him round up cattle, nursed them and harvested bull semen. She had abandoned a figure-skating career to marry the hockey player, he added.” - Brian Gory, The Globe and Mail, May 15, 1981.
Joanne was previous a touring figure skater from Los Angeles who, while sharpening her skates at Chicago Stadium, met Bobby Hull. During their life together in Chicago, she lived a city lifestyle: “Mrs. Hull... said she once thought of herself as a sophisticate. ‘I was one of those people always meticulous about their appearance... I liked to always have on make-up and look just so. But since we came here, I live in jeans with no makeup. I’m just a farmer’” (“Two Buffalo Roam,” The Globe and Mail, July 6, 1973).
In 1991, Bobby Hull claimed that their move to Winnipeg contributed to the deterioration of their relationship.
They were incompatible. It was a toxic relationship.
“With the move and everything, it was one of the reasons for the breakup of my family... But I never look back. I never second-guess myself.” - Bobby Hull, December 1991 (“Hull sends regrets,” Edmonton Journal, December 26, 1991).
“True, she was a spendthrift by many accounts. ‘Joanne definitely had expensive tasted — only the very best suited her. In Chicago she could go out and spend hundreds of dollars on antiques and then we’d have to figure out a way that Bob didn’t find the receipts,’ the Hulls’ former nanny said.
But when we think of gold-diggers, those who come to mind are landing in newfound wealth. Fact is, Joanne was only seeking to maintain the high-society lifestyle that she was accustomed to. The McKays were an old-money family and her spending habits predated her second marriage. Some in her high-society circle might have viewed her as having married beneath her. ‘I had a sense that Joanne’s mother looked at Bob and his family as ‘country bumpkins,’’ the Hulls’ former nanny said.
It wasn’t just a matter of urban sophisticated. Class was in play. Joanne’s parents had underwritten her figure-skating lessons to the tune of thousands of dollars. Hull had started playing on Canada Cement’s pad in Point Anne with rolled-up newspapers for shin pads. And at some level her husband’s tasted never got very far out of the company town. He could see investing thousands at a time in his prize cattle, but not the antiques that she decorated the house with.
Financially, it seems, the Hulls were incompatible from the very beginning. ‘My parents should never have met,’ the Hulls’ youngest son, Bart, said.” - Gare Joyce, The Devil and Bobby Hull: How Hockey’s Original Million-Dollar Man Became the Game’s Lost Legend, pp. 210.
Upon her move to Vancouver, she became a fashion consultant. She graduated from Marymount College in Los Angeles and took fashion design courses at the Art Institute of Chicago during the latter half of the 1960s (Virginia Leeming, The Vancouver Sun, January 3, 1985). Her husband was a farm and cattle-breeding fanatic whose interest in the science of bulls became oppressive to his spouse.
Their divorce was public and full of bitterness. As part of the divorce settlement, Hull relinquished custody of his children. “Hull had filed a counter-petition in February  alleging mental cruelty and adultery, but he did not follow through with his claims at the trial which began Monday. He also dropped plans to contest custody of the couple’s two youngest sons” (“Court grants Hull divorce,” Victoria Times, June 21, 1980).
In 1980, after the divorce:
“In a story from Chicago, the newspaper says Hull is almost penniless after being ordered to make payments totalling $600,000 as part of a divorce settlement with his former wife, Joanne. ‘I have nothing left,’ Hull told The Free Press. ‘Just my sanity, my health and my memories.’ Hull said he has lost his herd of prize cattle, his farm southwest of Winnipeg, his home in the posh Tuxedo area of the city and his 12.5-per-cent share of Winnipeg Jets of the National Hockey League. Hull said he hopes to raise a few head of cattle on his parents’ farm, about 20 kilometres south of Belleville. ‘That’s if I have any money left after the just law gets through with me.’” - “Bobby Hull Termed Broke After Divorce,” The Globe and Mail, October 30, 1980.
