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Sheldon Kennedy on why Kyle Beach's Case 'Fell Into a Black Hole'

Respect Group Inc. co-founders Sheldon Kennedy and Wayne McNeil share their insights on why the NHL failed Beach and how an independent third-party whistleblower line can correct hockey's culture of silence.
Sheldon Kennedy

Important conversations about hockey’s culture of silence continue in the wake of Kyle Beach stepping forward two weeks ago and revealing himself as John Doe in the sexual assault case against former Chicago Blackhawks video coach Brad Aldrich.

One voice that has spoken prominently in support of Beach and of changing the way hockey responds to the reporting of abuse is that of former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy, who became a trailblazer in the sport when he came forward in 1997 about the sexual abuse he endured at the hands of Swift Current Broncos coach Graham James while playing in the WHL. While commenting recently about the Beach case, Kennedy discussed the importance of establishing third-party support outside companies or sports leagues in cases of abuse.

Kennedy and Wayne McNeil are co-founders of Respect Group Inc., a company creating solutions to combat bullying, harassment, abuse and discrimination in the workplace. The Hockey News caught up with both of them this week to discuss the Beach case and learn more about how independent third-party reporting can give victims the help they need and keep them from being silenced like Beach was.

THE HOCKEY NEWS: Sheldon, how have the past couple weeks been for you? Has it been a triggering experience, seeing Kyle come forward, or have you been feeling more emboldened to help people in situations like his?

SHELDON KENNEDY, CO-FOUNDER, RESPECT GROUP INC.: I’ve been working in the space coming on 24 years, so there was a time when, definitely, a Kyle Beach story of coming forward would be more triggering personally than it was this time. Since maybe 10 or 11 years ago, I’ve made a personal shift in that it’s been not so much talking about Sheldon’s stories as it’s been trying to bring solutions and change to incidences where people are scrambling figuring out what to do. Watching Kyle’s interview, it was a little bit like I was looking in the mirror. The reality of the issues and the impact of these issues, his pain and his vulnerability and his guilt, were very clear in that. So for me, if there was any type of reflection, it was when watching that.

THN: A lot of people consider you the trailblazer in terms of coming forward about the horrors you endured in hockey. When you learn the details about how the Chicago Blackhawks covered up what happened to Kyle, do you ever feel like it’s one step forward and two steps back in terms of trying to change the culture of silence in the sport?

KENNEDY: It’s very disappointing. The response to this story was archaic. But what I realized is, it was a systemic response to a human issue. That’s just the reality. It’s unfortunate, because I think we have done, and hockey has done, a lot in Canada that I know of. Every hockey coach across this country has had mandatory training on the issues of abuse, bullying, harassment, discrimination for years and years, and now so have parents, officials and all adults that get to the rink. So we’ve come a long way there.

The disappointing part is that the NHL needs to be a leader in this space. I don’t buy the fact that one of the excuses is, “This was 10 years ago.” Ten years ago? We had been training every coach in this country in the game of hockey for 12 years. So we knew better, and to know better is to do better, and I think there’s been a wakeup call here.

The NHL can be and needs to be a role model in this space for our communities and our country and all hockey fans. Because there’s an expectation in the working world that these issues are dealt with and dealt with up front. What we know is that you can’t just deal with them in policies. This is about leadership and strong leadership, from your NHL level, from your NHLPA level and at a team level. Once these issues are positioned in your leadership column in your organization, you’re going to see real change. But if they only sit under policies and procedure, it’s never going to shift that culture and systemic nature that we’re hoping to change here.

THN: You said in a recent interview with The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun that a lot of change starts with the players in terms of them being the first line of defense, the first people to learn when a crime of this nature is committed. Can you elaborate on what you think needs to change among the players, whether it’s education or protocol or something else?

KENNEDY: I don’t feel there’s a real strong belief or knowledge that NHL hockey teams, whether it be coaches or players, are a workplace. I still feel that they don’t see themselves as being a real, true workplace like any other workplace in our country or North America. One of the realities is that this is a workplace. We have to treat it like a workplace. So when we work with any organizations – large, small, governments, large multinational companies to small mom-and-pop-shops – the best defense is to empower the bystander. If we want players to be better in this space, we have to educate them and give them the tools to be better. We know that they don’t get any training in this space. We know the WHL just trained all its players this year on these issues, every single person in that whole league. I feel that the NHL needs to look at themselves as a workplace.

What’s happening in this space in our country, is there’s now legislation, and it’s an occupational health and safety issue, "psychologically safe workplaces." Once we understand that, we can start educating every single person in our organization to build the confidence that we need, the language that we need, the clarity that we need and the confidence that we need so that everybody can be better. We don’t practise the power play one time at the start of the year and never touch it again. We need to teach it, practise it and revisit it to make sure we’re constantly getting better in that space.

THN: During the NHL’s presser last week, when commissioner Gary Bettman was asked why the league hadn't reached out to you, he claimed the abuse you suffered in the past did not happen at the NHL level. How did that make you feel?

