The most divisive story in the news right now centers around a Steubenville, Ohio high school football team and the conviction of two players on rape charges involving an unconscious underage girl. I won’t go into all the details here, but the backlash against the guilty verdict has become a flashpoint in our culture, with some claiming the victim brought the acts perpetrated (and recorded on camera phones by the players’ accomplices) on her upon herself because she was drunk. The fact the convicted boys were star football players in a town that worships them also fed the flames.
Hockey has yet to have its Steubenville crisis, but with the culture that has surrounded sports, it’s only a matter of time. Stick around the arena long enough and you’ll hear plenty of yarns about all the tawdry deeds players get up to when they’re not on the ice, from the junior levels right on up to the NHL. On the weekend, Windsor Spitfires forward and New Jersey Devils draft pick Ben Johnson was arrested and charged with two counts of sexual assault, stemming from separate incidents with a 16-year-old and a 20-year-old in the washroom of a nightclub and bar, respectively. Johnson has not been convicted; it is very well possible he did nothing wrong and will be exonerated, just as Los Angeles Kings star Drew Doughty was when he was accused of sexual assault last year. Similarly, the three Sault Ste. Marie players accused of sexual assault (Mark Petaccio, Phoenix pick Andrew Fritsch and Flyers prospect Nick Cousins) earlier this year have yet to be convicted of anything – there are two sides to every story and the truth will hopefully come out in a court of law.
But coupled with the Boston University report surrounding the “culture of sexual entitlement” that permeated its powerhouse hockey program, it’s not hard to reach the conclusion that hockey has the same problems as other sports, particularly when it comes to testosterone-soaked teenagers.
Are there young women who actively pursue hockey players? Of course. The “puck bunny” is a well-known archetype in our culture, the girl who wants to sleep with players because they’re players.
“It’s a status thing,” said one young woman I spoke to who admitted to being labeled a bunny. “I know it was for me.”
Her main paramour was an Olympian and Stanley Cup winner and the two would send provocative pictures back and forth when they couldn’t meet in person. In the Boston University report, the committee noted that a “small subset of BU’s undergraduate population,” supported a “culture of sexual entitlement” among the players who achieved such status because of the team’s popularity on campus.
It’s important to note that I have no problem with equal-opportunity prowling. If women want to have casual relationships with hockey players, they have the same rights as those players do to pursue said women. The problem comes when the players assume a young lady’s interest in them gives them a free pass to do whatever they want, whenever they want. Consent lies at the heart of many of these cases and the investigation at BU unearthed some shocking attitudes among the players. In one interview cited by Boston.com, a member of the team told the task force, “You don’t ask (permission for sex) when you are drunk.”
Changing a culture is difficult, but not impossible. I find it amazing that hockey has embraced the gay rights advocacy group You Can Play, taping scores of public service announcements for the very worthwhile cause of smashing homophobia in the dressing room, yet no players stand up for the rights of women. You know, the group that represents half the population and has its own professional hockey league unto itself.
I’d love to see an NHL all-star or even a whole team stare into a camera lens and say “It’s not OK to refer to women as sluts,” or, “When a woman says ‘no,’ I stop what I’m doing.”
You Can Play has made huge strides in just over a year of service. Some hockey players may not even know they have gay acquaintances, but they all have women in their lives, from mothers to sisters to wives or girlfriends. It’s time for hockey to step up.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at @THNRyanKennedy.