In 2010, he claimed that he was posturing for sympathy: “[chuckles] That was just to make people feel bad, those who were a–holes. I have everything that I need, except health. I’d rather have that Bobby Hull that I remember back as a 30-, or 40-year-old, but my wife [Deborah, married in 1984] and I are very happy, and financially sound. In the last couple of years, she’s got a little puppy dog, and when I’m away so much, he is just the greatest little pup that ever was. A cross between a Shih Tzu and a poodle. He is the smartest little sucker there ever was.”
He also expressed regret about not being able to see his kids in the 1980s, and refused to describe Joanne as his former wife. He would only refer to her as his children’s mother.
While Hull was promoting his 2010 picture book, The Golden Jet, reporter Sean Fitz-Gerald asked him about Joanne: “On page 158 of your book, there is a picture of you smiling with a young Bobby, Blake, Brett and a woman identified only as ‘their mother.’ How have you reconciled that part of your past?”
Hull: “Put it behind me. It happens. We’re two people who tried to make a go of it, and it doesn’t work. I regret not being able to be with the kids all through their childhood and into their teens and into college. But just to stay with a person that you’re not getting along with — and when the kids are getting bad vibes and hearing bad things from both — I don’t think you should stay together...”
Fitz-Gerald: “In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, there were a lot of really nasty allegations. Are you a different person now than you were when those allegations …”
Hull: “Same guy. Same guy with the same attitude toward life. You only pass this way one time, and if you don’t have fun, you’ll go to the grave, and you’ll have missed a lot. I think I’ve mellowed a lot, as far as that’s concerned. Where I think that my wife is a better wife now than when we got married, and that was 28 years ago.”
Fitz-Gerald: “You’re not talking about Joanne … “
Hull: “Oh, Christ, no. She’s not my wife. As my kids would say, ‘Dad, how come you call your ex ‘our mother?’’ And it’s just because I don’t need it. I don’t want to think about it. But she goes as Joanne Hull Robinson. I said, ‘You don’t f—king like me, what are you doing using my name if you don’t like me? Forget about the Hull in the middle.’ But that’s neither here nor there.”
Hull perhaps still does not understand the problems behind his abusive behavior. What he needed was an intervention. Those around him needed to act in order to help rehabilitate and correct his behavior. He needed mental health services. He needed help. Instead, his demons became his undoing. His illness ruined his family life.
His reputation as an abuser has stuck with him. The hockey community has quietly distanced itself from him over the past several years with some publishing articles requesting that the NHL sweep Bobby Hull’s legacy under the rug.
That is the last thing the world needs. His story, the good and bad, need to be remembered as a lesson for ourselves.
Bobby Hull’s failure as a human being is an indictment of society and its failures to address mental health and abuse. The community has not taken care of its own.
Chapter VII: The Time For Change
In Net Worth (1995), Ted Lindsay’s efforts were underscored by the death of a former player who froze to death in his car. The character is said to have been fictional.
Right now, former NHL player and 1986 first-overall pick Joe Murphy is living on the streets, suffering from mental illness.
Over the years, players have died while struggling from mental illness. Sometimes, the conditions that caused their death relate to substance abuse and their volatile lifestyle. Sometimes, they only saw suicide.
NHL enforcer John Kordic hated what he had become.
“People say, ‘Isn’t it great to get $150,000 a year ... just to beat somebody up?’ and the answer is ‘yes’... But after four or five years of that I want to play. You have pride and self-esteem. You walk away from the rink and people call you a goon and a freak. It bothers me.” - John Kordic (Doug Fischer, The Ottawa Citizen, September 6, 2009).
He abused alcohol, cocaine, and later steroids. He died at the age of 27 after overdosing on cocaine and engaging physically with police in a Quebec motel.
Bryan Fogarty was touted as the next Bobby Orr. He broke Orr and Denis Potvin’s records in the Ontario Hockey League and was one of the sport’s most naturally-gifted athletes. He lived a life of substance and alcohol abuse after being caught up with an older crowd of 20-year-old players while he was 15. By the age of 25, he was out of the NHL. He faced trouble with the law. In 1999, he was convicted on numerous counts after being found at night in a Brantford high school naked, confused, and in possession of cocaine. He died at the age of 32 in 2002.
