Parents and players who want to file complaints against the St. Albert Raiders organization have been struggling to have their concerns taken seriously for years, according to a former hockey association board member, who didn't want to be named for fear of repercussions from the hockey community.
But the St. Albert Minor Hockey Association and St. Albert Raiders Hockey Club say they take all complaints seriously and that both organizations have taken great care over the past several years to ensure they are creating a safe hockey environment for all players.
The former St. Albert Minor Hockey Association board member, who served for multiple years, came forward after a recent story by The Gazette on Raiders coach Paul MacDonald. MacDonald was suspended for comments on multiple occasions that triggered complaints to Hockey Alberta, from several Raiders families.
One of the families said they had made an earlier complaint to the Raiders in the fall of 2021, which did not result in any penalty for the coach, The Gazette reported on in January.
The Gazette confirmed that multiple families over the past several months claimed complaints they made to the Raiders were not addressed until the concerns were escalated beyond the hockey club.
The former SAMHA board member said the Raiders organization had been left to police itself for years — the organization was made up of a small group of people who could dismiss complaints and avoid dealing with issues unless another governing body, such as Hockey Alberta, stepped in.
The former SAMHA board member said Hockey Alberta doesn’t recognize the Raiders as its own entity, as it falls under the SAMHA governance, but the Raiders organization is still allowed to receive its own complaints and dish out its own discipline.
“If you have a complaint, you need to file it with the Raiders board, because they govern themselves and invoke their own discipline,” the former SAMHA board member said.
During a period of many years on the board, the member saw a lot of fighting between SAMHA and the Raiders because the club refused to follow SAMHA's bylaws and rules.
In 2019, at SAMHA's annual general meeting, the organization tried to take some of the responsibility away from the Raiders by way of a proposed bylaw revision, the board member said, but the motion to revise the bylaw was voted down and did not pass. SAMHA had become frustrated dealing with the Raiders and wanted more control over the club so it would follow the rules and bylaws.
“Some bylaw was put in place years ago that allowed [the Raiders] to govern themselves. We were trying to get rid of that so we could have more control and have them follow our rules and bylaws,” the former board member said.
Kevin Porter, president of the St. Albert Raiders, said the Raiders became its own organization under SAMHA 14 years ago because elite hockey takes up so much time and effort to organize while only serving a small population of players, Porter said.
There are 14 teams for elite hockey, but there are 40 or 50 teams for everyone else, said Porter.
When The Raiders were under SAMHA, “all [SAMHA's] time and effort [was] put towards elite hockey,” Porter said. “We recognized [this] ... 14 years ago, [and decided] let's have a Raiders board and they can manage that portion.”
At that time the Raiders club legally became its own entity, Porter said, putting them in charge of managing their own bylaws and complaints.
One issue with the Raiders club, the former SAMHA board member said, was its refusal to deal with anonymous complaints. But parents were concerned about attaching their names to an issue because they didn’t want their kids to suffer consequences after a complaint, such as getting benched or being treated differently by coaches.
Parents would then take their complaints to Hockey Alberta, only to be told the provincial association wouldn't get involved in discipline at the individual association level, the former SAMHA board member said. Parents would be told to file a complaint with their local club. But parents would often avoid filing complaints for serious things, because they were concerned about the impact on their kids' hockey and social lives.
Often an issue is kicked between Hockey Alberta, the Raiders, and SAMHA before it is dealt with, the board member said.
“We need to create an avenue where people can come forward anonymously,” the board member said.
Improving the process
Since the former member has left the SAMHA board, St. Albert Minor Hockey has created avenues for parents and kids to come forward anonymously.
Jane Sedo, SAMHA's executive director, said that SAMHA's website now provides an avenue where parents or players can fill out an anonymous complaint, and they take every complaint they receive seriously.
Sedo said the association has created anonymous incident report forms for bullying and maltreatment on its website for parents and players to use to complain, and SAMHA sends out an anonymous survey each season to encourage feedback from the community.
The forms were put on the SAMHA website in late 2021 or early 2022 after a decision from Hockey Alberta to create more defined policies around bullying and harassment.
“We're just [trying] to remove those barriers for anyone who may have felt that they didn't have anywhere to go,” Sedo said.
Sedo said there are challenges with anonymous complaints, as they limit the scope of an investigation.
“If you don't have all the information [and] if you're not able to speak with the people involved, sometimes that can be limiting,” Sedo said.
SAMHA will, however, move forward with any complaints, said Sedo, adding that members have been made aware several times through emails that they can complain anonymously.
All complaints that go to the Raiders must be sent to SAMHA so the organization is aware of them, Sedo said.