KENNEDY: I didn’t take that personally. It’s par for the course. The whole response has been a very uneducated response from the league’s perspective. It’s been mismanaged from the get-go, so that comment was not surprising. One of the things that’s been clear in all of this is a misplay by the NHL. I think it’s because of living in the bubble that they live in that they really underestimated the societal shift that has happened in this space. Our company alone has educated more than 1.7 million Canadians on this issue, and we know there are many other organizations working in this field. Society’s expectations have shifted. They expect organizations to be better. That’s what we’re seeing today. We’re seeing anger.

When my story broke in 1997, what we saw was shock, and today what we’re seeing is anger, because I think society’s mindset is, “We know better, and this is ridiculous. We’ve known better for a long, long time, and this is still not being addressed?”

THN: During his TV interview with TSN’s Rick Westhead, Kyle Beach claimed the Blackhawks couldn’t be trusted to support him during the 2010 Stanley Cup final because “they had skin in the game.” The NHL has established a third-party hotline in which players can anonymously report abuse, but does the league still have too much skin in the game? Can an entity like that ever be objective? Or does there need to be a third-party line with no ties to the NHL?

KENNEDY: Our support has always been for an independent third-party whistleblower line. Why is that? We don’t have the trust of the teams or players to make disclosures within the league. That we know – in any league, in any sport. The research is clear that athletes will not report within their own league for fear of reprisal. It needs to be an independent third-party whistleblower line, but we can’t just have a line in place without having everyone in our organization educated in the space to know where the lines are crossed and what is the standard. If you walked in any locker room in the NHL today and asked people, “Give me the definition of abuse, bullying, harassment, discrimination, inclusion, equity and diversity,” what are the odds that we’d get the right answer? Probably zero. But we’re all expected to do the right thing. So we can’t just have a line as a standalone line. We have to have training along with that.

If you look at the Kyle Beach case, he did the right thing, he disclosed. The problem was with case management. A third-party independent line is going to follow through with that case and be that point person for Kyle to know what’s going on with the case but also hold the organization accountable, because that investigation is not closed until it’s dealt with. Everybody left the (Blackhawks) meeting thinking it was going to be handled or dealt with, in their words, but it wasn’t. Who will hold the organization accountable through that process? That’s your independent reporting process. That’s why you hire them. This case would’ve been handled a lot differently than it was. It wouldn’t have just fallen into a black hole.

THN: Wayne – can you elaborate more on how a third-party whistleblower company can help with case management? How does it work, and how does it benefit victims?

WAYNE MCNEIL, CO-FOUNDER, RESPECT GROUP INC.: A lot of people get confused by, “This is a third-party line.” There’s confusion on where people can go for psychological help, like an EAP, an employee assistance program. “We have a line for that?” “Oh, perfect.” People think that line handles everything, but it doesn’t. It handles psychological counselling or other resources. The NHLPA has their line for dealing with drug issues, and so forth. But by no means does that mean that, if somebody has an issue or complaint, there’s any guarantee that the complaint’s going to be followed up in a standard case-management protocol.

The goal is, for each of these third-party providers, an unbiased call, like with IntegrityCounts, the group we work with. They would have a line that you’d call, and there’s a process that they agree to with the organizations they serve to say, “OK, if a case comes in, it goes into this category,” and it could get escalated to HR or the vice-president of operations, and once the complaint has been filed, a case is created. And that case does not end until there’s a resolution. There’s an investigation, and they keep the complainant advised all the way along as to, “Here’s the status of it.” So it’s impossible for a case to fall through a crack.

KENNEDY: To add on that – the NHL has a track record. After the Beach case, who is going to trust the line that they have now, after this? End of story. Nobody’s going to trust that the NHL is competent enough at this point to handle these types of issues. They’ve got some work to do. They need help in this space right now. They need to provide an independent third-party line that will allow members of their league to be able to come forward with whatever it is.

And it’s not just about sexual harassment. It could be about somebody stealing from a company or stealing from a team. It allows them to come forward to talk about it. It’s just good business sense. It’s the insurance companies that want to keep these cases in-house so that they can mitigate them.

MCNEIL: There’s some finger pointing at the counselling services of the NHLPA. Maybe, humanistically, there should’ve been some follow-through there, but there’s nothing formalized in that call you make to get some help that guarantees that what you’re asking to get help on is going to get escalated, followed up on, tracked, and all the pieces of accountability carried out. You need to go to a third party to make sure your case is in a process that you know will get taken care of and escalated up through the different protocols.

THN: Does independent third-party case management make it easier to track the trail of accountability for a given complaint – and avoid, for instance, the who-knew-what litigation of the infamous meeting between Blackhawks front office members?

MCNEIL: Yes. Had there been a third-party line, a case management line that Kyle could’ve called, everyone in that room would become irrelevant. But because they didn’t have a formal process, everybody in that room is accountable, because they’re leaders, they’re aware of something and they have a legal responsibility to not only report it but follow it up.

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