“Fogarty, [sports psychologist Max] Offenburger says, suffered from an anxiety disorder that went untreated until much of his career was already finished.
‘He’d be depressed at different times. Bryan would get afraid — we all get afraid — and he’d look for moments of peace. What people who are dependent on drugs or alcohol are doing is medicating themselves, and it was no different with Bryan... Did hockey kill him? No... But his perception of hockey, and what he thought he had [to] achieve, caused him great stress. He was happiest if he was playing hockey for fun... He loved being on the bus. He loved being in the dressing room. He wanted to be liked, and to like others. He was a good soul. Certain things he had in order.’” - Craig Daniels, The Globe and Mail, March 16, 2002.
“At the end [of his career], he was relieved it was over. It had reached the point where, even if he was legitimately sick, or late for some reason, people just assumed it was the alcohol. Many places, many teams, would give him a chance for different reasons — maybe they needed a name to sell tickets — and if he didn’t have 10 points right away, he was gone...
It was completely different for him at the end, once he’d finished playing. In hockey, he was just a piece of meat. There wasn’t a place he played that he wasn’t expected to do everything. The game was simply too stressful for him, and he would drink to hide the anxiety. Not that I understood that at the beginning, but we learned. Bryan had a good soul. He was quiet. Shy. He wanted to be liked, and to like others.” - Jennifer Fogarty, wife of Bryan Fogarty, 2002 (Craig Daniels, The Globe and Mail, March 16, 2002).
Brian Spencer is another tragic story. He debuted with the Toronto Maple Leafs in December 1970. CBC did not show the game in Prince George. Spencer’s father, Roy Edward Spencer, grabbed his hunting rifle, broke into Prince George’s CBC station and held one of the staff at gunpoint. The RCMP arrived and killed Roy Edward Spencer. He was an angry individual. The world had treated him poorly.
Brian, too, was angry. He lived a troubled life full of trauma and bitterness. He was broke. He needed help.
“Irene and Roy Spencer lived a hard life in a house in the bush with no indoor toilet or electricity... Spencer Sr. wanted something better for his sons and pushed them to a life in the NHL where the money and living was easy... If Brian inherited anything from his father it was his determination and a white-hot temper.
It was those qualities which prompted hockey managers to say Spencer had “the right attitude” to make it in the big leagues... But the “right attitude” and a capacity for anger turned into a sword which cut both ways. Lauded for his violence on the ice, it got him into trouble when he left the rink...
It was the same “right” attitude which caused him to break another player’s arm while wrist-wrestling in a bar... The anger surged forward when he roughed up a parking attendant for calling him stupid. And there was the time he threw a fistful of coins into an elderly female clerk’s face over a petty argument.
And the time he punched out a Buffalo motorist over a car accident. Spencer had to pay the man $15,000 in an out-of-court settlement... His close friends admit those flaws but are quick to say there is much more to the man.
Spencer dropped out of high school to play hockey. But he learned French when he roomed with Martin. His vocabulary is extensive. And he has a mechanical ability which borders on genius.
Spencer was also a popular athlete in the cities where he played because he never turned down a chance to do charity work, particularly with crippled children...
Spencer also had a lot of personal problems...
‘I realized that women used us (hockey players) as social registers and for social climbing. It’s not that I hated women but it was my own stupidity that got me into trouble.’.. Two shattered marriages left him destitute... He divorced Linda after six years and three daughters. His alimony payments were $3,700 a month in the mid-1970s.
‘I couldn’t afford to eat on the road so I would go to my room after the game but Martin would come and get me and pay for my meals,’ he said... ‘He was doing it then and he’s doing it now again.’
Spencer says he didn’t want to be married - ‘On the honeymoon night I was trying to watch a war movie and she was trying to play the role of marriage.’” - Heather Bird, Toronto Star, October 18, 1987.
A life of drugs, alchol and crime followed his NHL career. While sitting in a truck after purchasing cocaine with a companion, Gregory Scott Cook, the two were approached in a robbery attempt. The robber demanded money, and then shot Spencer in the chest. Brian Spencer died at the age of 39 (“Brian Spencer is Killed,” Toronto Star, June 3, 1988).
