Kennedy’s work with NHL, GMs vital to advance hockey’s cultural revolution

Sheldon Kennedy and Kim Davis discuss their encouragement with how the conversations went with NHL GMs and leaders on how we need the league to get up to speed with where society is on issues like bullying, abuse and discrimination.

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MANALAPAN, Fla. — It was widely considered to have been the most important hour of the seven NHL general managers spent together on Day 1 of their meetings in Palm Beach County. 

There was time spent on video review and coach’s challenges, on potentially making adjustments to be able to rescind major penalties rather than just reduce them to minors, on the rise in kneeing incidents around league, and on the NHL Awards being handed out during the Stanley Cup Final. 

But none of that is as pertinent as the cultural revolution the NHL has embarked on. And Monday’s conversation, led by former NHL player and founder of the Respect Group Sheldon Kennedy, NHL vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs Kim Davis, as well as Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas, Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill, regarding the Respect Hockey initiative Davis outlined at the NHL board of governors meetings in December, was a big step in that process. 

For too long, Kennedy, who bravely came forward in 1996 to detail the abuse he suffered at the hands of his former junior coach, Graham James, had been benched from the discussion. When the trauma Kyle Beach suffered as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks was revealed in such horrifying and disturbing detail in 2021, Kennedy expressed interest in working with the NHL to kickstart a cultural shift and offer training through Respect Group, but commissioner Gary Bettman dismissed the need to engage with Kennedy, saying, “Sheldon’s experience was not at the NHL level.”

Bettman and the NHL then reversed course ahead of the board of governors meeting at this very hotel in December. They brought Kennedy on board to implement Phase 1 of the four-phase plan Davis detailed at the meetings—to train owners, general managers, coaches and players at all levels of hockey on appropriate and inappropriate behaviour—and, on Monday, he had an audience with Bettman and the game’s biggest power brokers.

Kennedy came away from the discussion feeling as though everyone taking part in it was completely engaged. 

Davis called the conversation “rich.”

“It was excellent,” said Dubas. “It’s very rare that you get a chance to have that type of panel in front of that type of group. And I thought it was an excellent step just to have conversation with everybody. And I thought in particular, obviously, Kim and Sheldon were outstanding.”

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First-time general manager Kent Hughes, who heads up the Montreal Canadiens, said he was captivated by the discussion, impressed by Davis and Kennedy and particularly captivated by what the three GMs on the panel shared.

“Kyle talked about what they’re doing in Toronto and why they’re doing it and how they go about trying to make a more inclusive environment,” he said. “Kevin was great to say, ‘Even if you think you’re behind, don’t be afraid to come out and say, ‘Let’s get better now, let’s not wait.’ And Jim played with Sheldon, and it was pretty interesting when he said he was a veteran trying to save his place in pro hockey and Sheldon was this up-and-coming superstar. Jim was saying, ‘I didn’t know (about what Kennedy had gone through), and maybe I didn’t pay attention and I need to do a better job.’”

For too long, practically nobody at the top of the hockey world was paying enough attention to change the things that had led to toxicity within the sport’s environment. 

But Kennedy didn’t get stuck on that.

“We had to start,” he said. “I had to start to learn about this. I’ve learned a ton with walking alongside Kim, and I’ll continue to learn. But I never thought (he’d be addressing the GMs) nor did I dream it nor did I want it back (30 years ago when he first got involved in this space). I was just trying to figure out how to get my life together. 

“But I think what I have learned over the years is that if we continually try to put one foot in front of the other and do the right thing, good things happen. I think this is a really good opportunity for the NHL. I think this is about growing the game, I really believe that. One of the things that’s impressed me the most in this work since I’ve been in contact with Kim and Gary and the league and others is the willingness to be better and how they want to get this right. And it’s our job to help them, and it’s my job to help how I can help. 

“I’m definitely not the end all, be all, I’ll tell you that. But I want to do what I can do to help the game and to help those that are in charge of the game.”

