At the Ontario Minor Hockey Association’s Annual General Meeting in June, the new Chair of Hockey Canada, Hugh Fraser joined a hot stove panel reflecting on some of the most important changes required in the game in front of a packed audience of local minor hockey participants.
Fraser, whose son Mark played in the NHL and who participated himself at the Olympics as a sprinter in 1976, was elected as Chair of hockey’s national governing body in December 2022.
Fraser took on this latest role amidst concerns that arose over the past year from many Canadians about what they saw as a lack of transparency from Hockey Canada. He pledged right away to adopt the action plan of the Cromwell Report commissioned by Hockey Canada to ensure greater safety and inclusiveness.
He told the audience having a person of colour in a leadership position for Canada’s national game is more than symbolic and shows everyone that they are welcome in the game.
“I think it’s significant because it’s important that everybody can see themselves as leaders (in the game). I went through this in different stages of my career as one of the first black judges in the province. It gives others the opportunity to see this is maybe something they can aspire to one day.”
He added, “it is not unfamiliar territory for me as the father of a son who came up through the minor hockey ranks in Ontario and made it to the NHL. There were a lot of times when we were the only people of colour in the rink.”
Fraser was joined on stage by John Kastner, who is also relatively new in his position as the Chair of the Ontario Hockey Federation since June 2022. The Ontario Hockey Federation is one of 13 provincial and territorial organizations that govern hockey around the country, reporting directly to Hockey Canada.
“Historically, there’s been what I would describe as adversarial relationships,” Kastner said, before adding that in the past years with COVID and the news at Hockey Canada that relationship has changed in a good way.
“There’s been the best cooperation I’ve seen in all my time in hockey and a desire to work together to make the game better.” Kastner added, “I don’t know if it was because the game was honestly under threat. There were many meetings we were at where we said we don’t know what the other side (coming out of this) looks like.”
As a testament to this new spirit of cooperation and in a first for a setting like this, the two influential leaders were also joined by Craig Lane, who was elected President of the Ontario Minor Hockey Association a little over a year ago. The OMHA is the largest minor hockey association in the country and one of seven bodies that run hockey in Ontario and part of the OHF.
For Lane the status quo is simply not an option. “We need to affect change because in my opinion there is no question we are under threat.”
“There are competing sports today,” Lane continued, “We are a service organization and some of you may disagree with me but if we don't change, our consumer is going to go someplace else.” Lane added, “there's only so much time every parent has, and I think what COVID did, it had a lot of parents asking how they can spend the best quality time as a family."
Whether it’s looking at perceived barriers like costs, or anything else that might lead parents to choose another activity, Lane said all hockey administrators in the province need to be listening.
Fraser shared his own experience as a child of immigrants to Canada. He wanted to play hockey in his youth, but he said his parents couldn’t afford it. He told the crowd the province of Ontario is now much more diverse, and hockey is a game that needs to reflect that.
“It must be an atmosphere where you feel welcome. It should be open for everyone (from all backgrounds). That’s a big focus (for Hockey Canada),” Fraser added.
Lane related a story about how he recently participated at an event put on by the Carnegie Initiative which is trying to help hockey become more diverse.
Lane was sitting at a table with former NHL coach Ted Nolan who was telling him how difficult it was to get Indigenous youth into coaching and refereeing. When Lane asked why, Nolan said one of the reasons is the youth didn’t feel welcome participating in coaching clinics where they are the only Indigenous youth in the room.
“That was an eye opener. At the time, we (the OMHA) said to Ted Nolan that if you need to have classes on any reserves, or any place where you want to have a specific classroom, we’d be happy to assist.”
Lane also highlighted how part of the OMHA’s new strategic plan is to try to reach out directly to newcomers to the country who haven’t grown up with hockey and who now have many more options. He said the OMHA plans to have pilot projects trying to get sticks into newcomers’ hands to give them and their families a taste for the game so that they’ll hopefully develop a lifelong love of hockey.
All three leaders agreed one key area of focus is on how to improve the culture around the game.
“People should (first of all) understand they have to license to talk about these things (maltreatment) now,” Fraser said.
“We think about education at the elite levels but more needs to be done at the lowest levels at the grassroots to help them understand the importance of safe sport and respect,” Fraser added, commending Wayne McNeil who was in the audience. McNeil’s Respect Group’s has been offering educational programs to organizations like the OMHA. It empowers participants to recognize and prevent bullying, abuse, harassment, and discrimination.
Kastner said he often gets asked by people where to start when it comes to culture change. His answer is simple: “We need to start everywhere.”
Kastner told the audience about a call he recently had with hockey people which he ended early when he found people weren’t treating each another with enough respect and looking for solutions.
“The way we conduct ourselves with each other needs to be better.” He added, “it starts in the conversations between coaches and parents, between coaches and kids. That’s what culture change is. I think every person who is involved in hockey as a parent or referee, the person who yells at officials, the kid in the timekeeper’s box. It’s going to take all of us to fix it."
Lane added change won’t come soon enough but he said it is going to require a lot of work.
“If anybody out there thinks it's going to change within a 12-month period or 24-month period of time, I think they're delusional because this just didn't happen overnight."
He added, “I didn't get this big (pointing to his stomach) eating what I did in one day. It took me a lot of years to get this way. It could take me a lot of years to get it off. And that is exactly where we are with the cultural change.
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