Brian Spencer’s problems were neglected. That is an indictment of society. There have been other tragic losses in the hockey community as a result of mental illness: Wade Belak, Rick Rypien, and many others.
New York Islanders goaltender Robin Lehner has been transparent about his battle with mental illness.
“The battle playing hockey was nothing compared to the battle inside my brain. It was at its worst,” he wrote, adding, “The thoughts of ending it all … it was real and close.” - Robin Lehner, New York Islanders goaltender, Washington Post, June 19, 2019.
Former NHL goaltender Corey Hirsch has also emphasized the need for more mental health activism. He suffered alone for many years.
“Honestly, I was prepared to never work in hockey again. When I went public with my story about struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression last year, I was terrified that people wouldn’t understand. I was worried that no one would want to hire me ever again, and that doors would close on me — and maybe worst of all, that people in the hockey community would look at me like I was damaged goods, that I would never work in hockey again.
I mean, I wrote about trying to kill myself. I wrote about struggling daily with dark thoughts that wouldn’t go away no matter what I did. I wrote about feeling weak and confused and sad, which is something that hockey players of my generation — and honestly, anyone of my generation — were told was for “crazy people.” In my day, you simply did not talk about mental health. Ever...
Mental health awareness is an enormous, unspoken problem — not just in hockey in Canada and the United States, and not just in sports in general, but also across all other spectrums of society.
Almost one in five … think about that. About twenty percent of the adult population suffers from mental illness, and just because you are a professional athlete or a doctor or a lawyer does not grant you immunity. Anyone at anytime can suffer from a mental health issue and it can strike at any time. There’s nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about. We’re all just trying to get through the day. So let’s be open. Let’s talk about it...
I spent years trapped in a cycle of shame and disgust and depression — not telling a single soul what was really going on with me — before I finally reached out and was properly diagnosed with true OCD. It was like the weight of the world fell from my shoulders. I wasn’t cured. But I finally knew what was causing all of my relentless thoughts.
Getting proper help is everything. What I have learned over the past year, in talking with many experts, is just how crucial it is to get an early diagnosis. So many young people from the high-risk ages of 15–24 are struggling with mental health issues and going years without getting treatment. I can tell you, if you’re one of those people who are struggling, that I’ve been down those dark roads. Man, do I know what they feel like. But I swear to you, you should not be afraid of your mental illness or what anyone thinks. Get diagnosed, see a doctor. It will be the best decision you ever make.” - Corey Hirsch, former NHL goaltender, The Players’ Tribute, January 25, 2018.
It is paramount that those who require help receive it. Teams have often been guilty of putting their business’ goals ahead of their players’ well-being. Bryan Fogarty. Zack Kassian. Petr Klima. Bob Probert. Stephane Richer. Hockey has not done enough for people who require help. Mental illness comes in many forms, and it manifests differently in everyone. Some are prone to violence.
To address the abuse crisis requires a commitment to rehabilitating both the victims and the abusers. This is the only way to intervene and prevent abusive behavior from being passed from person to person. Hazing is one of these viral methods of abuse. It must stop.
Journalist Lloyd McLachlan recounted in his February 1989 article, “Hockey and Booze,” the reality of peer pressure behind the closed doors of the National Hockey League.
“In Boston, where I first started playing, that sort of thing was commonplace... After practices, on the road, you got together to have a drink. You were expected to do it as a group... I won’t mention names, but I saw careers shortened on our team and throughout the league, and alcohol was a factor.” - Gary Dornhoefer, former Philadelphia Flyers player, 1989 (Lloyd McLachlan, The Windsor Star, February 11, 1989).
“The stigma for me was Bobby Orr... No matter what I did, I could never be as good as people wanted... I took all that on. I ended up hating myself, losing all my self-esteem. One thing led to another. The booze started to take a hold.” - Jim McKenney, former Toronto Maple Leafs player, 1989 (Lloyd McLachlan, The Windsor Star, February 11, 1989).
