CHICAGO — Sheldon Kennedy wants to make something clear. He isn’t here to save hockey. That’s not what he does with the Respect Group.
He just wants to help.
Kennedy’s Respect Group has partnered with the NHL for a training program designed to help prevent bullying, abuse, harassment and discrimination. The training for league and club employees is slated to begin in March.
The program came together after an October report by an outside law firm found the Chicago Blackhawks badly mishandled Kyle Beach’s allegations when the former first-round draft pick said he was sexually assaulted by then-video coach Brad Aldrich during the team’s run to the 2010 Stanley Cup title.
Professional hockey also has been dealing with allegations of racism for years. Minor leaguers in the American Hockey League and the ECHL were suspended last month after they were accused of making racial gestures toward Black players. A group of NHL players of color shared their experiences with racism in a powerful video that was released in January.
“I think if we look at Respect Group, we’re not the end all, be all,” Kennedy said. “We’re not living in a panacea to think that an issue such as Kyle’s or other issues are never going to happen again.
“But I think what we’re trying to do is, we’re phase one, and phase one is to educate everybody in that organization so that everybody’s on the same page.”
Kennedy, 52, and Wayne McNeil started the Respect Group in 2004. According to Kennedy, the company has trained more than 1.8 million people, ranging from hockey players, parents and officials to businesses and other organizations.
But Kennedy’s work extends far beyond the Respect Group.
Kennedy, an Elkhorn, Manitoba, native who played in the NHL for eight seasons, spoke out in 1997 about being sexually abused by a junior league coach for 12 years. The following year, he went on an in-line skating trip across Canada to raise money to help abuse victims. He testified in front of a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 2011, urging training for adults who oversee youth sports.
“I’ve learned, and I think I kind of was kind of brought up with the fact that, you know, out of a bad situation, there can be some really good things (that) come out of that if you want to go at it that way,” Kennedy said.
The Respect Group’s program is part of phase one of the NHL’s four-phase Respect Hockey initiative, according to Kim Davis, an executive vice president with the league. The goal is to create a “consistent understanding and baseline” for bullying, abuse, harassment and discrimination behaviors at all levels of hockey, she said.
“The work is really a continuation of the culture work that we have been undertaking for the past couple years,” Davis said. “But for sure the situation with Kyle Beach caused us to take an even deeper look at the ways in which we need to influence the entire hockey ecosystem, understanding that we can be doing all the right things today at the NHL level, but if we don’t use our positionality and our power and influence across the entire hockey ecosystem it will ultimately impact the brand of the NHL.”
The NHL looked at several training options, Davis said, but felt Kennedy’s Respect Group offered the baseline it wanted for this phase.
“Then we will be able to build from the foundation to be able to move more deeply into cultural competency training and anti-racism training and homophobia training and all of the dimensions that give people deeper insight,” she said.
The online training begins with a “leader message” — possibly from the owner or president of the organization — that sets the tone, Kennedy said. There is a pre-survey for participants before the interactive program. While the training isn’t hockey-specific, Kennedy said each team will have its policies and procedures embedded into the program. There is another survey after the program is completed.
“I think what we’ve done is we’ve really tried to take all of the researchers’ knowledge and the $26 words, we’ve tried to really street-level language all these issues that carry a significant amount of fear and just gray matter,” Kennedy said, “and we’ve really tried to make them understandable and actionable. So it’s clear for somebody to know, and we try to make it clear to guide them on what to do.”