Porter echoed Sedo's sentiments that complaints are taken seriously.
Porter said Hockey Alberta, which lays out the rules for minor hockey associations to follow, made it explicitly clear in 2021 that all organizations are required to accept anonymous complaints.
“There has been a rule change from Hockey Alberta saying anonymous complaints are allowed now,” Porter said.
If the Raiders club gets an anonymous complaint, Porter said the club is also hamstrung by privacy rules with their players, adding they are extremely limited in who they can talk to and what the Raiders can reveal.
“But you can only go so far … I can't, because of privacy, start pulling the whole team in and start asking those questions,” Porter said.
Porter said the Raiders also investigate every anonymous complaint that comes to them, although he said it is rare for the club to receive them.
In January, The Gazette broke the story that a St. Albert Raiders coach had been suspended for six games for inappropriate conduct.
Head coach Paul MacDonald of the Raiders U18 AA Steel team was suspended after three comments were made, one of which referred to the skin colour of a player on a group chat, another an in-person remark later about people who have a particular European heritage, according to a Raiders source, who is not a member of the Raiders board or executive.
In the fall of 2021 a player on the Raiders U18 AA Steel team had asked the head coach in a group chat: “What colour are we?” in reference to the jersey colours they would be wearing on the ice for a game, according to the Raiders source, whose identity is being protected by The Gazette, who provided The Gazette with a screen shot of the chat.
The coach responded to the player in a group chat with the team, saying: “We are white. You are kinda olive-coloured.”
MacDonald also made an in-person comment using derogatory language to players on the team in reference to a European culture, according to the Raiders hockey source, which was outlined in the complaints made to Hockey Alberta by several families, who had escalated their concerns beyond the Raiders club.
The same coach used the word “monkeys” while speaking to the team in the dressing room in reference to how football players chase a ball on the field, and how he would like them to chase the puck on the ice, according to the source.
The source said the issue was brought to the Raiders' attention anonymously at first, but wasn’t dealt with until the information was taken to SAMHA and Hockey Alberta, and multiple complaints were filed with several names attached to them.
Parents brushed off
One former Raiders parent, a mom who reached out to The Gazette after reading the story on the coach's suspension in January, and who was not involved in the recent complaint against MacDonald, said her son didn't make a high-level hockey team he was on the year before, which she thinks is because she had given negative feedback anonymously through a Raiders year-end survey sent to families. The mom wanted to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions from the hockey community.
The mom had complained at the time that Raiders coaches wouldn’t let parents talk to coaches on behalf of the kids, but rather would only allow the kids to deal with coaches directly about issues they had while on the team. Her son had been struggling with his coach, and the young player had reached out more than five times to speak with his coach, but was brushed off. The young player's issues were never addressed.
"It is instilled in their brains, these kids, that you don't go to your parent — your parents will have nothing to do with us. So, when I tried to get involved, my son was like, 'No, no, no, Mom, you can't,'" the parent said. "If you have a problem, you're supposed to go to the Raiders association, and nobody will because their son will be punished."
At the time the mom tried to appeal the issue to SAMHA and Hockey Alberta, but they both had said the Raiders are responsible for making their own decisions for who they select for their teams.
Porter said he has never once heard of a player not making a team because of speaking out against a coach or the organization.
“When I came into the Raiders, I understood there was the perception from parents that something could happen to them if they spoke out. I want to assure people this does not happen,” Porter said.
“We have a committee select [the] coaches, which has people on it from the SAMHA board. We do not select players to teams, the coaches select the teams. So, the board does not control who makes the teams.”
Sedo said there is no appeal process if a player doesn’t make a team, as it is ultimately up to the coaches to make that decision.
“That's how competitive sports work. In competitive sport or in any sport, it's the coach's discretion to choose who they think qualifies best to be on their team,” Sedo said.
There are parents who aren’t happy with where their players are placed. Sedo said, and there is often a lot of emotion in that decision.
“I think anytime your own kid's involved [and] there's judgment from somebody else — like you have to judge to make a team. You have to judge their skill, their abilities … — it sort of sets it up to be emotional and a hard experience for some people to go through."
One coach's experience
A former coach on one of the Raiders teams, who gave an interview to The Gazette this January, said oversight by the Raiders was misguided when he kicked three boys off his team in 2017. The coach, who does not want to be named because he doesn't want to be associated with the event, said the three boys were removed for what he called extreme hazing and bullying. A Gazette story published at the time said St. Albert RCMP were involved in and investigating "bullying behaviour" within the youth hockey team.
SAMHA and the Raiders coach had contacted St. Albert RCMP, who said in a press release in November of 2017: “Youth safety is a priority for the RCMP. All allegations of behaviours that endanger the safety of young people are taken very seriously and will be priority investigations.”