“There were games I played hung over... When I think back, I think about the sheer stupidity of it... In my position, I feel it’s important for me to be a role model to these young players... I keep certain newspaper articles... I put the article about Bruce Kimball up on the bulletin board in our dressing room for the players to read. A message that this is the kind of thing that can happen to them.” - Tom Webster, former Detroit Red Wings player, 1989 (Lloyd McLachlan, The Windsor Star, February 11, 1989).
Tom Webster’s 1968 rookie season in the NHL involved an incident of shaming and judgment by an unnamed Boston veteran, whose words, “You don’t drink? If you don’t drink, you’ll never make it in this league,” encapsulated the “pressure to conform” and the “pressure to produce” that drove him to join the league’s many abusers of alcohol (McLachlan, 1989).
Former Leaf Jim McKenney, meanwhile, felt in 1989 that cultural norms dictated that a player in need of assistance could only be helped through self-assessment and outreach rather than the proactive intervention of others: “I’d talk to Probert about it but I’d never approach him. I’d only talk to him about it if he came to me” (Lloyd McLachlan, The Windsor Star, February 11, 1989).
It is everybody’s responsibility to help those suffering from mental illness with the process of rehabilitation. Sometimes, those who struggle can not communicate their pain or recognize their condition. Part of the process is to help them recognize it. It can not be left unchecked.
According to Boston Bruins alumnus Derek Sanderson, the league had an alcohol problem. He also addressed the reason why issues need to be made public: “... As long as there are no headlines, as long as there are no Pelle Lindberghs rearing their ugly heads, as long as any incidents are isolated, why get involved?” (Lloyd McLachlan, The Windsor Star, February 11, 1989).
“I’ve talked to teams, but it has to be an ongoing thing to do any good. There are some doubting Thomases. They have to see it work. The higher-ups in any business won’t recognize a major problem until they have one... We make teams and players aware of outreach centres and places they can go if they feel they need help and want to go there...
After that, it’s handled on a team-by-team basis. I don’t really know how we could do anything more... It’s a problem most of society faces. I don’t know that our situation is dramatically different than society’s, for the particular age group we’re dealing with.” - Boston Bruins alumnus Derek Sanderson (Lloyd McLachlan, The Windsor Star, February 11, 1989).
31 years have passed since these comments were made. The culture is the same. Nothing happens until people speak up.
In the business of hockey, the unit’s success is prioritized above the struggles of the individual. When a player becomes a so-called “distraction,” they are often discarded and replaced.
“No question [Bob Probert] has disturbed me... What are we in his mind, idiots, jerks? That’s the feeling I’m getting. How many times is he going to look [general manager] Jimmy Devellano and me in the eye and then make fun of us... We have a lot of great young kids on our team. It’s unfortunate one has to break the attitude... He can make a mistake once in a while like everybody else. But he must think this is a honeymoon, not a professional hockey club” - Jacques Demers, Detroit Red Wings coach, 1987 (Jim McKay, The Windsor Star, September 15, 1987).
“There have been tests done that indicate that [Petr Klima] isn’t [an alcoholic]... I’ve accused him of being one and I’ve had to back off because I’m not a doctor. Of course, whenever I accused him of it, I was angry, but apparently medical reports indicate that he is not that. So if it’s not that, then he sure as hell has a bad behavioral problem... I was very, very careful with Petr Klima in the first few years...
I remember [former coach] Brad Park wanted to send him to the minors. I wouldn’t let him do it... Here we had a boy who couldn’t speak the language; he had just come over. I was concerned about getting him adjusted off the ice and I could see no rhyme or reason for doing it... But now we’re into Year Four with a new coach. He speaks the language. He knows what our organization is all about. We’ve done things for him to get adjusted and he still craps right on our heads. That’s when I say, ‘enough is enough.’” - Detroit Red Wings general manager Jim Devellano (Al Strachan, The Globe and Mail, October 7, 1988).
Klima was labeled with that famous word: enigma.
Throughout Klima’s time with the Red Wings, he was effectively told to ‘start behaving, or suffer the consequences.’
