In minor hockey dressing rooms across Ontario this fall, coaches will be delivering a different kind of message.
It won't be focused on power-play strategy or skating fundamentals. Instead, every coach in the province has been mandated to carry out a pre-season chat with players about gender diversity, respect and inclusion.
"We want to make the game inclusive and understand that our coaches' responsibility is not to judge individuals on the face of things, but to create an environment where everyone feels respected and comfortable in a hockey arena," said Phil McKee, executive director of the Ontario Hockey Federation, which oversees hundreds of clubs across the province.
Coaches across Canada receive some training around gender and inclusion as part of a mandatory Respect in Sport course that all coaches must take before stepping behind a bench. But Ontario is the first province to mandate a pre-season chat of this kind.
It's not a move the OHF made entirely voluntarily. Rather, it was part of the settlement of a case brought before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario back in 2013. A complaint was brought by Jesse Thompson of Oshawa, Ont., a transgender teen who told the tribunal he was outed when he was asked to use a dressing room that aligned with his gender at birth (female), and not his identified gender (male). The tribunal heard that Thompson wasn't allowed in the boys' room and, at the same time, some parents of female players objected to him using the girls' room.
McKee said the mandatory conversations will be held among teams of all ages, across all levels of competition. As part of the settlement, the OHF will also conduct random audits until at least 80 per cent of organizations under its umbrella have instituted the mandated chats.
McKee said the OHF is providing organizations with detailed checklists to help them navigate what some see as difficult subject matter. He said Hockey Canada reached out to Egale Canada, an LGBT advocacy group, to help guide coaches on matters such as "introductory pronoun check-ins."
"Pre-season chats are a great opportunity for everyone on your team, including coaches, assistant coaches and volunteers, to share the name and gender pronoun by which they wish to be called," Egale said in the package it provides to the OHF to distribute to coaches. "Explain that it is important to ask for and share gender pronouns, just like names, because it is not something you can always tell just by looking at someone. Tell players that it is OK to make mistakes but that it is important to show that they are trying to remember by simply apologizing and correcting themselves if they do slip up."
Coaches are also reminded to discuss a player's rights when it comes to gender identity. "Explain that it is everyone's right to define and express their gender without fear of being discriminated against or harassed," Egale advises. "State that this means that everyone has the right to be referred to by the name and gender pronoun they request and the right to use the washroom or dressing room (or any other gender-specific space) where they feel most comfortable."
Egale has also provided coaches with a detailed glossary, including terms associated with assigned sex (like intersex) and terms associated with gender (like polygender and cisgender).
McKee said the initial response from coaches has been mixed.
"Depends on who you talk to. Some people feel like it's just checking a box but other people definitely learned a lot."
David Noon coaches a team of eight-year-olds in Toronto. He agrees with what the OHF is trying to do.
"You have to be respectful to everybody and I think it's important to understand that," Noon said. "You have to make everyone around you feel comfortable and I think that comes from knowledge and understanding people."
However, he doesn't think it's a message coaches should have to deliver. Instead, it should be an opportunity for parents to coach the coach.
"I think to put the onus on the coach is irresponsible. It's not the coach's responsibility. It's the parent's responsibility," Noon said.
"If you are a parent and you want to make your son or daughter comfortable in a situation on a team, it's your responsibility to educate the coach or manager of the the team to create a comfortable environment for your child."
Beyond comfort zones
McKee understands that some coaches and parents may feel uncomfortable with the subject matter, but he said there is little choice.
"We are not asking coaches to deliver sex education here," he said. "We are asking coaches to build an environment of inclusiveness and respect and provide information, an aspect of understanding.
"It's not your job to inform other players and parents that somebody is transgender. It's to provide confidentiality and accommodation."
McKee acknowledges this isn't a widespread issue in hockey or a topic traditionally associated with the game. He said the OHF is currently working with about 60 cases where it is ensuring local clubs are properly accommodating players.
"Is it an overwhelming percentage of our population? No. It is about making people who may feel different feel comfortable, that they can enjoy and live their lives while playing the game of hockey and have fun. And part of that is making people move beyond their comfort zones and hopefully this will help."
He said before this ruling, it wasn't an issue he gave a lot of thought to.
"It gave me a real understanding that everyone is different in their own way," McKee said. "You may dress as a boy, you may dress as a girl. You may dress in a feminine way, you may dress in a masculine way, and that may have nothing to do with who you feel you are as an individual inside or who you are attracted to on the outside."
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