Cult Dynamics In Canadian Junior Hockey

Junior hockey team

Many of us have watched recent documentaries featuring cults like NXIVM, the Branch Davidians at Waco, or the Peoples Temple at Jonestown.

But in Canada, we have our own organization utilizing the structures, systems, and dynamics of cults. That nationwide organization is known as Junior Hockey.

To understand this, we should first put forward a definition of a cult.

Stanley H. Cath, who was a psychoanalyst, physician, and professor of psychiatry at the Tufts University School of Medicine, defined a cult as “a group of people joined together by a common ideological system fostered by a charismatic leader” with the expectation they can overcome the limits or bounds they face, while forming an us vs. them mentality. This also comes with social pressure from the group to change behaviour.

Cults aren’t always religious groups. Cults are groups of people with leaders who push membership to overcome obstacles, with promises of “improvement” or “development” while working against common foes, and a focus on the adherence to the structures and ideas of the group.

How does this relate to Junior hockey?

All cults have certain things in common, especially how they gain members, indoctrinate them into their systems, maintain control, and impact ideas of self and the identity of members.

In relation to how players become a part of the Junior hockey world, and what it means to be and act like a Junior hockey player in traditional hegemonic systems, hockey may not be a cult itself, but Junior hockey has utilized cult dynamics to develop and control players, and to instil ideologies and culture.

Let’s break it down by looking at the steps associated with forming and maintaining cults, and developing control over people.

While you’ll find many variations (like this, or this, and this, or this), here are 8 relatively universal steps and procedures in the formation and control of cults, and how Junior hockey uses each tactic:

Step 1Identify the recruit. In hockey, this obviously occurs through scouting and recruiting processes and tryouts. It can also take the form of pre-draft combines and interviews. Through this, the group discovers what player has the skills, traits, and characteristics to benefit the organization, and support organizational success.

Many people assume that cults target vulnerable people, but that’s not typically the case. Although these individuals may be easier to manipulate, introduction programs and recruiting practices are simply in place to identify candidates, much like identifying players a team would like to sign or draft. It doesn’t mean they’ll end up in the organization, but this is step one.

Step 2Persuade the recruit to enter the fold.

As told by The Conversation “To entice new players, Hockey Canada’s website makes a heartfelt pitch to parents: playing hockey will help their child make new friends, get in shape and build character, among other important skills.

Here is what the Hockey Canada website says:

Hockey is a fun, family-friendly activity that offers people of all ages an opportunity to make new friends, get physically active, build important skills like hand-eye coordination and strategic thought, and create memories that last a lifetime. Hockey is also a great sport for building character, and it gives those involved the opportunity to learn the value of teamwork, sportsmanship, and personal responsibility. In addition, the National Sports of Canada Act named hockey Canada’s official winter sport, making it a quintessential part of the Canadian identity.

This is the pitch. From the youngest age, youth in Canada are told that being Canadian means playing hockey, and that hockey is a way to develop identity, and is a place for self improvement.

This pitch could mimic the introductory pitch of almost any cult.

And for hockey, it’s a great pitch; however, in a recent study from York University on minor hockey involvement at the ‘AAA’ level in Ontario, which remains the main feeder stream to Junior hockey, it was found that Hockey Canada’s claims didn’t align. Hockey involvement and coaching did not lead to positive youth development (fostering personal assets, such as competence, confidence and character).

But the promise is there.

Even as fans, so many people tie their identity to professional and Junior hockey teams in Canada. Scroll through the obituary pages, and alongside mentions of beloved family members and careers, you’ll often see mention of sports teams people loved to follow in Canada and the US, as if this involvement in an imagined community defined their life.

For some athletes in hockey who don’t fit the mold of heteronormative behaviour, staying as part of the group, and being included actually involves suppressing and hiding their true identity.

Despite this, Junior hockey teams will go on rigorous recruitment efforts. The websites of teams and leagues read like marketing campaigns to lure the best and brightest, the most skilled. Of course, they also boast of the benefits of their team and league to a player. Look at the AJHL’s prospect page saying that by coming to the AJHL “a player is joining a fraternity of storied athletes;” or the OJHL that brands itself “League of Choice” for the opportunities it provides to players; or the OHL’s statement that they are “committed to remaining a world leader in the development of players, coaches and officials for the NHL, U SPORTS and Hockey Canada while continuing to offer the finest player experience and academic opportunities.”

These promises, which you can almost hear Keith Raniere saying, aim to convince youth and families to send these young men off to join their league, much like a cult looks to pull people from their current situation with the promise of more.

Step 3Selling the system to others, sometimes referred to as dangling the prize.