Klima was arrested three times for impaired driving: May 1987, October 1988, May 1989. He spent 35 days in Oakland County Jail in Pontiac, Michigan after his third conviction. It was especially heartbreaking for him, as his brother Josef had come to visit from communist Czechoslovakia. It was one of the few times he had seen a member of his family since defecting in 1985. It was in jail: “I felt so bad... I was embarrassed. ‘Look at me,’ I thought. ‘See how I’m doing in America?’” (Keith Gave, Edmonton Journal, October 11, 1989).
He tried to confront his demons alone.
“It was tough to accept [my alcoholism], it took me four years... But I have accepted it. I never thought I was before, I just thought maybe I drank too much... now I don’t have to hide anything or lie to my teammates or management or myself... Not having to lie anymore, that’s a great feeling. Now I just want to go on with my life and play hockey... A couple of years ago, people tried to help me but I didn’t go... I tried to stop on my own. But this summer I had to reach for help...
I feel lucky that I didn’t hurt anybody when I was a drunken driver... I’m lucky I’m still in Detroit and lucky I’m playing for the Red Wings... I just want to do my job, be the best that Petr can be to help the team. I don’t want to fight my life anymore, I just want to live it.” - Petr Klima, September 1989 (Jim McKay, The Windsor Star, September 9, 1989).
At first, he was in denial. He needed to convince himself that he could overcome his demons, and he needed support.
“The first meeting [in jail]... I just looked around and said, ‘You people are crazy.’ But I went again the next day. And the next. And I started to hear things that matched my things. Then I started to listen...
If I want to stay sober, I have to come... I need to listen, especially to the older people... because all my yets are in front of me. I haven’t killed anybody when I drink and drive — yet. My fiancee hasn’t left me — yet. I haven’t lost my job — yet... I have to accept the things I can’t change, and change the things I can... Every morning I get up and I think, ‘One day at a time.’ But still, in the back of my mind there’s that court case coming up, and the judge could put me back in jail...
Some days, I ask myself why did this happen to me... Why? Sometimes I’m embarrassed... Everybody knows me, knows about this. I’m bad famous. And I gave the Red Wings a bad name. I’m sorry for that... It’s hard to accept what happened. Sometimes, I just wish it was a nightmare, a bad nightmare. But every morning, I wake up and it’s there, waiting to get me again...
For two years, I fooled people... In jail, I looked around and thought: ‘What am I doing here? Am I stupid, or what? Either I’m stupid, or I have big problems, a disease’... I’m working the 12 steps [of Alcoholics Anonymous] now... I believe in the 12 steps. It has worked for others. Why not for me?... I feel better physically. And mentally I feel a lot stronger than before. When you’re hiding something from somebody, you never feel good... One thing I learned: I don’t have to please anybody... I have only to please myself... Now, I know that if I don’t change, I only fool myself. The only person who gets burned is myself. Only I can control the problem” - Petr Klima, October 1989 (Keith Gave, Edmonton Journal, October 11, 1989).
To treat alcoholism is truly to treat mental illness. Likewise, violent, abusive behavior needs to be treated with rehabilitation. The propensity to abuse is a disease of the mind.
Unfortunately, abuse has been normalized. In the culture of sports, it has often been regarded as a form of motivation. It is destructive. The problem is widespread.
Humanity has shown in its past that it has not understood mental illness. Historically, society has feared it. The world has distanced themselves from it, stigmatized it, and vilified those who exhibited troubled behavior: a new constitutive other.
Michael Jackson was sexually abused. Mike Tyson was sexually abused.
Jackson’s father, Joe, abused him as a child. Who knows what happened to Joe himself as a boy. The Michael Jackson boycotts of 2019 showed a lack of empathy — an ignorance to the causes of such behavior.
Tyson, who was publicly hostile and aggressive for so many years, was molested by a stranger when he was seven years old. In 1992, Mike Tyson was convicted of rape. He tried committing suicide in 1988.
For years, they were dehumanized.
There is pain and suffering behind the actions. Society must realize this.
