The Ontario Hockey League (OHL) ONSIDE program, which provides players with training to increase understanding and awareness about sexual harassment and assault, returns this fall after a hiatus the organization said was due to pandemic restrictions.
The program has not run since 2019, following the cancelled 2020 season and 2021 restrictions on in-person training.
Announcement of the resumption of the ONSIDE program comes as some hockey organizations in Canada face scrutiny over the lack of transparency around sexual assault in the industry.
Kitchener Rangers were able to do the training in March, but the OHL says it has not pushed for it to be done in the past two years.
Hamilton Bulldogs director of operations Peggy Chapman said the team didn’t see the training as mandatory over the past two years because of COVID-19 restrictions, but also because many of the players had already done the training and the 2021 season was a championship run.
For the Bulldogs, the program is taught by the Sexual Assault Centre of Hamilton (SACHA).
SACHA’s executive director, Jessica Bonilla-Damptey, said the yearly assault workshop should be attended by the entire team, coaching staff and executives.
“I think it’s important for the whole team to be there, not just the new recruits who are coming in, but the team members that have been there for years,” Bonilla-Damptey said.
Chapman said they usually participate in the ONSIDE training at the beginning of the season, in the fall. This September will be their first year fully back since COVID-19 began.
Hockey Canada reckoning
This past May, Hockey Canada responded to allegations that a woman was sexually assaulted by eight unidentified work junior players at a gala event in London, Ont., in 2018.
In June, following the settlement in this case, it came to light that Hockey Canada had 21 sexual assault settlements since 1989, and almost $9 million worth of settlements had been paid to victims from a fund made up of hockey registration fees.
To be clear: every parent in <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/HamOnt?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#HamOnt</a> and across the country who has enrolled their child in hockey has been paying into a fund that paid to cover up sexual assaults. I am furious and I hope you are, too. Drastic change is needed not just at <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/HockeyCanada?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#HockeyCanada</a>
“Leadership knows these things have been happening, and that’s a problem,” Bonilla-Damptey said. “It’s important for leadership to take these matters very seriously.”
Hockey Canada released an Action Plan on July 25, two days before it was revealed that hockey registration funds were being used to pay sexual assault settlements. The Action Plan said that Hockey Canada will enhance their “masculinity, consent and toxic behaviours” training, with the goal of changing hockey culture.
The Action Plan announcement said there will be a “comprehensive review of all existing training programs by an independent specialist” and enhanced character screening for players.
Chapman said the Bulldogs’ president and general manager, Steve Staios, holds players to a high moral standard when recruiting.
Staios was unavailable for comment.
The OHL ONSIDE Program
For the OHL, training to protect against sexual assault has been required since 2016, when the OHL ONSIDE program began.
OHL vice president Ted Baker said the league was already doing mandatory training on mental health, drug use and respectful conduct on the ice.
“The one thing we felt was lacking, was what we had phrased at the time as, a respect for women program,” Baker said.
Bonilla-Damptey said the program is a two-hour course taught to players, coaches and leadership, with a curriculum created by SACHA.
Bonilla-Damptey said the workshop focuses on teaching OHL players to be leaders against sexual violence, and teaches players about rape culture, common myths surrounding sexual assault, and bystander intervention.
“How can players be a part, instead of being a bystander?” she said, and then added that the course asked players what it looks like to be in a leadership position against sexual assault.
Chapman said that the 2021 season was a championship run, meaning many of the players had already done the training.
“I think it’s important for the whole team to be there, not just the new recruits who are coming in, but the team members that have been there for years,” she said.
When asked how the OHL measures the success of the ONSIDE program, Baker said it is measured in how the players pay attention and participate in the courses.
He said the OHL was the first branch of Hockey Canada to introduce this kind of training to players, and that it was done proactively and not as a response to allegations.
“If you’re absent a program of this nature, and you’re not doing anything, I believe your programming isn’t as inclusive of every area as it could be,” Baker said. “If you don’t have the program, what happens?”
ONSIDE returns after COVID-19 pause
Baker said the OHL is in talks with the Sexual Assault Centre of Waterloo Region this Wednesday about the program returning.
He said they will be talking about “how we’re going to come into this season, what enhancements we’re going to have, and that sort of thing.”
Baker said each OHL team, including their three American teams, are connected to a local Ontario sexual assault centre, to participate in the training.
He said the OHL wants the partnership with each team’s sexual assault centre to go beyond just training sessions. He wants members from the centres to participate in puck drops, and have them set up in the concourse hall at games and showcase their programs to the public.
“It’s just not speaking to the players, it’s how these agencies are able to utilize our teams to access the public,” Baker said.
There was confusion with SACHA about whether the program had switched educational providers, because the Bulldogs also voluntarily participates with the Be More Than a Bystander (BMTB) program through Interval House.
Chapman said this year, the Bulldogs will do both.
“It’s a league-driven, mandated program. All of the OHL teams are to have a connection in the community to a sexual assault program,” Chapman said.
According to Chapman, the Bulldogs’ work with Interval House was also paused during the pandemic and will resume this year.
Taking the training further
Interval House executive director Sue Taylor said that because of the Bulldogs players’ ages, which range from 16 to 21, they often work with younger children.
Educators from Interval House and the Bulldogs players give a locker-room presentation on relationships to children aged 11 and up. After the presentation, the Bulldogs practise with the kids.
Bonilla-Damptey said teaching about consent and body autonomy from a young age is an important part of the conversation.
“Talking about consent should start from a really early age.”
While the BMTB program doesn’t serve the same purpose as the OHL ONSIDE training, Taylor said she has seen first hand the impact it has had on young players.
“Sport generally is a hyper-masculine platform, so to be able to show what healthy masculinity is, and have mentors mentoring that, and talking to younger players and sharing that message is transformational,” Taylor said.
“I think the ONSIDE training is a good start,” she said, adding it has to be an ongoing conversation.
“It’s important for these conversations to be held within Hockey Canada, and within the Hamilton Bulldogs,” Bonilla-Damptey said.
“I don’t think it’s ever enough,” Baker said, adding that defining when they have enough sexual assault training is an ongoing process.
“We have a program. We are the first league to have a program. How can we enhance the program? How can we look at it and say, ‘OK, how can we do more?'”