There can be no doubt that for everyone involved in any sport, the well being and positive development of our young athletes must be the priority. So even though I may question the actions of a number of individuals and groups involved in this situation, I completely agree with league commissioner Kim Davis in that the conduct, which took place within the dressing room of the Neepawa Natives in September of 2011, was wrong. The league had to take action, the hockey team management must be accountable, and as parents, we must protect our youth.
I really don't know whether it has been the manner in which this situation has come to light or the manner in which it has been dealt with, but quite frankly this very serious situation has turned into a three-ring circus. The facts of the matter are: The young leaders of this hockey team led, and participated, in an activity that is wrong. The questions which I have not heard answers to are: Did the young man who has surfaced as the victim in this situation take part in these activities as a willing participant, as a coerced participant, or was he forced to take part in an activity against his will? Did this situation come to light as a result of this young man going directly to his coach and filing a complaint, did he go to his parents and share with them his shame and humiliation, or did he text a friend and brag that he had won the competition? I really don't know which is the truth, but I can say that all have surfaced as being the truth. So how can the media and the parents make very public statements and draw national figures into this very sensitive situation before the real facts are known?
The second aspect of this situation is much broader in scope. For the league commissioner, national hockey management, and the media to put forth a position that the Neepawa Natives is some kind of rogue hockey team with little or no leadership is an enormous injustice. There is no one who has been and continues to be involved in elite hockey, along with a good number of other sports, which can deny that they are aware that team initiation takes place across Canada. Call it the rookie party, team initiation, or whatever, it takes place and whether we like it or not, it will continue to take place. What has been sadly lacking is the correct type of guidance, education and enforcement of what that activity will look like. The culture of hockey initiation has existed for much longer than I have been involved in hockey and like any culture, it will continue to exist. The question is, what will that culture look like and how will it be influenced. I applaud individuals such a Sheldon Kennedy who have stepped forward and advocate on behalf of youth. But lets be clear, what happened to Sheldon Kennedy is vastly different from what happened inside the Neepawa Natives dressing room. Sheldon Kennedy was the subject of abuse at the hands of a monster who had complete control of his hockey development and self-esteem. What took place inside the Neepawa Natives dressing room were young men sustaining an activity they were subject to and for which they had little or no comprehension of its severity.
Again, let me repeat that I am not condoning, nor advocating on behalf of what took place, but let's consider the context under which "initiation" takes place. A sixteen year old gets subjected to this as a rookie, is probably an innocent bystander as a seventeen year old, and becomes more involved as an eighteen year old, nineteen year old, and then, as the "vet". What guidance is given to our youth when their sense of fun and acceptability is based on movies such as "Jack Ass", and television productions such as Beavis and Butthead and "Kenny and Spenny"?
Here is where I become critical. Where is Hockey Canada, the Manitoba Junior Hockey League and our coaches? Having gone down the road I have gone down, I will not accept that anyone involved in hockey operations at the elite level can say that the "rookie party" has been eliminated. If you are, you've been asleep at the wheel and you shouldn't be where you're at. The question should be, what is acceptable behavior and what is not? What has Hockey Canada, the Manitoba Junior Hockey League and each coach done to educate the team leaders with respect to what is acceptable and what is not. "Oh yah, I told the "C" and the "A's" hazing is not acceptable" is not acceptable. What does hazing mean, what does it look like, and what can participation mean to your career and the possibility that you may face criminal charges? As an outsider looking in, I am still very confident that none of the young men inside the Neepawa Natives dressing room had a clear understanding of these concepts. These kids got caught up in something that should not define who they are.
I repeat, if the young man involved in this complaint has been victimized, he should be supported by both his family and the community. If he was a willing participant, then the real victim in this entire fiasco is the community of Neepawa. For over twenty years many volunteers have given hundreds and probably thousands of hours of their own time to keep junior hockey in our community. What for? They don't get paid, and in many cases the financial burden of giving young men from across North America a place to play elite hockey, is significant. I recently traveled to our nation's capital and as soon as I identified the fact I was from Neepawa, the immediate reaction was "oh….what's going on in that town of yours?" That is so totally unfair. Those who reside in Neepawa know that we work very hard, all of the time, to make Neepawa a great place to live. As is so often the case, the media, both regionally and nationally, has sensationalized a situation they have little knowledge of and certainly little sensitivity towards. I dearly hope that when Canadians hear something about Neepawa, MB., they know as well as I do that it is a great place to live and raise a family.