A common thread between the vocal players discussed here is the amount of adversity that they faced in their lives. Those who have seen hardships and injustice are often those most driven to change the status quo. There is an abuse problem in hockey, just as there is in society, that needs to be eradicated.
As Brett Hull said in 1998, “You’ve got to love the game to want to make it better” (Dave Fuller, Toronto Sun, January 30, 1998).
That principle applies to more than just hockey.
At this very moment, civil unrest is taking place due to the racism endured by America’s African-American population. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota was the catalyst for this week’s protests. All of the suffering of the black population has boiled over into a public cry for change.
Floyd’s death was an instance of police brutality, only one of many. It was filmed. The world saw with its own eyes the racial profiling and unnecessary violence towards a man who posed no threat. Cries for justice have resulted.
Reform in all sectors is required in order to facilitate a cultural mindset that promotes social harmony. There are so many barriers that prevent cultural reform. It begins with education reform and the use of the public voice. There must be a willingness to rehabilitate the hostile individuals whose experiences and ignorant values reinforce the “constitutive other.” As long as there remains tribalism, there will remain discrimination and prejudice.
The system requires a massive overhaul beginning with the education system. No person is born intolerant of others. Prejudice is cultivated from an environment that teaches and promotes hostility towards difference. Through education and a humanities-based, humanist curriculum, a culture of empathy and tolerance can be fostered.
Education empowers people. Education about mental health can inspire compassion and a desire to rehabilitate those who exhibit hostile behavior. It can provide opportunities for individuals from vulnerable communities. Mental health initiatives and services can help to guide those who are, or were raised in abusive environments so that they do not direct their aggression towards others.
Tolerance comes from education and awareness. Racism is bred from ignorance. In order for change to occur, systemic reform is necessary requiring the cooperation and action of the entire community. Every level on the social hierarchy is required to participate for changes to occur. Protests bring awareness to an issue, but protests can only begin the conversation.
We must teach and inform our youth about our history of progress and the context of civil unrest. To know that history is often on the side of those who have been most vocal encourages those who have been silent to speak and take action against injustice.
Those in privileged positions must speak out as well. Activism is a form of education and another way to influence the culture of a society. Knowledge is provided through activism. Who better to influence the culture of the country’s population than the people at the center of America’s popular culture. They have a voice and a powerful outlet. They must use it.
Social harmony can only be achieved when the police and minorities no longer fear one another. It is a collaborative process that begins once everyone is equipped with the knowledge to understand and relate to the other side. There will be aggressors on both sides; those individuals need to be identified and rehabilitated, or otherwise removed from society depending on the severity of their actions. The first instinct should not be to revert to tribalism. If one side views the other as a threat, there will remain hostility and disharmony.
It takes courage to publicly identify abuse and corruption. There remains the fear of being labeled a whistleblower or a traitor to one’s peers, but only because of the stigma that keeps people from speaking out. When that stigma is removed, important conversations can take place and rehabilitation can begin. Society is not perfect. Our world is very young and still very naive. There must be a willingness and an openness for society to improve. Transparency promotes collaboration. A whole-community approach is necessary for a cultural shift to occur.
If racism and other forms of intolerance exist in one part of society, it will continue to proliferate in other areas as well. Everyone is responsible for mitigating and punishing racist and equally-abusive behavior.
Transparency and communication are key.
The man who killed George Floyd, Derek Chauvin, has been fired from the Minneapolis police department and charged with second-degree murder. The three officers who stood by while Chauvin suffocated to death have been fired and charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Originally, only Chauvin was charged, and only with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Public pressure has resulted in upgraded charges not only to Chauvin, but the officers who were complicit in the murder. There is video evidence of the incident. Without it, there would be possible coverups and an attempt from those involved to distort the situation into a stalemate as a means of self-preservation. The Hennepin County Medical Examinder, for example, attempted to attribute Floyd’s death to underlying medical conditions and and intoxicants in his system. An independent autopsy identified asphyxiation as the cause.