The Gazette interviewed the coach of the Raiders team involved in the 2017 incident.
The coach said, upon hearing of the alleged incident, he called the St. Albert RCMP on Nov. 15, 2017, to investigate at the time.
The St. Albert RCMP, in a press release dated Dec. 21, 2017, said, "after an extensive investigation, St. Albert RCMP have determined that no charges will be laid with a youth hockey team in St. Albert."
The coach had suspended the three boys, he said, as several other players had told him what happened, and he believed them.
But the parents of the players who had been suspended filed appeals to the Raiders club, SAMHA, and eventually Hockey Alberta, the coach said. In the end, Hockey Alberta upheld the suspensions the coach had imposed.
As the process moved forward, the coach said he was given the impression the Raiders club wanted him to overturn the boys' suspension.
“I truly believe that if I didn’t stand on my morals and my values, they would have tried to push me the other way,” the coach said.
He said members of the Raiders executive had approached him multiple times to ask him to re-instate the three boys.
The coach, who did not have kids of his own on the team and who was new to town with a new job, said he was frustrated by the interchanges, as he would have had no motivation other than the alleged bullying to kick the three players off the team.
He said he was most disturbed the Raiders organization did not believe the alleged bullying had occurred.
“What do I gain as a human being kicking three minors off a hockey team? It does nothing for me,” the coach said.
During the next year, the coach was accused of being swayed by other people’s opinions, or of not caring about the three suspended kids, who were seen as good kids.
“It’s shocking how little support I really ended up getting,” the coach said.
When he first reported the alleged bullying incident, the coach said several people had questioned him on whether he should involve the RCMP at all. The coach had called his friend, a lawyer, who he said advised him to immediately call the RCMP to report it.
The coach said the Raiders club was involved in the process, and helped to host meetings to come up with a solution, but he said he felt like they weren’t behind him.
“They were more like, ‘How do we get these players back on the team because it doesn’t look good for our association,’” the coach said.
Once the three boys, who were around 13 and 14 years old at the time, were removed from the team, he saw a bunch of the other players on the team come out of their shells because it was a safer environment, said the coach.
But the team was ultimately divided, he said, and other kids on the team never trusted him again.
The coach said the year with the Raiders was so difficult, that after seven years as a coach, he decided he wouldn’t coach again.
“To be honest, I haven't coached or played hockey since. The year absolutely put such a bad taste of hockey in my mouth, and I don't really care for the game at this moment in my life,” the coach said.
“When you lose sleep over minor hockey because of the well-being of minors, it's not worth the stress,” the coach said.
Porter, who was with the Raiders club at the time of the incident, said the issue on the team that year was far bigger than hockey. He said looking back now the club would have handled the situation on the team differently.
“You can deal with general bullying, but this was probably way beyond that,” Porter said of that specific incident.
He said the club doesn't often see issues of that magnitude, and that was the first time they had encountered something of that nature.
“It probably should have been handled by someone outside [the] organization quicker because we are just not capable of handling those situations. We are not set up for that,” Porter said.
The incident was brought to the Raiders' attention and Porter said the club did its own investigation at the time. SAMHA had also investigated and then it was escalated to Hockey Alberta's level, where it was investigated again.
“When you're sitting there interviewing someone, and there's tears, you can see how hurt a kid is from this. You're like, OK, this is not hockey. It's very emotional,” Porter said.
Porter said, moving forward, in a severe bullying case in the future, the club would look at bringing in a mental-health provider to help support the team.
Porter said the organization learned a lot from dealing with that particular bullying case, and as soon as an incident is outside the club's realm, it will be taken directly to the police.
“There's a realization that we can't deal with it or shouldn't be dealing with it,” Porter said. “We try to learn from what we do.”
Sports culture a challenge: expert
Joseph Mills, a sports psychologist and professor in the sports coaching program at the University of Denver, said all sports are trying to tackle many problems relating to their culture.
"Sports [organizations] have an amazing array of problems," Mills said, adding these can range from accusations of bullying culture to such huge scandals as the one facing the U.S. gymnastic world with regard to Larry Nassar, who was convicted of sexually assaulting dozens of girls on the national gymnastics team.
Mills, who didn't weigh in on specific accusations facing St. Albert clubs, said there is a "work hard" and "be obedient" culture in sport.
"Sport was actually designed on industry. It was designed to re-inforce industrial, working-hard values. It comes from a culture and a blueprint of obedience and hard work," Mills said.
It wasn't until the Cold War, which took place between 1947 and 1991, that scientists started to examine how sport could be improved, but instead of a focus on culture, they looked at how to make the body work harder.
