'Some things are bigger than winning': How hockey culture failed Kyle Beach, and what can be done now

Theo Fleury knows what Kyle Beach is going through every day as a survivor of an alleged sexual assault.

“It is like a living murder,” said Fleury, who was assaulted by a coach during his youth and revealed that trauma after his 15-year NHL career ended, battling addiction along the way.

Fleury wrote of his experiences in an autobiography released in 2009. Beach's alleged sexual assault by Chicago Blackhawks video coach Brad Aldrich happened in 2010 but was not revealed until last month. And they are not the only players in youth or pro hockey with similar stories.

With each of these incidents, the conversation typically turns to hockey's culture. Could the sport that emphasizes team over individual, stifles concerns and is slow to adopt change contribute to these incidents?

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"(Hockey) needs therapy or an intervention," said Evan F. Moore, co-author of “Game Misconduct: Hockey’s Toxic Culture and How To Fix It.” “It’s super-insular and it’s kind of like the fifth wheel of popularity and scrutiny in sports in North America.

In Beach's case, the trauma of the alleged assault was made worse by the reaction from his team. Beach, 31 and now playing in Germany, came forward last week after an investigation conducted by the law firm Jenner & Block revealed Blackhawks management and coaches were aware of the allegations yet did not alert the authorities while keeping Aldrich employed until the team won the Stanley Cup.

Kyle Beach was a member of the Blackhawks' organization early in his career.
Kyle Beach was a member of the Blackhawks' organization early in his career.

Beach was the victim of not only abuse, but a coverup that cost him his NHL career, Fleury told USA TODAY Sports.

“We spend the rest of our lives trying to get rid of that horrific event that plays like a movie in our heads, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Fleury said. "And we spend the rest of our lives trying to make sense or trying to get to some sort of forgiveness.”

Everyone but Beach should be apologizing, said Brent Sopel, a member of the 2010 Blackhawks who spoke up for Beach then and said the blame for what Beach endured rests with Blackhawks players and management, the NHL and NHLPA, Beach’s representatives and the broader hockey community. The NHLPA said Thursday its executive board has voted to approve an independent investigation into the union's handling of the allegations.

"This is bigger than hockey," Sopel told USA TODAY Sports. "This is bigger than the four major sports."

NHL 'sending very clear signals'

At the core of the investigative report is the revelation that then-president John McDonough and then-coach Joel Quenneville wanted to keep the focus on advancing through the playoffs as the team pursued its first Stanley Cup in five decades.

That prioritization of winning over athletes’ physical and mental well-being is typical in American sports, said Purdue University sociology professor Cheryl Cooky who specializes in sports in American culture.

Athletes – hockey players are often depicted as the standard of toughness – are told to disassociate from bodies, shaking off injuries and playing through pain. The interest of the organization or institution is often misaligned with that of the athlete.

“Any attention to anything else that isn’t winning, it can be easily dismissed, regardless of who is involved,” said Cooky, the associate editor of the Sociology of Sport.

Aldrich is the son of a longtime NHL equipment manager who was recommended to the Blackhawks, according to the Jenner & Block report. That likely aided his smoother exit, Cooky said, with Aldrich signing a separation agreement after he paraded with the Stanley Cup instead of facing an investigation. (His name was removed from the trophy Nov. 4.)

“Unfortunately, a lot of these individuals who are in these institutions grew up in an era when it was really easy to engage in victim-blaming, it was really easy to minimize what happened,” Cooky said.

There are characteristics within professional men’s sport like the NHL that amplify, exaggerate and normalize things that are happening in the wider culture.

“We see this in other big-time sports, football for example – the kind of historical development of the sport so that masculinity gets intrinsically tied to violence, physical dominance, aggression – that those elements of sport kind of create a context for understanding why these things happen,” Cooky said.

During a news conference Monday, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said “the culture of hockey doesn’t encourage – in fact, prohibits – this type of activity.” But the league slapping a $2 million fine on the Blackhawks compared to the Devils' $3 million fine for circumventing the salary cap in 2010 broadcasts a different message.

Kyle Beach said that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (left) and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr (right) have failed him.
Kyle Beach said that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (left) and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr (right) have failed him.

“They’re sending very clear signals,” Cooky said. “That ‘Ah, we know. This wasn’t really that serious.’

“If they’re making concessions for the video guy,” Moore wondered, “what are they doing for players?”

'They could do what they want'

In a town with two professional baseball teams, an NBA team and an NFL team, the Blackhawks ruled the city in the first half of the 2010s and built a reputation, Moore said.

“They could do what they want,” he said.

Moore pointed out that a rape investigation into Blackhawks star Patrick Kane stalled in 2015 due to a lack of evidence, months before Chicago suspended former prospect Garret Ross in a revenge porn case that was dropped; the Blackhawks quickly reinstated him. Bill Peters resigned as coach of the Calgary Flames in 2019 when it was revealed he used a racial slur toward Black player Akim Aliu with the Rockford IceHogs, the Blackhawks’ American Hockey League affiliate, in 2009.

“From a player’s perspective, I don’t think it’s any easier to speak out,” said Josh Healey, an AHL player with the Milwaukee Admirals in the Nashville Predators’ organization.

Healey launched a company two years ago called The Sports Aux that allows players in organized hockey to leave reviews in a mobile app for coaches they’ve played for over the years. Nearly 80% are positive, he said, and the other 20% are largely constructive criticism from the 2,500 verified users who play from the bantam ranks to the NHL.

“You’re putting a lot of trust in the coaches that are with you every day,” Healey told USA TODAY Sports. “If they’re the ones that you can’t go to or they’re the ones doing it, it’s pretty tough, especially as a young player.

“If you just search ‘sexual assault,’ ‘physical assault,’ ‘mental assault’ and ‘hockey,’ it just floods the Google page.”

Sopel, whose Brent Sopel Foundation provides financial and educational assistance to those battling dyslexia and addiction, said he spoke with Beach for the first time in 11 years on Monday. (He himself is five years sober.) Sopel wants Hockey Canada and USA Hockey to start teaching compassion at a younger age. He also wants hockey organizations to focus more on education; he played with broken bones because he feared life after hockey as a dyslexic person.

Unlike other workplaces and fields, where other opportunities and options exist, that is limited for professional athletes. There is no equivalent to the NHL.

“We talk about athletes having all this power when actually they’re constrained in different kinds of ways than other workers and laborers are,” Cooky said.

Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner said Tuesday he wished more people would “step up and fight.” Toronto Maple Leafs forward Wayne Simmonds took notice and echoed those thoughts in an emotional meeting with reporters Wednesday.

“This is something that's systemic,” Simmonds said. “I find in the NHL when something happens bad, the guys are afraid to speak up because of repercussions. And that's something that's definitely got to change. It's unacceptable.”

Simmonds said fresh blood entering the league – Blackhawks forward Alex DeBrincat, 23, said Bowman leaving was "probably a change that needed to happen" -- is helping push that fear aside.

“Some things are bigger than winning,” Lehner said.

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Blackhawks' scandal shows how hockey culture failed Kyle Beach