He has started by assigning what he termed, “Interactive online training.”

All NHL teams were originally scheduled to take it before the end of June, but Davis explained only the Canadian teams will do it by then while the American ones will have it complete by end of August/beginning of September due to necessary tweaks being made to some of the language to meet with compliance standards in the US.

The Winnipeg Jets were the first organization to finish the interactive learning process, which was explained by Kennedy as follows:

“You’ve gotta get the right answer to move on,” he said. “You take it at your own pace, you can take it on your phone. All the players took it, all the coaches took it, all the minor-league coaches took it, and all the front and back-office staff took it.”

He said the feedback from the Jets has been “phenomenal.”

“We do a survey coming in and a survey coming out, and one of the questions that we like to refer to is ‘Have you ever participated in any types of these behaviours before or witnessed them?’ and the numbers always double after they take the program when we ask them again after,” Kennedy said. “So, to me, that tells me that a lot of people didn’t know where the line is drawn. And we’re not just talking here about the egregious, blatant abuses; we’re talking about a lot of the subtle issues that were present in any workplace.”

Kennedy added, this is just the start.

“We are not living in a fantasy to think that the digital program is a one-stop shop that’s going to save world hunger here,” the 52-year-old said. “There’s more to it. This is the start and, to us, as we discussed in that room, this has to be embedded in everything that we do. And if we want to advance culture with the game and teams and individuals, this is about practice, not perfection. But we’ve gotta build a strategy within our organization to keep practising to get better in this space.”

Considering how far behind hockey has lagged, this is an enormous task.

“I think it’s also important that you guys recognize that we’re undertaking across the entire hockey ecosystem—this consistent training—has never happened in any other sport before,” said Davis. “This is a big deal that we are taking from junior youth hockey all the way up to professional hockey, creating this one-hockey approach to understanding and being clear about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable relative to these kinds of behaviours. This has never been done in sport before.”

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Hughes sees it as imperative.

“At the end of the day, even if we were to think of it in the crude, inhumane way, people perform better when they’re in a comfortable environment,” he said. “And there’s going to be a balance in doing that because we talk about mental health and professional sports is a very cutthroat world and these kids—and they’re kids—are dealing with so much being public about them. They’re being ranked publicly, you’ve got social media issues. So, I think to that extent, we can try to create this environment where people feel more comfortable and it’s going to enable them to perform better.”

Based on the way Davis—and more importantly Kennedy—characterized the conversation, it appears everyone in the meeting came out of it feeling as Hughes does. 

That the conversation even happened trumps anything else that was on Monday’s docket.

“I want to see the game grow, and I want to see the game be the best it can be,” said Kennedy. “We’ve seen the game change significantly on the ice for years. It’s gotten better and it’s gotten better and it’s gotten better, and I think that we’ve been lagging a little bit in this space. I don’t know if it’s just directly hockey’s fault, but I think one of the catalysts a lot of times for change to happen is when incidents happen, and there’s been some incidents that have happened. And I think that organizations can do one or two things; you put your head in the sand, bury yourself and move on, or you can acknowledge that, ‘You know what? We need to be better in this space, learn about it, and figure out how we’re going to get better and allow our teams and personnel to be better in this space.’ 

“It’s about keeping it simple and it’s about having organizations understand that the players that are more than likely coming into their care today aren’t scared to talk about these issues. They actually expect these issues to be talked about, and that’s different … If I didn’t have a lived experience, I probably wouldn’t have learned about these issues, because it was never in front of me. Understanding that even is, is huge. These issues carry a lot of fear for many people and our goal is to build a confidence around all of these issues that are in front of us, under the umbrella of respect, so that we can respond appropriately and create a transparent and open locker room so that we can talk about whatever it is…There’s a lot of stressors that come, but we’re never going to be able to deal with any of that until we can we can create that open and transparent, safe locker room space.”

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