"What the authorities did very well at [in] getting sports scientists in to improve sport, was [for them to] understand how to work the body better, but nobody, until a few years ago, actually thought, 'We need to understand how bodies relate together, how bodies interact,'" Mills said.
As a result, in the sports social sciences field, researchers have only begun to examine coaching in the last 20 years, and only in the academic ivory towers, Mills said. Delving into sports coaching hasn't become commonplace in sporting groups.
Many sports enthusiasts think it is a coach's job to motivate players, often through yelling, but Mills said the issue isn't that players aren't motivated.
"If you thought about it, from a broader perspective, I've never met an athlete that wanted to lose — ever. So, it's probably not that they're not motivated. Of course they're motivated. They want to win, but something else is happening," Mills said.
He said it is more likely that players are getting bored with all the instructions they are given, and there is now research that shows the strategies coaches believe are effective, aren't actually as effective as they think.
"There's so much instruction. Players just get used to listening to what they have to do, rather than actually being on the ice and playing," Mills said.
Often coaches will get angry, Mills said, which doesn't create an environment for players to grow and learn.
One of the best interventions to change the culture of sport is to intervene at a coaching level, Mills said. Most coaches are volunteers who model their coaching efforts after their childhood mentors, Mills said, but those strategies may not be the most effective ones to help support a team.
"Coaches are very wonderful people. I have to say, they've been given a raw deal, because they haven't had this education. There's lots of research showing that coaches do what they did as athletes," Mills said.
"Athletes love their coaches," Mills said, adding that if you tell a coach their method isn't great, it can undermine a coach's authority and confidence, because that is how they were trained for years when they played the sport.
Coaches must start seeing their teams more broadly, Mills said, including stopping the focus on getting players to remember a list of tasks and follow certain rules, and instead be more responsive to the social needs of the team and make athletes feel comfortable in their environments.
"At the moment we're crammed in one way, which is a breeding ground for problems," Mills said.
"When we do sport at the moment, we're pretty much doing it with the fear that if we drop the ball, we get benched."
Reaching a solution
Sedo said SAMHA wants all kids to have a positive experience in hockey.
“You want them to enjoy their time at the rink,” Sedo said.
“I just feel really committed to ensuring that we uphold our core values, at the end of the day,” Sedo said, which for SAMHA are: integrity, innovation, transparency, consistency, collaboration, and responsiveness.
Sedo said the organization, which is mainly volunteer run, wants to be a leader in the hockey community and not just follow the rules laid out by Hockey Alberta.
SAMHA ensures the organization is educating its coaches, said Sedo.
“We've been working to share different resources [for] coaches — different education that's available to them to take — that would help support their experience in hockey,” Sedo said.
Coaches who come to the organization may not have experience, so SAMHA wants to arm them with as much information as possible before they hit the ice with the kids.
Improving oversight in hockey
Through the years, Porter said the relationship between the Raiders and SAMHA has been rocky at times, and communication hasn’t always been the best.
Usually it was one person from SAMHA dealing with one person from the Raiders and that was fine when everyone was on the same page, Porter said, but over time the two boards began to drift.
Porter said there was an attempt to bring the Raiders back under SAMHA more formally, but 99 per cent of the Raiders membership wanted to keep the club's program as it was.
“Nothing's perfect. Don't get me wrong. You're always going to get a few people complaining about stuff, or not liking what's going on, and that's fine. But generally, the organization has been successful over the last 14 years and that's not just winning, but developing players that have moved on to the next level, and that’s what hockey is kind of about,” Porter said.
In the last year-and-a-half, Porter said the relationship between SAMHA and the Raiders has seen a positive transformation, which he said aligns with Sedo coming on board.
“I think we're all on the same page. We're all just trying to organize hockey for kids, and so now the communication is opening up, and the relationship is a lot more collaborative, and that's a good thing,” Porter said.
The Raiders club still has its own bylaws and rules, however SAMHA said the Raiders work together to resolve complaints and issues and the Raiders are required to notify SAMHA if they get complaints or incident reports.
There is a collaboration agreement in place with the Raiders that outlines the relationship between the two organizations, Sedo said, adding that over the past 12 months they have been working to re-define some of the areas that may need more attention.
“One of those areas would be disciplinary-related issues. I can say this confidently, that the two organizations are working together more now than they ever have before,” Sedo said.
“We have been taking steps to improve the relationship knowing that it only benefits all of us, our players, and our coaches. If we are working together, it's just the best opportunity for us to provide a program for players.”
Hockey Alberta was contacted multiple times by The Gazette for comment on this story but declined.