Storytelling: A Method Of Passing Down A History And Expectation Of Abuse In Hockey (And A Solution)

I remember sitting in the dark on a bus. My Junior hockey team was loud in conversation on our ride home after a game. I was listening to a group of older players talk about what they were forced to do at rookie parties and for team initiation as they planned for our own rookie party. My rookie party.

There was the obvious forced drinking. Until we puked or passed out.

One player told a story about being forced to wear a dress with no underwear on, a string tied to the front, with their ‘assigned’ veteran holding the other end of the string…whenever the veteran felt the urge they would pull the string exposing the rookies genitals to the entire party. Another told of a game of Twister wearing their jock straps only on a lubricated mat in the middle of a party for all to see. Then there was the player who was made to do push ups with their penis dipping into a drinking cup until the person able to complete the fewest pushups was forced to drink the alcohol in those cups.

I heard these stories and others told and retold by coaches and players, regaling their own experiences to others, some as if it were a badge of honour for surviving this, some passing this narrative to younger players as a message of what they could expect.

Soon, I became a storyteller of my own experiences, comparing who had it worse on long bus rides through cold winter nights.

I think for some, this storytelling was cathartic. It was your expression, albeit a toxic one, of what it took to become a ‘respected’ part of the group. It was your tale of the trials and tribulations, the rights of passage as most called it, to become a men’s Junior hockey player, and to be part of the ‘eternal brotherhood.’

In truth, it was a testimony of survivorship and abuse.

Storytelling has been used as a social and cultural practice for centuries. Elders, parents, teachers, grandparents, and leaders pass down stories, sometimes in the form of myths, legends, or folklore, but more often, in the oral storytelling tradition of preserving history and culture.

As former Duke University professor Reynolds Price stated, “a need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens.”

Storytelling can be used to teach. In particular it can be used to teach younger individuals values and cultural norms, especially when it occurs in social environments, and there is an opportunity to apply the knowledge they gain.

In Junior hockey, this comes from not only the stories you hear, but applying it by inflicting and enduring hazing and initiation.

Even if hazing has moved away from the more violent and sexual examples of the past (which I don’t believe it fully has), the stories persist, passed down by older players, and commonly by coaches.

Recently, I received a story about a local Junior hockey coach bragging to his team about having “100 kills in college.” For anyone who does not know, this is a misogynistic way of boasting he slept with 100 people. This storytelling to a group of 16-21 year old individuals can be seen as nothing but toxic. It perpetuates a stereotype of Junior hockey players, and normalizes, if not encourages, this behaviour to impressionable youth. To see women as a conquest, and to talk about it in slang that screams femicide is despicable.

I remember my own coaches telling many stories, often with embellishment and theatrics to entrance us regarding sex, drugs, hazing, fights, drunken escapades and more. In one instance, a coach showed us video of a team trip which involved all of these.

At that time, this video was on a VHS, but today, the inclusion of digital video storytelling in this discussion can’t be overlooked. Young athletes are able to rapidly normalize and spread the troubling aspects of hockey culture through Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms to prove they ‘belong.’ Because these social media giants understand the power of storytelling in evoking emotion, in learning, and in marketing, many have titled portions of their platforms for sharing as “stories.”

Whether digital or oral, these stories are shared and passed on from coach to player, and veteran to rookie.

Players are still tied, hit, dehumanized, bullied, and pressured to drink, try drugs, and encouraged to attempt to engage in risk taking sexual behaviour, sometimes non consensual, by teammates. These experiences were confirmed in our recent survey polling local athletes and coaches.

These behaviours are all learned. And much of this learning is passed down through stories, which are later solidified through action, and then repeated again in survival stories for the coming years. These stories are guarded within the community, because players and coaches are aware of the ramifications for these actions if they are learned.

For thousands of years, storytelling has been used as an instructional tool. It has also been used as a method to maintain or gain power, and uphold inequities, all while demobilizing those who dissent.

Storytelling tactics and narratives, however, if utilized properly by coaches, and trusted athletic leaders, they can be leveraged to create positive change. Storytelling can be a powerful tool for teaching and reframing the past.

