NHL abuse allegations present a chance to talk to kids about safety

·4 min read
Bob Wilkie, who played in the NHL in the 1990s, is now a motivational speaker in Calgary who promotes good mental health in sports. (Supplied by I Got Mind Inc. - image credit)
Bob Wilkie, who played in the NHL in the 1990s, is now a motivational speaker in Calgary who promotes good mental health in sports. (Supplied by I Got Mind Inc. - image credit)

Former NHL player Bob Wilkie says Kyle Beach's story hits very close to home.

Before the defenceman played a season for the Detroit Red Wings and later the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1990s, Wilkie played for the Swift Current Broncos, a junior hockey team in the Western Hockey League.

Wilkie's coach in Swift Current was Graham James, who was later convicted of sexually abusing players on his teams.

"My teammates who were victims, they didn't want to say anything. They didn't know how to say anything. We didn't know what to say to support them — so just a lot of ignorance that causes more pain," said Wilkie.

Beach alleges he was sexually assaulted in 2010 by Bradley Aldrich, who was an assistant coach with the Chicago Blackhawks. Beach's disclosure after it happened was largely ignored by Blackhawks' management. He recently went public with his story after suing the team earlier this year.

Claus Andersen/Getty Images/File
Claus Andersen/Getty Images/File

Wilkie says he now encourages conversations — no matter how awkward — between parents, kids and coaches. He started I Got Mind, an educational program that promotes good mental health for those involved in sports.

"We educate the young athletes, the coaches and the parents on how to manage the different challenges that they have so they don't create, unfortunately, lifelong illnesses, stress, anxiety, depression, addiction — all things, unfortunately, that happen with the experience of sport," said Wilkie.

Wilkie says that when discussing more serious topics such as sexual or physical abuse, he turns to the organization's mental health clinician, Shawn O'Grady, for leadership and guidance.

O'Grady says it's just as important to listen to kids as it is to problem solve when discussing these topics with them.

"I think sometimes as adults, we really jump into problem solving very, very quickly."

But I think sometimes it is holding space to just listen and truly understand and to really remind whoever these kids are — that are taking the courage to open up to us — that we are safe people to talk to," said O'Grady, who has worked for decades in child protective services in Calgary.

Early and Often

Forensic psychologist Sarah MacDonald says it's important parents start talking openly and transparently with their children as young as possible so these types of conversations are normalized.

"Then, if something does happen where a child feels like something happened, that was wrong, that hopefully those lines of communication are open and they feel comfortable going to their parents … that the child feels comfortable to tell someone," said MacDonald, a forensic interview specialist with the Luna Child and Youth Advocacy Centre.

MacDonald says every child is different and can process different information.

But she says if it's a big enough story that may emerge at school or in the locker room among their peers, she encourages people to check in on their kids.

CBC
CBC

"And perhaps ask them what are they thinking about. How are they feeling learning about what happened? And do they have any questions that might be helpful for a parent to address with them? And again, just kind of going back to that idea of keeping those lines of communication open and being really transparent."

O'Grady says Beach's story could be a teaching opportunity.

"I think there are some real safe conversations related to boundaries, whether those are physical boundaries, emotional boundaries, mental boundaries — understanding what's safe and fair and what isn't," said O'Grady.

Power differential

O'Grady says people need to understand the power differential that exists in sports.

He says the good news is that most people do the right thing with their power by modelling safe sports.

But he says it's important for children to understand the limits of that power that's been entrusted to parents, coaches and teachers. He says they need to learn when something crosses the line.

"Sadly, people that have bad intentions understand how to misuse the power differential."

MacDonald says parents should also explain to their children that it's not OK for adults to ask them to keep secrets, especially about their bodies or photos taken of their bodies. At the same time, she says, kids need to know they won't get in trouble if they want to disclose that they have been told to keep a secret.

She says always trust your instincts and act fast.

"If you suspect abuse, you know it's not your responsibility to prove that something's happening. But if you have a concern, then we advise that you immediately call your local police detachment or your local children services office and you can flag your suspicions."

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