This goes hand in hand with the above. Every Junior hockey league out there has pages to promote alumni, information on advancement paths, promises of the hope of scholarships or being drafted or recruited to a higher level. That by joining their league, you’ve taken a step in the path to achieve the level of enlightenment unavailable to players elsewhere of playing professional hockey.

Leagues utilize testimony of former and current players as a marketing tool, they brand their logos and jerseys, they sell merchandise, and publicize games and successes in the hopes of being the best, of winning championships, and of selling their system to the next generation of prospective players.

Step 4Love bombing. This is one of the most widely used tactics by a cult.

Love bombing aims to build self-esteem and a sense of pride and belonging through continued positive feedback, compliments, gifts (eg. team attire and free equipment), promotion on social media, and publicly celebrating the successes of team members.

Think about the recruitment of a player and what they’ll be told. “You’re going to get powerplay time, you’re going to add the physical element we need, we love the skill you possess.”

When attempting to lure a player, we use these types of compliments. We then tell them about perks – your education will be paid for, you’ll be provided with new sticks and equipment for free, we’ll provide you with personal training. Here’s a package of t-shirts, sweaters, hats, coats, track suits.

Much like in a romantic relationship, this love bombing is proving to the athlete, that this team and league is the “perfect fit” for them, that you are meant to be there, that they care about you, or in romantic terms that you’re athletic soulmates. We know this isn’t true from the amount of player movement we see in hockey. Players will be replaced, cut, or demoted in Junior hockey at the drop of the hat to give the team a better chance of winning. It’s a rare occasion a player and team match indefinitely, and when you cease to provide benefits to the group, you are cast out.

And this is how love bombing becomes dangerous in any dynamic – romance, cults, sports – because it build up an unrealistic sense of security, and encourages future wrongdoings and mistreatment to be excused in lieu of past affection.

Step 5Tough Love.

Here is where the courtship ends in a cult, or on a hockey team. It’s where the serious commitment is made, and more is expected. And because you’ve been treated so well, and sought after so aggressively to this point, you do it.

Players complete off-ice testing and training and are expected to show no quit or weakness. Players will spend long hours on busses, at practice, tournaments, games, volunteering, working out, doing video sessions, and attending team functions, with the expectation to place priority on sport over school, personal relationships, family, or career development. In some cases, these portions of normal development must be completely put on hold until hockey season, or a Junior hockey career is done.

This “carrot/stick” portion features behaviour that “is reinforced by rewarding “good” behavior and punishing “bad” behavior.

For example, sacrificing your body, playing through the pain, no mistakes, standing up for teammates, perfect attendance, and a willingness to place team success over personal, even if that means being a scratch or benched.

This could also include on ice physical punishment, like “bag skates” after poor performances.

This tough love portion also includes control by organizations, both cult and hockey, over what members eat and drink, their exercise regimes, when they sleep, and more. Even though sporting organizations are doing this for athletic benefit, the resulting control is the same.

Initially for many hockey players, the first step in the tough love phase is hazing rituals. Although banned by Hockey Canada, hazing practices like rookie parties and additional custodial duties for rookies are commonplace.

Even if it’s packing or carrying hockey bags for older players, picking up pucks after practice or warmup, or the mandatory attendance to a rookie party where drugs and alcohol are present, this is an indoctrination and control mechanism.

In more serious examples from the past, like the Tilbury Hawks scandal in 1993, or that of the OHL’s 2002-2003 Sarnia Sting, hazing can often take the form of physical and sexual abuse as a means to gain entry to a group, and to command conformance and power. Many cults, including psychotherapy based cults, operate in an identical fashion of humiliating and abusing new members. The Tilbury event, which is of particular interest locally, led to  135 criminal violations after players were forced to participate in group masturbation, the shaving of pubic hair, and forced drinking.

We could say hazing is a practice of the past, but in a recent CKSN survey multiple reports of hockey hazing were described, including a local Junior hockey team who tied rookies to chairs (three seasons ago), forcing them to drink until they vomited or urinated themselves.

Across the Canadian Hockey League, graphic depictions of hazing and abuse – sexual, physical, verbal, and emotional are commonplace.

Tough love can take the form of assertion of power, abuse, and control.

Step 7Renouncing loved ones for your surrogate family.

How many times have we heard that a team is a “family,” that hockey players are “brothers?”

“I love them like my brothers.” Those were the words of NHLer Zdeno Chara, a former Canadian Junior hockey player in the WHL of his former Boston Bruins teammates.

The displacement of a real family for a pretend one, is not always positive.

The story of Akim Aliu is a perfect example. He was brought in to the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires, a highly touted talent drafted in the first round, 6th overall by the team – ushered in as a beloved young star by the organization.