Historically, communication, transparency and resistance against abuse have helped society to grow and mature. Compare our current situation, for instance, to the contrast between the actions of the United Kingdom under the leadership of Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill against one of the most vile and racist regimes in recent history: Nazi Germany. Chamberlain, hoping not to invite war and widespread death along the lines of The Great War (World War I), was reluctant to place pressure back on to Germany. The world had seen the horror of the First World War. He was passive. A Second World War was unimagineable. Hitler took advantage, invading and conquering nearby countries without any resistance from the world’s other superpowers.
Nazi Germany captured its surrounding territories and took advantage of its orderly and diplomatic neighbors. Hitler claimed the Sudetenland in 1938, threatening to declare war if that land was not given to Germany.
The Munich Agreement was signed on September 30, 1938. War had been averted, and Hitler stated the Sudetenland would be his last territorial demand. The next year, Hitler ordered the Invasion of Poland.
An alliance with Poland forced Britain to declare war, but the ensuing action was passive. Chamberlain did not want to damage or disrupt the British economy. The remainder of Chamberlain’s time as prime minister was known as the “Phoney War.” Not until Chamberlain was ousted as Prime Minister in a vote of no-confidence and Churchill was placed into power on May 10, 1940 did Britain truly mobilize.
The result of this resistance was the end of the era of conquest and colonialism. Dozens of former colonies, including British India, were given independent status. The world changed because those who no longer accepted the status quo challenged it.
For hundreds of years before that, England had actively participated in the conquest of lands. Times had changed. After The Great War (World War I), the world saw a better way to coexist.
Over five times as many people died on the Allied side of the fight than the Axis. The silent majority finally took action, sacrificing more in the history of human civilization than ever before so that progress could be achieved.
At the 1962 Nuremberg Trials, Adolf Eichmann claimed that he was “just following orders.” Those who follow orders that they know are immoral are complicit. Within the context of America’s current social movement, the military and police who do not agree with the status quo must stand with the public. They should do so in numbers if possible, but they must do so regardless for the sake of those they have sworn to protect.
On June 3, 2020, former Secretary of Defence, General James Mattis, publicly denounced the current American President, comparing him to Hitler: “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us... Instructions given by the military departments to our troops before the Normandy invasion reminded soldiers that ‘The Nazi slogan for destroying us… was ‘Divide and Conquer.’ Our American answer is ‘In Union there is Strength.’” We must summon that unity to surmount this crisis—confident that we are better than our politics.”
Retired Marine General John Allen also stands against President Donald Trump. General Allen advocates humanism: empathy and compassion as a means to address America’s social inequities and problems of discrimination. “ The president has failed to show sympathy, empathy, compassion, or understanding—some of the traits the nation now needs from its highest office,“ he wrote in his June 3, 2020 article for Foreign Policy. He has called the aftermath of George Floyd’s death “the beginning of the end of the American experiment.” The America of the past was far from ideal. The current America is far from ideal. There can be a better future.
It is time for America to re-evaluate itself and improve. Systemic reform is required.
Slavery in America was abolished through defiance. The result was the American Civil War. The Union outnumbered the Confederacy by more than a two-to-one margin. Those in support of abolition were twice the number of those who wished to uphold slavery.
Strength through action. Strength in numbers.
Education reform begins at the top with government and political leaders. If government leaders can not achieve reform, then political reforms are necessary to better represent the desires of the population majority. Activism and education can help to promote the specific demands. The louder the protests, the more pressure there will be for change to take place.
Whenever injustice exists, defiance is pivotal. When the public is on your side, defiance goes even further.
Strength comes in numbers, and social reform comes at times when the majority feel that changes are necessary. The majority can not be silent. Advocacy and education will strengthen those numbers.
Change has only ever occurred from a vocal resistance to the status quo.
Society must change, even if the process targets one institution at a time. Sport is a microcosm of society. Athletes must set an example by showing that they possess a desire to pursue change for the betterment of humanity. They must also do so for the betterment of their own domain.
Hockey’s crisis is a mirror of America’s crisis. Its athletes need to speak up, take action, and stop turning a blind eye to their issues, or nothing will be done.