The Former NHLer Teaching Junior Hockey Players About Sexual Consent Doesn’t Believe in Rape Culture

"I'm not a big fan of that [term] 'rape culture,'" says Const. Steve Kelly, a former pro and current cop spearheading the WHL's Player Impact Program.

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Oct 7 2015, 7:06pm

The Calgary Hitmen play against the Brandon Wheat Kings. Photo via Facebook/Calgary Hitmen

The Western Hockey League, one of Canada's three major junior leagues, launched a mandatory training guide this week that aims to educate young athletes about sexual assault.

Developed in partnership with the Calgary Police Service, the Player Impact Program will discuss topics like sexual consent, social media pitfalls, diversity, drugs, and alcohol with the 16-20 year olds in the WHL. At first glance, it seems like a proactive step toward addressing the sexism and misogyny that are often associated with sports.

However, interviews with the WHL and one of the architects of the program, suggest the organization is more concerned with keeping its players out of trouble than enlightening them about misogyny and being decent people.

In an interview with VICE Tuesday, Const. Steve Kelly, one of the police officers who spearheaded the project said he doesn't believe in rape culture.

"I'm not a big fan of that [term] 'rape culture'," said Kelly, himself a retired NHLer who played just under 150 games for several teams including the Edmonton Oilers and the New Jersey Devils. He played junior hockey with the Prince Albert Raiders of the WHL.

"I've played in [hockey] culture for a long time and I'm not going to sit here and claim that it's never happened before... sexual assaults or rapes or whatever, because I'm quite certain it has, but I just don't believe it's a culture at all."

Kelly seemed to then suggest that rape culture is a concept hyped up by the media.

Patrick Kane. Photo via Facebook/Patrick Kane

"Back 15 or 20 years ago, when I was in junior hockey, people would jump on it and quickly dispel the myth of a woman who claimed sexual assault or rape or think she's lying or whatever, and nowadays I think it's turned the other way where they believe it, whether it happened or not," he said, pointing to the recent controversy surrounding NHL superstar Patrick Kane. "So it's kind of come around the other way, it's still not, I don't think, where it should be—an impartial investigation."

Only about six percent of sexual assaults in Canada are reported to police and false accusations of rape are extremely rare (two to four percent of all reports).

The program covers the legalities of sexual consent, explaining that a person cannot give consent if they are intoxicated—information that Kelly described as "an eye opener, even for me." It also talks about recently passed anti-cyberbullying legislation bill C-13, which makes it illegal to share sexual photos of a person without their permission.

"I played hockey for a long time. I know the fact that there are girls out there that want to send you nude pictures," said Kelly. Back then, he said a typical reaction would be, "'Well yeah look they sent me a picture, I'm gonna send it out to everybody else and show my buddies or do whatever.' And unfortunately, that's not allowed, and you kind of have to tell guys, at some point here, it's a brand new law but someone's going to be made an example of, and I don't think you want that to be yourself."

He referred to the OHL's 15-game suspension of two players who made sexist comments on Tinder that "at face value weren't really that bad," as another example of the consequences of using social media recklessly.

Steve Kelly gets a helping hand putting on his jersey after being picked sixth overall in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft in Edmonton. Photo courtesy Canadian Press

Kelly sought out the help of the Calgary police's sex crimes unit in crafting victim impact statements to share with the players.

"It promotes empathy amongst players in realizing that they have sisters that are in these spots, they have moms, females in their life and the kind of effect that doing something like this could have."

A portion of a handbook that will be distributed to players focuses on how incidents affect athletes' reputations, families and careers, he said.

WHL Commissioner Ron Robison told VICE the program will inform athletes of "potential risks" they may face.

"I think it's well documented there are obviously issues with relationships around consent, there are issues with players who have gone onto high profile status that they find themselves in very difficult situations," he said. "We want them to continue to be very positive role models and not having something occur that will impact adversely on their career."

Kirk Hill, senior manager of player development with WHL, said rape culture and misogyny in sports did not motivate the programming but that it's more about "teaching our players about making the right decisions in life in general."

He would not comment on whether or not he felt rape culture was an issue in hockey.

"I think you're really trying to stretch into this in a different side of things," he said.

Police liaison officers will be delivering the training to the league's 22 teams.

Elsbeth Mehrer, director of external relations at YWCA Calgary, told VICE that misogyny is an issue in sports because of a hyper masculine culture.

"As we celebrate heroes and we pump them up and our sports heroes are chief among them, what we culturally seem to value are big imposing men who are warriors on a modern battlefield," she said.

"We've forgotten to celebrate healthy fatherhood. We've forgotten to celebrate the role of men as nurturers, the role of men as caretakers in a different way."

With programs like Player Impact, she added, it's crucial to get input from grassroots organizations that understand issues like violence against women.

"We don't want to perpetuate the kinds of beliefs and behaviours we're trying to counter."

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.