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Akim Aliu

Soon after, the hazing and initiation into the Junior hockey culture began. Aliu was bullied, and when he refused to strip naked in a bus bathroom with three other 16-year-olds while the heat was cranked, Aliu became the problem…he needed to conform.

In Aliu’s words, “I was with all these people who were supposed to be my brothers, right? That’s what hockey is all about. Brotherhood. Togetherness. Teamwork. And they just stood there. I was surrounded by the types of players I had dreamed of playing with, and I had never felt more alone.”

Separated from his real family, told he was part of a new family, and abused.

Aliu was soon traded, only 18 games into his rookie season as a 16-year-old to a team 7-hours away. Junior hockey protects those on the inside, and finds ways to force others to conform.

Not only do coaches and management preach about “brotherhood” and a “hockey family,” but for many hockey players in Junior B, Junior A, and Major Junior, moving away from home is physically required.

Teens are removed from traditional family systems, often from the age of 16, and are required to move hours away from their family to live with a billet.

Hockey Canada outlines a lengthy list of expectations, and perceived benefits for all parties in this living condition. They have rules for behaviour to remain in the billet system, like any good cult would.

Across OHL team websites, almost all post an identical statement about billet families, “It takes special people to open their homes and hearts to our players and we take the utmost care to ensure our players are placed in environments that are conducive to care, understanding and safety.”

Even though players sometimes aren’t safe, and these aren’t their families.

But the illusion of a traditional family support structure is needed to effectively separate the youth from a protective bond. This separation is a key in cults.

Many teams get more specific, like the Erie Otters who refer to their billet families as a “surrogates parent.” Most teams utilize the promise that “players be treated like any other member of your family.”

If you travel to other leagues in North America, like the NAHL, you can find statements like this, “Billet parents serve as authority figures, role models, and extended family to their assigned players, and players rely on their billet parents for help while transitioning to a new city and community. “

These are impressionable young men in a challenging stage of life who are being asked to leave their family structure while emotionally, physically, and mentally still developing. As one BCHL team put it, “it’s never easy for a young man when he leaves home for the first time.”

Surrogate family systems put pressure on these players to tow the party line (“unwritten rules of conduct that cult members know and are expected to follow and those who do not are subjected to judgment and a type of subtle shunning or marking”).

If it’s a more local team where billeting is not used, team bonding activities or trips can ensure the “recruit is immersed in the cult’s ideology over the course of a few days.” Here, recruits are “physically isolated from friends and family members who might otherwise provide a reality check.” This can also occur at overnight rookie parties.

Your family is a family. A hockey team is not a family. They can be friends, they can be mentors; but they are not your family.

Unfortunately, when we are in real, or imagined families, it’s nearly impossible to say “I quit,” and there is a mountain of research of why people stay in abusive group structures, including relationships, families…and cults.

Step 7Introduction of the core beliefs and control of identity

“Take pride in the jersey.”

“Play to win.”

“Going to battle with each other.”

“Always stand up for your teammate.”

“We never quit, we never give up.”

“You’re representing your team and community.”

How many teams have a mantra on the dressing room door or hung on the wall?

Whatever the core belief of a Junior hockey team is, it likely sounds something like one of the above.

Rules mandate conformity, like dress codes to promote solidarity.

At the NHL level, there is no greater example of rules that mandate conformity than with Lou Lamoriello. The veteran NHL general manager preaches “professionalism” through conformity on his teams, and in order to get it, he makes players shave any facial hair, and players are not permitted to have long hair. In an instant, he as the leader has gained control by stripping players of autonomy and their individuality.

At elite Junior hockey levels, players must sign away their images and likeness to leagues and teams to be used freely for marketing and promotion, further stripping them of control over self, and further handing their identity to an organization.

Speaking of identity, according to a study conducted at West Virginia University about Junior Hockey players, researches found that “The power dynamics within intense team environments prioritize conformity and reward individuals best able to embody team dictated cultural ideals (i.e. conformity, self sacrifice, blending in, avoiding causing disturbances, etc.). Individuals seen violating these spoken and/ or unspoken terms can suffer consequences such as being cut, getting traded, losing playing time, or being mistreated by teammates or coaches.”

When you flash back to our initial definition of a cult, which involved “a group of people,” “common ideological systems,” “an us vs. them mentality,” and “social pressure from the group to change behaviour”…. we’re getting awfully close.

The same study found strong ties between Junior hockey participation and binge drinking, lack of impulse control, risk taking behaviour including sexual activity and illicit drug use, lower school success, and delayed psychosocial development.

Junior hockey utilizes the same practices as cults of demanding conformity and embodying cultural ideals, thereby removing individuality.

