Calls for cultural change at Hockey Canada spark period of reckoning for sport

Calls for cultural change at Hockey Canada spark period of reckoning for sport
A Hockey Canada logo is visible on the helmet of a national junior team player during a training camp practice in Calgary, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

As sponsors distanced themselves from Hockey Canada over the past few weeks, it became clear they wanted to see more than just a change in leadership.

The need for a sweeping overhaul — via phrases such as “necessary cultural change” (Telus), “improve the culture” (Scotiabank), and “meaningful change” (Canadian Tire) – was a common thread in many explanations from the companies that backed away from Hockey Canada after months of scandal over its mishandling of alleged sexual assaults.

Even after the entire board stepped down on Tuesday along with the CEO, corporate partners emphasized the need for additional measures before they would return.

Yet changing deep-seated beliefs, attitudes and behaviours — what some describe as an invisible, implicit force that governs an organization — isn’t easy. Experts say it requires a complete rebuilding from the top down and a transparent restructuring of governance, policies and directives.

The organization needs to have an honest reckoning with its problems before it can begin to rebuild and change its culture, said Geoffrey Leonardelli, professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

“Changing the culture of an organization starts with a dissatisfaction with the status quo,” said Leonardelli, also academic director of the school’s executive programs on negotiations and leading change.

“There needs to be a motivation for change.”

The voices calling for such change grew louder this past week. As well as major sponsors and some of Hockey Canada’s provincial member bodies, the Prime Minister weighed in on Tuesday.

Justin Trudeau said the executive departures took too long to materialize and are only a “first step” on the road to transforming the sport.

“There’s a culture to change,” Trudeau said. “There is an awful lot of work to ensure that the structures and systems that Hockey Canada has in place protects employees, protects Canadians, protects our kids as they play hockey.”

And in a 103-page interim report and memo released Thursday by Hockey Canada, a former Supreme Court justice said “there can be no serious debate” that Hockey Canada’s leadership had lost the confidence of stakeholders and a major teardown was needed.

Justice Thomas Cromwell is in the midst of a full governance review of Hockey Canada, with which he was tasked earlier this year after it was revealed that the organization reached an undisclosed settlement with a woman who alleged she was sexually assaulted by eight players, including members of the country’s 2018 world junior team. None of the allegations have been proven in court.

If Hockey Canada is to successfully rebuild, said Leonardelli, it must be clear about its mission and values.

“You need to develop a vision for where the organization needs to go and then identify ways to get there,” Leonardelli said.

Aside from the headline-grabbing allegations, some observers pointed to the more insidious ways that hockey culture has edged kids off the ice.

“Minor hockey in Canada has become a bit of a beast,” said Charlene Weaving, a human kinetics professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.

“It’s very expensive to participate and that excludes a lot of people,” she said. “It’s also become uber-competitive at a really young age and that may also discourage some young children from participating.”

Indeed, Bauer Hockey underscored declining participation rates as a key concern earlier this week. It called on Hockey Canada to shift its focus from elite performance and national team victories to growing the game.

Weaving said the board’s new leadership has an opportunity to include new voices and build equity, diversity and inclusion in the organization, saying it needs a “reality check and a total overhaul.”

“There needs to be a big shake-up at Hockey Canada and the answer isn’t just flooding the board with women,” Weaving said.

“We need more diverse voices on the board, and that includes more women but also people of colour and new Canadians,” Weaving said.

Canada’s women’s team, winners of both the 2022 Olympics and world championships, said in a statement the Hockey Canada resignations were a positive first step, but that a board of directors that “truly embodies the diversity of our country” is vital.

“We ask for equal representation with a seat at the table, as we continue to promote and grow the women’s game globally, that we may bring our perspective and input to ensure that our sport’s national governing body evolves to one that truly represents all Canadians and safeguards its participants,” they wrote.

Moving forward, Hockey Canada will need to do a cultural audit, said Jennifer Walinga, two-time Olympian and professor of communication and culture at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C.

“It starts with the people that we’re inviting to take on the roles and responsibilities as board members and management,” she said. “It starts with them learning how to actually construct an effective culture.”

Rugby Canada recently commissioned an independent review of its high-performance programs after complaints were raised. That organization’s response charts a potential path forward for Hockey Canada, Walinga said.

“Rugby just went through a huge revolution and now evolution. They’ve got great leadership on the board. They’re doing the right things. They’re looking at themselves authentically and honestly. They’ve held up that mirror and embraced a very scathing report that they published transparently to their whole membership.”

Culture matters, she said, because it exists in every fibre of an organization.

“It’s the rules of engagement and it shows up in the governance, policies, behaviour, words, interactions and even architecture. It shows up in the aura of the arena.”

Brett Bundale/The Canadian Press

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