MANALAPAN, Fla. — Sheldon Kennedy never envisioned a moment like this two decades ago.
Kim Davis didn’t see it coming as recently as 2018.
The pair led a discussion Monday with the NHL’s 32 general managers at their annual meeting — their first in-person gathering since March 2020 because of the pandemic — as the league continues its attempt to push forward on the issues of safety, inclusion and respect in the aftermath of the investigation into the Chicago Blackhawks mishandling a player alleging a video coach sexually assaulted him in 2010.
“What I have learned over the years is that if we continually try to put one foot in front of the other and do the right thing, good things happen,” Kennedy said afterward.
Davis, the league’s executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs, called it “an amazingly rich and vulnerable conversation for a group of GMs” and “a huge starting point for us.”
Kennedy, who suited up for parts of eight NHL seasons, has been a voice for victims following his own experience of being sexually abused by then-coach Graham James during his time as a junior hockey player. The 52-year-old’s Respect Group organization announced a partnership with the league at December’s board of governors meeting at the same Florida resort.
Kennedy said that while hockey has grown on the ice in recent years, away from the rink is where change needs to continue in a sport that’s historically been slow to embrace new ideas and voices following a string of high-profile events, including more incidents of racism and the Blackhawks sexual assault investigation.
“One of the catalysts a lot of times for change to happen is when incidents happen,” Kennedy said. “You put your head in the sand, bury yourself and move on or you can acknowledge that, ‘You know what? We need to be better in this space.'”
Toronto’s Kyle Dubas, Winnipeg’s Kevin Cheveldayoff and Dallas’ Jim Nill, who make up an executive board on inclusion, all spoke as part of a panel discussion moderated by Davis.
“An excellent step just to have conversation with everybody,” Dubas said. “Kim and Sheldon were outstanding, but Kevin Cheveldayoff and Jim Nill, as people who’ve been in the game for a very long time, just sharing and be very vulnerable about their experience, that was great for the leadership of the entire initiative and continuing to grow the game in that route.”
The Jets are the only NHL team — management, coaches, players and staff at the club’s parent company included — to complete the prevention training, which is run in conjunction with the league’s Respect Hockey program. The other six Canadian franchises are expected to have it done by the original June 30 target date, but the program requires tweaks in some U.S. jurisdictions.
Cheveldayoff was a member of the Blackhawks front office when former player Kyle Beach’s allegations of sexual assault by the team’s former video coach were brought to management, and little was done. He’s the only person still employed in the NHL placed at a May 2010 meeting in Chicago to discuss the allegations after being cleared of responsibility by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
“What’s important to us in this process is that this becomes embedded,” Davis said. “That’s the term we’ve been using — embedded in everything that we do. Which means that we want to get it right.”
Kennedy said teams should be prepared for the current generation of players and beyond to expect conversations on uncomfortable issues.
“It’s about keeping it simple,” he said. “If I didn’t have a lived experience, I probably wouldn’t have learned about these issues, because it was never in front of me. Understanding that is huge.”