Western Hockey League Suspensions Highlight Lack of Agency for Major Junior Players

The Western Hockey League (“WHL”) announced in a short statement on their website on February 11, 2023 that the league was suspending four Moose Jaw Warriors players – Connor Ungar, 21, Max Wanner, 19, Lynden Lakovic, 16, and Marek Howell, 16 – indefinitely pending an investigation into possible violations of team rules and WHL Standard of Conduct policies.[1] Wanner was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the seventh round of the 2021 NHL entry draft and was signed to a three-year entry level contract by the Oilers in September of this season.

Almost two weeks later, the players remain suspended and the league has not offered any additional information.

The four suspensions are listed on the WHL Discipline list for February 13, 2023 as simply “tbd for standard of conduct violation.”[2] The suspensions are bookended by a February 8th listing for a $250 fine the league assessed to the Saskatoon Blades for a warm-up protocol violation in their game the previous night against the Edmonton Oil Kings and a one game suspension for Luke Rybinski of the Victoria Royals for checking to the head and a game misconduct against the Vancouver Giants on February 11.[3]

While the indefinite suspension for unknown reasons of four players on a team currently in a play-off race would invite speculation in any season, this suspension comes on the heels of two on-going situations that draw additional scrutiny to the WHL’s Standard of Conduct.

There is no opting out of signing the Standard of Conduct agreement, which covers all participants associated with the WHL, including “players, coaches, Club staff, management, ownership, League staff and officials.”[4] The WHL requires all participants to comply with the Standard of Conduct at all times and requires participants to acknowledge that they have read and understand the conduct agreement. Any player on the ice in the WHL must abide by the agreement.

The WHL’s Standard of Conduct, and specifically it’s Personal Conduct Policy, expressly states that it exists to promote lawful, ethical, and responsible conduct because that conduct serves the interests of the WHL, players, and fans. The Personal Conduct Policy states that “illegal, unethical or irresponsible conduct…may also damage the reputation of others involved in the game, and it undermines public respect and support for the WHL.” [5] The WHL is protecting itself as an entity. Protecting others is secondary.

Players are also expected to adhere to team rules. The policy specifically states that players shall not consume or possess alcohol or non-prescription drugs at any team or WHL sanctioned event. Players of legal drinking age may consume alcohol outside of team or WHL sanctioned events. Whether or not that includes quasi-team sanctioned get togethers is unclear.

With no word from the WHL, one is left to speculate about what prompted the suspensions. The Personal Conduct Policy outlines that the league may investigate and take disciplinary action for any conduct the league determines “undermines or puts at risk the integrity and reputation of the WHL, WHL Clubs, or WHL players, coaches, employees, owners or game officials.” What prompted the suspensions? Hazing? Using racial slurs? Sexual assault? Betting on games? Drug use?

The possibility that the players in Moose Jaw are being investigated in connection with allegations of sexual assault is a possibility that, unfortunately, does come to mind. Hockey Canada is currently being sued for failing to address systemic abuse in its organizations and allowing a “culture and environment that glorified the degradation and sexual exploitation of young women,” to persist.[6] Hockey Canada reached a settlement in May 2022 with a young woman in London, Ontario who alleges that eight Canadian Hockey League (“CHL”) players sexually assaulted her in a hotel room during an event for the Canadian World Junior team in the summer of 2018. London police closed their initial investigation in February 2019 without laying charges. The WHL is a member of the CHL.

The WHL is also worried about another sort of situation. The WHL Standard of Conduct includes information about how players, and others, can contact the WHL about violations. One of the issues about which those involved in the WHL must report is any form of “abuse or neglect, whether emotional, verbal, physical or sexual.”[7] Abuse of whom? By whom?

The policy essentially covers two types of abuse related to players: abuse by players and abuse of players.

Conduct policies are needed, but in a world where junior players have been treated as commodities for a long time, there is something troubling about a situation in which the recourse for a suspended player is to, either with or without counsel, address the situation with the league itself and then hope for the best. Following a review of an investigation, the Commissioner of the WHL has full authority to impose discipline as warranted.

Earlier this month, an Ontario Superior Court judge denied a class action request by a group of former CHL players bringing suit against the CHL, the three major junior leagues, including the WHL, that make up the CHL, and all CHL member teams alleging the physical and sexual abuse of players going back to the 1970s.[8] The lawsuit was initially filed in 2020. Justice Paul Perell acknowledged that criminal acts took place but declined to certify the class because the premise that the CHL, WHL, OHL, QMJHL, and all member clubs “are jointly and severally liable for each other’s wrongdoings regardless of whether the particular team participated,” was incorrect. The plaintiffs intend to pursue options individually.

Justice Perell concluded the evidence showed that players were “drugged, intoxicated, physically and sexually assaulted; raped, gang raped, forced to physically and sexually assault other teammates…[and were] compelled to sexually assault and gang rape young women invited to team parties.”[9]

At present, the public does not know why the WHL suspended four Moose Jaw Warriors players. What we do know is that the business of hockey continues. The Warriors Head Coach, Mark O’Leary, told Christopher Oldcorn of the Western Standard in a February 16th article that, “I think the message to the team is that we’re still a really good team right now and we just have to take it game by game.”[10]

We used to say, “if you’re in the room, you matter.” Maybe the lesson from the WHL is that being in the room is not always all it’s cracked up to be.  The suspended players lack agency, but the system is based on a lack of agency. That’s what makes it work.

[1] https://whl.ca/article/whl-announces-suspension-of-four-moose-jaw-warriors-players

[2] https://whl.ca/discipline

[3] https://whl.ca/discipline

[4] https://whl.ca/whl-standard-of-conduct-acknowledgement-form

[5] WHL Personal Conduct Policy, available at:  https://whl.ca/whl-standard-of-conduct-acknowledgement-form

[6] https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/hockey-canada-sexual-assault-crisis-parliamentary-committee-1.6535248

[7] https://whl.ca/whl-standard-of-conduct-acknowledgement-form

[8] https://www.sportsnet.ca/juniors/article/plaintiffs-in-chl-lawsuit-weighing-options-after-class-action-request-denied-lawyer

[9] https://www.sportsnet.ca/juniors/article/plaintiffs-in-chl-lawsuit-weighing-options-after-class-action-request-denied-lawyer

[10] https://www.westernstandard.news/news/moose-jaw-warriors-focus-on-future-as-whl-investigates-four-suspended-players/article_b33c4ed8-ae28-11ed-9670-f7b1ee6fa691.html

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