Ryan Munce didn’t fully realize what was happening the first time his teammates abused him.
The then 17-year-old, a goalie for the 2002-2003 Sarnia Sting, walked into the dressing room for practice when another player beckoned at him with one finger, he said.
“Come here, Muncey,” Munce recalled him saying. “Just bend over my knee. I just wanna slap your ass a bit.”
The veterans in the room started yelling at Munce to “do it” and said if he didn’t they’d “beat his ass.” Munce said he then walked over to the player, who caressed his ass before smacking it.
The abuse only grew from there. “That blossomed into it being bare-assed, and then the paddle,” said Munce. “It was ultimately better when the paddle got introduced because at least the physical touch wasn’t there.”
At this time Munce was already a world-class goaltender. He won a gold medal for Canada at the U18 World Juniors in 2003 and was drafted to the NHL in the third round. He should have felt on top of the world, but Munce said he had suicidal thoughts because of the abuse.
Horror stories from junior hockey have been prevalent, and reported on, for decades. Yet there have been few consequences over that time. Now a shocking new class-action lawsuit could be the start of a long-overdue reckoning for Canada’s most popular sport.
The suit was brought forward by Munce’s then-teammate and NHL veteran Daniel Carcillo and Lethbridge Hurricanes player Garrette Taylor. The lawsuit alleges that “Canadian major junior hockey has been plagued by rampant hazing, bullying, and abuse of underage players, by coaches, team staff, and senior players.” It names all three major junior hockey leagues in Canada—the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the Western Hockey League, and the Ontario Hockey League—collectively known as the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), as defendants.
“Rather than respond to or make meaningful attempts to prevent such abuse, the defendants have instead perpetuated a toxic environment,” reads the statement of claim.
The lawsuit alleges a litany of abuse: players were sexually assaulted, forced to masturbate in front of teammates or coaches, made to consume the “urine, saliva, semen, or feces of teammates,” forced into “sexual engagement with animals,” had their genitals tied to heavy objects or dipped in irritants or toxic liquids, and had things forcibly shoved into their anuses.
James Sayce, the lead counsel of the lawsuit, told VICE while there are many details he can’t divulge, “it appears there is a large number of people who want to tell their stories.”
The CHL responded to VICE’s requests for comments by pointing to a statement it released Friday that said it was “deeply troubled by the allegations in the lawsuit.” The league announced it was starting a “Independent Review Panel to thoroughly review the current policies and practices in our leagues that relate to hazing, abuse, harassment and bullying and the allegation that players do not feel comfortable reporting behaviours that contravene these policies.”
The Sarnia Sting did not respond to a request for comment.
None of the allegations have been proven in court. You can read the lawsuit in its entirety below.
Brock McGillis, a former OHL player who was one of the first professional hockey players to come out as gay and is now an advocate for making hockey more inclusive, said he’s not fully confident of the league’s ability to take on the problems raised in the lawsuit effectively.
“You have the same people who have perpetuated the cycle trying to shift the cycle," said McGillis. "It's never gonna work. I've been predicting for over a week that they would just start more task forces."
It’s hard to overstate how important the CHL is to hockey in general, and to the Canadian psyche in particular. Talented teenage hockey players from across Canada and all over the world join the league. They’re expected to leave their families and billet in a new town, usually a small to-mid-sized Canadian city, where they will likely be the biggest sports team the city has to offer.
Despite increasing competition internationally, the CHL is still the most important feeder league in the world for the NHL. More than 30 percent of the players drafted into the NHL in 2019 came from the CHL. Sidney Crosby played for the Rimouski Océanic, Connor McDavid played for the Erie Otters, and Wayne Gretzky played for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. But while the talent in the league is immense, so is the amount of scandal associated with it.
One of the highest profile coaches in the league in the 90s, Graham James, pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual assault in 1997 in regards to more than 300 incidents that took place over 10 years on two specific players. After serving his time and being released in 2000 and pardoned in 2007, James was charged and sentenced again in 2011 after other players including NHL star Theo Fleury came forward. While in prison he plead guilty to another sex assault charge in 2015. He was granted full parole in 2016.
In March, the CHL finally settled a class-action lawsuit over minimum wage payments for $30 million, after the suit dragged on for six years—the CHL denies the players and the league are employers and employees.
Dr. Kristi Allain, an associate professor in sociology at St. Thomas University who studies how hockey influences national identity, interviewed upwards of 50 professional hockey players from 2002 to 2012 for research on hockey culture. Hazing and sexual violence were brought up consistently by the players.
“It’s an ongoing problem that’s deep-rooted into the culture of hockey and I think it’s been allowed to perpetuate itself because of the insular nature of the institution,” said Allain. “‘What happens in the room, stays in the room’ is kinda their mantra.”
While there are rules against hazing in the league, typically the abuse is kept quiet, said Allain.
The lawsuit mentions players being forced to sit in the shower as other players urinated and spat on them; in another instance, players filled up a cooler with “urine, saliva, and other bodily fluids” and forced other players to bob for apples in it.
Munce, who intends to add his name to the lawsuit, told VICE he wasn’t forced to bob for apples but did see it happen and remembered the mix being dark with chewing tobacco spit.
