Game Misconduct: Hockey’s Toxic Culture and How to Fix It by Evan F. Moore and Jashvina Shah isn’t necessarily a good book, but it is still a necessary book. It’s loosely organized and has a tendency to ramble, but the message that it delivers is one that the hockey world needs to hear even if it doesn’t want to and it suggests solutions to the problems that it broaches for discussion.
It’s no secret that hockey has an insular culture—even moreso than other sports because of how the youth game is structured—and that that insular culture tends to preserve within it the same sorts of cultural attitudes that other sports have very publicly tried to combat: racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on. I don’t want to recount Moore and Shah’s talking points just for sake of a book review, though, so let me tell you a bit about my own hockey history and illustrate how that toxicity reaches all of us:
I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and was a high school senior in 2010. I decided that I was going to Michigan Tech and figured that it was time to get into hockey because I was about to be attending a hockey school. I didn’t know it right then, but I—like many other Chicagoans who had entirely ignored hockey as Bill Wirtz hid TV access to the games behind Pay-Per-View at the same time Michael Jordan’s Bulls championships were still at the forefront of the Chicago consciousness—picked up the Blackhawks right as they were pushing to their first Stanley Cup win in almost 50 years and falling in love with a sport that I had previously only had access to by strapping on some roller blades as a little kid and going out in the cul-de-sac for a pickup game with the other neighborhood kids (and, for the record, I wasn’t very good but I still loved to play).
I went to Tech that fall, and fell in love with the sport, and then—just after the end of my junior year, in 2013—I watched on my phone at a friend’s birthday party as the Blackhawks did it again. When I went home to visit, suddenly it seemed like every third car had Blackhawks license plates (released in 2010, after the cup win) and nobody was talking about Jonathan “Toes” anymore.
Fast forward two more years and the Blackhawks did it again! It was a great time to be a hockey fan in Chicago, but that’s also when the toxicity of the game really stood out to me for the first time. In a man on the street interview, WGN got a clip of a black man emphasizing the degree of the Blackhawks’ achievement and the public excitement about it: “They got Black people lovin’ hockey.” Chicago is about 28.5% Black. Let that sink in. What other sport has so alienated people of color that (generally speaking) only white people would be considered to have cared about the first two championships just as a matter of course? Certainly not basketball, football, or baseball.
Of course in the intervening time, I moved to Minnesota (“The State of Hockey”) and married into a Wild family, so my fandom allegiances changed, but there was no way not to hear about other things going on with the Blackhawks. Patrick Kane being accused of rape in 2015 was a big story until it seemed to fizzle out when the charges were dropped for lack of evidence (though you may recall he plead guilty to noncriminal disorderly conduct after punching a cab driver in 2009), but then an unnamed player—later identified as Kyle Beach—alleged that he was sexually assaulted by a video coach, Brad Aldrich, during the 2010 cup run and that the team had deliberately swept it under the rug.
Ultimately, the team and the league took action: both remaining executives from the 09-10 team resigned, head coach Joel Quenneville (at this point with the Florida Panthers) resigned after a meeting with NHL Comissioner Gary Bettman, and Aldrich’s name was sticken from the Stanley Cup at the request of the team. Unfortunately, this action came too late, as Aldrich went on to several other jobs—at University of Miami and Houghton High School—where he was fired over further sexual misconduct with players in his charge.
Of course racism and sexism isn’t exclusive to the professional level and the big stories that make it into major newspapers, onto ESPN, or published on The Athletic. Moore and Shah illuminate how the entire youth pipeline creates the insular culture that doesn’t just normalize racism, sexism, and homophobia, but also fosters attitudes that speaking out about those things is contrary to the team spirit of hockey. These attitudes get carried forward from youth hockey, into juniors and college, and eventually all the way up to the professional level. And with the number of coaches who are themselves former players, the system self-perpetuates.
In the run-up to the 2016 election, we had a collective national discussion of the concept of “locker room talk,” the idea that some people think certain things are okay to say in the context of a locker room, because that’s away from the eyes and ears of the general public who might (rightfully) take offense to those comments. And further, that repeating those comments outside of that context is a violation of an unspoken code of trust that naturally exists in those spaces. The very concept of locker room talk relies on that sense of being sheltered from consequences of your own words and actions, and hockey is no stranger to that attitude.
Just as players and staff might close ranks in the face of sexual misconduct allegations, they might do the same for a coach accused of physically threatening players for fear that they are somehow selling out the team isntead of taking a stand for a healthier culture for the game as a whole. Toxicity isn’t just about prejudice, it can also be about the way coaches interact with their players away from the eyes of parents and fans, and how that rhetoric impacts the mindsets of players. It can be just as mentally damaging for a coach to make a racial comment about a player—and in the overwhlemingly white world of hockey, it’s not just Blackness that can paint a target on your back but also something like being Russian or Scandinavian or some other “wrong” variety of White (an attitude prevalent in the NHL within many of our readers’ lifetimes, and still alive in some places even today)—as it can be for that coach to lose their cool and threaten to punch a player’s teeth in or even kill that player. But because of the context of being said in a locker room or during a practice, other players are less likely to speak up publicly to change the culture for fear of being othered in a sport culture that has nearly perfected the art of othering.
Until hockey can break down those barriers to open discussion, very little is going to change, and a book like Game Misconduct absolutely fills hockey’s collective need for a discussion starter. It isn’t a fun book by any means. You shouldn’t enjoy reading it, but should read it anyway. And when you’re done reading it, pass it on to a teammate in your beer league or another hockey fan in your life. Making hockey culture less toxic isn’t something that will happen overnight or in a single step, but there are far worse places to start than with this book.
NOTE: I switched back and forth between ebook and audiobook as I read this. The narrators do an excellent job.
Alex Slepak is the former Editor-in-Chief of Tech Hockey Guide. Alex was a Student Conductor of the Huskies Pep Band and graduated from MTU in 2014 with a B.S. in Scientific and Technical Communication. After graduating, he moved to the Twin Cities where he now writes software manuals for a living.