Step 8Zero tolerance of criticism and the introduction of shame

This is the final step and Akim Aliu is again, a perfect example. As are recent stories from fellow former NHLer and OHL player Dan Carcillo. If you speak out, you are out. You are no longer an accepted member of hockey’s “brotherhood” or inner circle.

How many times have Junior hockey players experienced a coach calling out a player in front of the entire team? This public shaming ensures players remain committed to the cause.

In these leagues, and up to the NHL, if a coach or player publicly criticises the leagues decisions, culture, or officiating, they are fined or suspended. It’s written into the rules, demanding the us vs. them boundary be held, and discouraging players to speak out against injustice.

And here, Junior hockey players are stuck. They are in, and the decision is clear – conform, support the system, protect the team…or leave.

Junior hockey may not be a cult, but it utilizes a cult mentality.

Teens and younger individuals are vulnerable to all of these tactics because of the point they’re at in their self discovery and development of personal identity. According to a study by Columbia University, individuals who are struggling to develop identity, and suffer depression related to identity formation, as many teens do, are at particular risk, and the “difficulties with identity formation appeared to have made this group more vulnerable to cult recruitment techniques that offer clear cut identities and prescriptions for living.”

Junior hockey gives young men a clear cut identity, and the culture of their off ice lifestyle has been perpetuated for generations. It gives searching young men a place to belong… until they don’t.

The very idea of sacrificing our personal development, even as hockey players, in order to win as a group, is a tactical measure of gaining group control, and it sits at the essence of a Junior hockey system where winning is the definition of success.

In the words of world renowned polemicist and linguist Noam Chomsky, sport are “a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority and group cohesion behind leadership elements.”

So how do we help athletes who have suffered trauma?

The late Dr. John G. Clark Jr, a former professor of psychiatry at the Harvard University Medical School said that ”before therapy can take place, the patient’s attention has to be gotten, and the patient needs information about the cult group. In that sense, deprogramming has a dignified provenance.”

In other words, Junior hockey leagues, from Hockey Canada down, need to be educated. The off ice development of players must be fostered with a focus on citizenship, justice, education, mental and physical health, and then, and only then, on ice hockey skills, systems, and tactics.

It appears one of the hardest aspect in removing the harmful impacts of the culture surrounding games like hockey, is to get athletes who have already been indoctrinated to see that a problem exists. We need to be able to recognize, and identify an issue to fix it. This is where many older men, long removed from the game, continue to fight to preserve antiquated cultures and norms.

Toxic behaviour, systems of hegemonic masculinity, and systems of oppression and exclusion against BIPoC people, the LGBTQ+ community, women, and those disadvantaged by socio-economic status must be confronted actively.

Those unwilling to ensure the holistic safety and psychosocial development of Junior hockey players must be removed from their positions of power.

Furthermore, the exploitation of amateur athletes for financial gain cannot continue. This is another trademark pattern observed in many cults – The exploitation of members for monetary benefit. Junior hockey players use their bodily capitol to make owners, leagues, and sponsors money, without personally benefitting from it with the exception of an elite few.

And the elitism, which is another cult characteristic, of who has access to the game of hockey, must be exposed and replaced by a system fostering societal, community, and individual benefit, growth, and health without gatekeepers, and without shame.

Because of course, there comes a time in every hockey players life when they leave the game. As in cults, this can happen forcefully, or by choice. In Junior hockey, it can also happen due to age eligibility. One way or another, the game ends.

In leaving sport, including hockey, the beliefs and systems developed, the dependence of identity on the sport, and the need for continued inclusion in one’s surrogate family, can result in prolonged and irrational protection and hegemony of these groups. It can also lead to a lack of personal competencies, a lack of stress and time management skills, depression and other mental health issues, a high degree of emotional adjustment difficulties, and a lack of social support. This final point often leads to former athletes living vicariously through the next generation, or clinging to that identity as fans, supports, and arm chair commentators in a now imagined community.

Strangely enough, counselling offered to former athletes related to their departure from sport, as outlined by a study conducted by the University of Lethbridge, and the challenges athletes face leaving competitive sport, are very similar to those leaving cults.

For many, the perception of one’s experience in Junior hockey is positive. But that doesn’t mean that experience in fact helped that person develop or grow in any meaningful way. In fact, an illogical and misplaced belief of perceived growth could in fact cause years of social, relational, and personal struggle.

Hockey is a beautiful game. As are many of the philosophical ideas that initially attract people to cults.

But the power systems used to recruit, initiate, control, indoctrinate, exploit, and expel humans from either institutional category remain dangerous and flawed.

After all, hockey is for everyone…and so are cults.

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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