In another incident that Munce recalled, also mentioned in the lawsuit, a rookie was tied up while naked and players beat him with a belt. When the coach walked in to tell them to tone it down, the players pressured the coach into hitting the teen himself, which gave the actions a “huge endorsement,” Munce said.
The lawsuit also details a disturbing but well-known ritual for junior teams. During road trips, the lawsuit claims, a group of rookies get stripped naked and forced into the team bus washroom for lengthy periods of time. Sometimes players poured chewing tobacco, urine, and spit onto them through the vents.
“This is something in the hockey community that every single person knows about and just assumed was normal,” said Munce. “Everyone knows about the ‘hotbox.’”
Munce said since he wasn’t there for the initial hotbox, he was forced to strip and wait in the bathroom naked by himself.
Taylor, the lawsuit’s other plaintiff, said he was forced to dress up in women’s clothing and made to drink to the point of passing out. These sort of parties, often dubbed “rookie parties,” occur at all levels of junior hockey (and in other sports). Taylor said the rookies were subjected to “racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs” daily and forced to fight their teammates.
Journalist Laura Robinson published Crossing the Line, a book that detailed hazing and sexual violence in junior hockey in 1998. Many of the acts included, as well as those outlined in a CBC documentary from that time, are similar to those mentioned in the lawsuit. Hazing in the league goes back generations. Legendary Montreal Canadiens goalie (and federal politician) Ken Dryden, who played in the NHL from 1970-1979, told the Fifth Estate in 1997 that he was always terrified of hazing.
In her book, Robinson found that hazing and abuse happen at all levels of hockey. In 2011, a 15-year-old player for the Neepawa Natives who played junior ‘A’ in Manitoba told his parents about how he and other rookies were forced to walk around the dressing room with water bottles taped to their scrotums while a coach was in the room. The incident sparked an RCMP investigation, although no charges were laid, and league discipline.
McGillis said he doesn’t believe the league is willing to change.
“This stuff still exists; it just might not be as overt as it used to be,” McGillis told VICE News. “I’m tired of hockey people patting themselves on the back for minimal improvements. It’s microscopic shifts when massive shifts are needed.”
Players who speak out are often ostracized by the players and staff for betraying the room and therefore become “problems in the room.” Many go from being hazed to doing the hazing. The problem becomes cyclical, as the rookies become the vets, and the vets become the coaches.
“There are very few people (running) the CHL who haven’t been part of the league since they were young children,” said Allain. “It’s a system of abuse that reproduces itself through generations. These systems sort of go in unchecked when there’s nobody else in the system to raise questions.”
The mantra of keeping what happens behind dressing room doors quiet is something that starts even before junior hockey. Both McGillis and Munce said they were fully ingrained in that culture by the time they hit the CHL. Allain said she has a family member whose 10-year-old boy is going into the sport and was told by a coach not to tell his parents what happened between the players and coaches.
Every person interviewed for this story said they were confident that many talented players, who could have had great NHL careers, walked away from the sport because of the culture of hazing and abuse.
Former NHL player, Akim Aliu, who is Black, came forward earlier this year with a story about how his AHL coach Bill Peters said the N-word in front of him while denigrating hip-hop in 2009. Peters resigned from his NHL coaching position last year when the story surfaced. In a separate incident, Aliu refused to get in the hotbox in 2005 during a CHL road trip and a few days later, during practice, had seven teeth knocked out by a cross-check delivered from Steve Downie, a right-winger who would go one to have a lengthy (and controversial) NHL career. The two publicly fought on camera following the hit and it was widely reported to be in retribution for Alui’s refusal to be hazed. Downie hasn’t commented on the incident.
“There will be more reckonings for coaches, more incidents highlighting the dark side of hockey culture,” Aliu wrote in a recent piece for the Player’s Tribune. “Hockey is not unique. It has the same problems that plague our whole world. There’s not much we can do about that right now.
“What we can do is be honest.”
Allain said while she stopped interviewing players in 2012, she sees no reason for something so deeply rooted in hockey culture to have disappeared.
Since the time of the Sting allegations, the CHL has implemented several programs to deal with hazing. This includes a zero-tolerance police for hazing across all three leagues. Some newer players, such as Vancouver Canucks captain Bo Horvat, have said the abuse they received was minimal. Other players and coaches have claimed hazing has practically been phased out.
Still, other players say otherwise. Recently Eric Guest, a former Kitchener Rangers player who last played for the team in 2019, said that while at a party with teammates, older players forced him to snort cocaine. McGillis said he hears horror stories from the locker room all the time. Carcillo previously told VICE he received stories almost daily outlining abuse in hockey.
Despite games being some of the biggest attractions in their towns and being aired on Sportsnet, as well as lucrative sponsorship deals for the league, the typically teenage CHL players aren’t paid for their labour. The players, still maturing both mentally and physically, are taken from their parents and thrust into the waiting hands of a league that, after decades, is just finally starting to address the problem.
It’s important to remember who the adults in the room are.
“It always starts from the top down,” said Munce. “It starts from the coaching staff, it starts from Hockey Canada, it starts from the owners and the directors of CHL. It starts up there and trickles down. It always does. You’re not going to ask the kids to change and that’ll change the adult situation. It needs to come from the top.”
Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.