Coaches And Athletes As Storytellers For Change

As explained by Metis Elder Alma Desjarlais, “storytelling is an educational practice that aids us in attending to the past and reconsidering our futures.”

In this framework, storytelling creates witnesses to a past, opens dialogue, allows for the presentation of ideas, and supports transformation.

At times, this storytelling practice could be viewed as it has been in many victimized, enslaved, and oppressed communities, as an opportunity for athletes, whether knowingly or subconsciously, to share their own story of abuse or harassment, and to reclaim that story.

That reclamation can allow athletes and coaches to use that story as a teaching tool, rather than as a confirmation for future abusive or toxic behaviour.

Unfortunately, in athletics, that reclamation often comes with the perceived right to repeat these actions as retribution for personal trauma. In this form of storytelling, hockey players educate rookies as to what is to come for them, and what is expected of them.

This is where coaches and management need to step in, and change the narrative to a process of reform.

These troubling stories must be used as case studies, highlighting the pitfalls of the past, examples of unacceptable behaviour, and how to address these situations; rather than as canonized coming of age stories, rights of passage, or as a celebration of epic conquests.

Athletes and coaches who have endured or witnessed hazing and abuse must tell their stories for the purpose of enacting change, and preventing these behaviours in the future. We must also use these stories to enact policy and programming to further educate against and prevent these behaviours.

Think of the #MeToo movement. When one survivor story emerged, another followed, and then another, and then an avalanche, and then indictments, and charges, and meaningful conversation about power dynamics and abuse. Then the supports, resources, advocacy, counselling, awareness, and healing. It hasn’t stopped harassment and abuse, but the movement is happening, and stories of hurt are being used for good.

It is proven storytelling can be used for good.

In Indigenous communities, the practice of oral storytelling has provided measured positive benefits, including in the preservation of sacred learnings, environmental conservation methods, and positive cultural practices. Also, and perhaps more applicable in relation to the conversation on hockey – in terms of truth-telling, healing, and reconciliation.

When examining Indigenous storytelling for the purposes of truth-telling, healing, and reconciliation, a group of University of Victoria researchers stated that it’s necessary “not only hear their stories, but find solutions; how can we help this person? How can we help the community? How can we help this family? What is the best way?”

This is true for athletes as well. We need to hear the stories, find solutions, and help them deal with these issues in a healthy way, without coping mechanisms like drugs, alcohol, or continuing cycles of abuse.

And this is where the shift in hockey’s storytelling history needs to occur.

The shift needs to more from stories for entertainment and ingraining harmful rituals, to the practices commonly used in Indigenous communities, which focus on teaching, and explaining the positive roles these athletes and coaches are expected to take in the future.

Storytelling workshops and storytelling dialogue have been proven effective in intervention efforts, and organizational learning.

These face-to-face opportunities, led by managers or coaches enable participants to openly talk about ‘taboo’ issues, to exchange ideas and speak openly about concerns and dilemmas they face, and to ask questions.

Stories allow us to relate to situations, they allow us to share our own experiences in response, they allow us to present hypothetical fears and voice concerns, they allow us to empathize with situations we’ve never been in, to become witness to these wrongs, and most importantly, to learn and preemptively plan to not repeat the past.

But stories can also reinforce the negative, promote abusive culture, and glorify negative behaviour if we don’t give voice to the quiet dissent of others, and arm our coaches and players with the communication skills, and programs to engage meaningfully on these topics.

In Junior hockey, this shift in the purposes and uses of storytelling needs to occur. Coaches need education to shift these narratives, and to open conversations about emotions and trauma in a safe way.

We’ve heard these old stories for too long. Now, it’s time for Junior hockey to learn from the past, and to begin writing a new story to tell.

By Ian Kennedy

Line Change is an article series produced by through the contributions and consultation of various authors and academics, looking at social issues in sport. The series, which aims to open discussion with sports fans, will focus on issues of inequality, and serve as a portion of our anti-oppression education and reporting. Line Change will look at issues related to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, gender inequality, socioeconomic divides, and much more, as they relate to sport and athletics.

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