Any character-building system this elaborate and profitable involving young people-children—is going to have critics. Major Junior hockey has plenty. Every decade or so Canada undertakes to reform its national game. Generally this involves a series of scathing editorials in newspapers and some self-loathing rhetoric in magazines. Canadians bemoan the state of the grand old game for a few months, rending their garments and tearing at their hair. Then the two-line pass rule is modified, and everyone heaves a grateful sigh and shuts up.
Whereas in the past it was the quality of the game and the players that engendered those cyclical reexaminations, now it is the nature of the system in which the game is learned and played that is coming under scrutiny. The Graham James sexual abuse scandal in 1996 arrived just in time for one of hockey's 10-year checkups, and the stakes went way up. For those who don't remember, Graham James was a Major Junior coach convicted of serial sexual assaults on Sheldon Kennedy, who later made it to the NHL. (In the space of one week last October, James was released to a halfway house on parole and Kennedy entered rehab for substance abuse.)
The most immediate fallout from the James case was a hurried investigation of the CHL by the CHL that was later criticized as a whitewash. But the investigation—and the events that precipitated it—stirred Canada to take a long look at every aspect of the business of Major Junior hockey. Toronto's Globe and Mail published a four-part series scalding the CHL for its win-at-any-price philosophy. It referred to the players as "slaves to a junior hockey monopoly that is run by a gang of buccaneers who would do Black-beard proud." The systematized violence of junior hockey and the intractable code of silence surrounding it were also roundly denounced. Its editorial pages recommended scrapping the junior draft and remaking the entire development system. In addition to being morally unsound and Dickensian, it was, worse yet, not turning out very good hockey players. (The number of Canadian players in the NHL has been going down steadily, so Canada is losing gold medals and jobs to players from Europe whose names read like bad Scrabble racks.) The Globe and Mad also asserted that verbal, emotional and physical abuse of players occurred because "the Canadian Hockey League structure demanded that you keep your mouth shut and do as you were told. Anyone who did otherwise—and to this day, anyone who does otherwise—in Tier I junior hockey in Canada risks never playing again. Period."
Laura Robinson's 1998 book, Crossing the Line—Violence and Sexual Assault in Canada's National Sport, has also been brewing up rancor with its delineation of drinking, brawling, hazing and sexual assault throughout junior hockey. "Violence is the vocabulary" of the game, Robinson says. In November, Maclean's, Canada's leading newsweekly, ran a piece slugged "Thugs on Ice" that looked hard at the manly traditions of goonism and the quick fist.
Off the record you'll hear plenty of horror stories about a Lord of the Flies hierarchy that prevails on and off the ice. The entire system seems pressurized by a get-tough-or-get-out Darwinism. And it is druidically secretive. "These kids are terrified," says one leading agent who knows Canadian junior hockey, "but they learn never to say anything to anyone about it." Jesse Boulerice may be from upstate New York, but he is entirely a product of this Canadian system.
Major Junior hockey still thrives because it is part of the golden mythology of Canada. For generations it has been a way to rise above a lifetime of bucking bales at the grain elevator in Wakopa or Assiniboia or Cut Knife. It is the rural equivalent of boxing or ghetto basketball, a ticket out. And it inspires as much false hope. But even mythology changes when it has to. Major Junior hockey is under a cloud right now, under the microscope, under the gun. Any business with that many metaphors ganging up on it is in trouble.
WH AT THOSE LAST 2,732 WORDS AD D UP TO
Andrew and Jesse still want more than anything else to play in the NHL.
WH Y FIGHTING IS STILL ALLOWED IN HOCKEY
It is by definition a violent sport. Apologists for the game say that fighting acts as a safety valve, preventing other, more serious expressions of frustration with sticks or skates. "They're always saying that," says Kevin Young, a sports sociologist at the University of Calgary, "but I'd like to see the study that proves it. There isn't one."
When asked in a recent Internet poll by the OHL if fighting should be banned from hockey, more than 85% of respondents said no. Unscientific, but perhaps indicative.