Sheldon Kennedy addresses NHL general managers on safety, respect

Sheldon Kennedy never envisioned a moment like this two decades ago. Kim Davis didn’t see it coming as recently as 2018.

The pair led a discussion with the NHL’s 32 general managers at their annual meeting — the first in-person gathering since March 2020 because of COVID-19 — on Monday as the league continues its attempt to push forward on the issues of safety, inclusion and respect.

“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,” Kennedy said afterwards.

“It was an amazingly rich and vulnerable conversation for a group of GMs,” added Davis, the league’s executive vice-president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs.

“That’s a huge starting point for us.”

Kennedy, who suited up for parts of eight NHL seasons, has been a voice for victims following his own experience being sexually abused by then-coach Graham James during his time as a junior hockey player.

The 52-year-old’s Respect Group organization announced a partnership with the league at December’s board of governors meeting at the same Florida resort.

Kennedy said that while hockey has grown on the ice in recent years, away from the rink is where change needs to continue in a sport that’s historically been slow to embrace new ideas and voices following a string of high-profile events, including racism and the Chicago NHL team sexual abuse scandal.

“One of the catalysts a lot of times for change to happen is when incidents happen,” Kennedy said. “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.”‘

Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas, Winnipeg Jets counterpart Kevin Cheveldayoff and Jim Nill of the Dallas Stars, who make up an executive board on inclusion, all spoke as part of a panel discussion moderated by Davis.

Winnipeg Jets General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff listens to reporters questions at a press conference with Winnipeg Jets owner Mark Chipman about the Chicago NHL team’s sexual abuse scandal in Winnipeg on Nov. 2, 2021. (Fred Greenslade/The Canadian Press)

“An excellent step just to have conversation with everybody,” Dubas said. “Kim and Sheldon were outstanding, but Kevin Cheveldayoff and Jim Nill, as people who’ve been in the game for a very long time, just sharing and be very vulnerable about their experience, that was great for the leadership of the entire initiative, and continuing to grow the game in that route.”

Jets only team to complete training

The Jets are the only NHL team — management, coaches, players and staff at the club’s parent company included — to complete the prevention training, which is run in conjunction with the league’s Respect Hockey program.

The other six Canadian franchises are expected to have it done by the original June 30 target date, but the program requires tweaks in some U.S. jurisdictions.

Cheveldayoff was a member of the Chicago team’s front office when former player Kyle Beach’s allegations of abuse by the team’s former video coach were brought to management, and little was done. He’s the only person still employed in the NHL placed at a May 2010 meeting in Chicago to discuss the allegations.

“What’s important to us in this process is that this becomes embedded,” Davis said. “That’s the term we’ve been using — embedded in everything that we do.

“Which means that we want to get it right.”

Kennedy said teams should be prepared for the current generation of players and beyond to expect conversations on uncomfortable issues.

“It’s about keeping it simple,” he said. “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 is huge.”

Montreal Canadiens GM Kent Hughes said he was impressed by what was shared Monday.

“My kids and the kids today are more fortunate to come up in an environment that’s more understanding,” said the first-year manager. “But we’ve also learned with mistakes made on a public level that the consequences are pretty significant.

“We don’t just brush them under the rug, so it also makes them have to be more aware and more alert in terms of their responsibility to create a more understanding environment.”

Open conversations crucial: Kennedy

Kennedy said getting issues out in the open and getting conversations started is crucial.

“All these topics carry a significant amount of fear with them, and not a lot of confidence,” he said. The GMs “were listening to their peers, and people were being honest. That’s what needs to happen.

“And that’s how we’re going to get through this.”

Kennedy said individuals complete a pair of surveys before and after the prevention training, including a question about having witnessed or participated in specific behaviours.

“The numbers always double after they take the program,” he said. “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.”

Kennedy left Monday’s meeting encouraged that a discussion close to his heart got centre stage, and by the reaction in the room.

“I probably had a preconceived idea of what it might have went like,” he said. “But it was not nothing like that at all.

“Quite impressed with how open and honest conversations were actually happening in there.”