Katherine Henderson, Hockey Canada’s new president and CEO, is in cleanup mode

Inclusivity goes beyond who gets to strap on skates
Katie Underwood
(Photography by Wade Hudson)

Last year, Hockey Canada was in hot water. That July, news broke that the organization had pulled money from its National Equity Fund—which includes player registration fees—to settle an alleged sexual assault case involving members of Canada’s 2018 men’s world junior team. The fallout was swift: faithful sponsors, like Canadian Tire and Tim Hortons, bailed, the entire board of directors stepped down, and Sport Canada temporarily froze federal funding. Even the Prime Minister weighed in: Canadians were right, he said, to be disgusted.

Katherine Henderson was saddened too. In September, the devoted hockey mom and high-level sports exec—previously at the Pan and Parapan American Games—became the first female president and CEO in Hockey Canada’s history. In her most recent gig as CEO of Curling Canada, Henderson fought for (and won) pay equity for the sport’s female players, so she’s certainly equipped to correct hockey’s festering bro culture. Consent training, governance reviews and a new dressing-room policy are a few measures meant to right the ship. Will they be enough to take Hockey Canada off ice?

Are you a hockey person? I know you’re sort of the hockey person now, but…

I am, but I’m not a player myself. My dad played in university—the rec, fun kind of hockey. My brother played in the local league in Thunder Bay. I learned how to skate at the Carrick Park Rink, a rec centre in the city. They had a pot-bellied stove we used to sit around when it was 30 below. 

You came to Hockey Canada from curling, another of Canada’s beloved ice sports. Did you experience culture shock? Curling seems a little less hardcore than hockey. I could be wrong!

At the elite level, curling is really competitive, but there’s a social aspect to it that’s different. This is mostly in Eastern Canada, but the winners buy the losers a drink after games. I wouldn’t dream of heading home after a game without spending at least half an hour with my opponent. There’s a lot of handshaking.

So you’re not going to get into a bare-knuckle brawl at a match. 

Maybe out in the parking lot afterwards. 

Over the last few years, there seems to have been a reckoning in Canadian sports—all of them. How did it feel to watch the Hockey Canada meltdown play out last year?

I just felt really sad. Thousands of volunteers work day in and day out to create great hockey experiences. I thought, I just don’t want this to be reflected on them. People think it’s all one governing body, but it isn’t—there are national teams, coaches, amateur leagues. A lot of the issues we’ve seen are symptoms of an overburdened and underwatched system. What Canadians need right now is a system they can trust.

After witnessing last year’s slow-motion car crash, I can’t imagine a lot of people would want your gig. What sold you on it? 

I’ve always been attracted to building things from the ground up. Some people walk toward a burning building and some people run away from it. Though I’m not saying Hockey Canada’s a burning building. 

Let’s talk about the inaugural Beyond the Boards Summit, an all-hands, how-can-we-fix-hockey meeting, which took place in Calgary during your first month on the job. 

It actually kicked off on my start date. That was a coincidence! A lot of people from hockey were there, but also reps from the Olympic and Paralympic committees and Own the Podium, along with what I’ll call “subject-matter experts”—academics who had done studies on toxic male culture. 

Hockey Canada has acknowledged that the sport’s culture has its share of—I’m reading a quote from your PR here—“elitism, gender-based violence, homophobia, misogyny, racism and sexism.” Did specific issues come up repeatedly during the summit?

We had a really long conversation about what goes on in locker rooms. Some female players responded by saying, “That doesn’t happen in my locker room.” Others had moments of reckoning, like, Have I contributed to that? Sheldon Kennedy, a former NHL player and victim’s rights advocate, talked about the culture of silence. A lot of young men are put into their positions because they’re great players. But some felt betrayed, like they needed to go along with things they were uncomfortable with. 

On one hand, we have our folksy image of hockey—there we are, clinking our Tim’s cups and wearing our cozy knits, like one big national family. On the other hand, there’s the fighting, the hard-ass coaches—a machismo that blankets the entire sport. Can we have the good without the bad?

We can. Sports constantly evolve. When I was growing up, girls weren’t even allowed to play hockey. Now, our women’s team is consistently number one in the world. The European league doesn’t allow fighting, and neither does the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. These young men don’t go into hockey to fight; they’re going to play.

Okay, brass tacks: Hockey Canada has introduced consent training for athletes and staff. How else are you rebuilding?

This game needs to be physically and psychologically safe for people. We’re getting guidance on diversity and inclusion. Hockey is still about 80 per cent male to 20 per cent female; we’ve got a division working to recruit women and girls. We’ve also introduced a rule that players must wear a base layer—like shorts and a T-shirt—in dressing rooms where more than one person is present. We have transgender players and kids going through puberty. We don’t want them dropping out because they have to change in front of someone. 

Have you seen any evidence that last year’s fracas has soured Canadians on the sport?

Ice times are still hard to get. And our membership numbers are bouncing back from COVID. But rebounding is one thing. The hard work is changing how we present hockey to the next generation. 

The Ontario Minor Hockey Association recently launched a registration drive with ads in Chinese and Punjabi for the first time. Why is that important to you?

In 2022, Canada welcomed a million people via immigration, many of whom came from countries without well-developed snow sports programs—or even arena ice. We’d better figure out ways to bring the sport to them. Inclusivity goes beyond who gets to strap on skates. It’s about asking, “Do people feel like they can be their true selves on the ice—like it’s their game too?” 

Hockey is a huge part of our national mythology. Wayne Gretzky is basically a demigod. Do you think that hero worship can be a barrier to addressing the sport’s issues? 

The greatest athletes are great people. Look at Jean Béliveau and Terry Fox—they’re almost superhuman. We shouldn’t be telling our kids to admire people purely on athletic skill. There has to be a conversation about whether players are worthy of those positions, those pedestals.

Your son, Michael, played rep hockey for a long time. You’ve said his experience was the opposite of toxic. What made it different?

I think about this a lot. Michael was a Scarborough Ice Raider in the GTHL. The parents were really involved, at every tournament and fundraiser. We all watched over each other’s sons, like a big family. My husband passed away when Michael was little. He had other role models in his life—grandparents and uncles—but he spent quite a bit of time with his hockey friends. They were just really good guys.

Do you watch NHL games or World Juniors with your family—one eye on the game during dinner? 

Oh god, yeah. We’ve got some huge rivalries in the mix. Michael is a Habs fan. I mean, diehard. He took the day off work this summer and we watched the draft together.

Who’s your team?

I don’t name names. I always just tell people I cheer for Team Canada.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.