Eric Wellwood and Jeff Kyrzakos can't believe the difference a decade has made in the Ontario Hockey League.
Both played in the major junior league in the mid-2000s, when they say hazing and verbal abuse were prevalent in OHL locker rooms. Now, as coaches, they feel that kind of toxic behaviour has been practically erased.
"It's completely different. It's mind-boggling to me the progression that the league has made in such a short time," Wellwood, the head coach of the Flint Firebirds, said Tuesday. "The last time I played in this league was the end of the 2010 season and now we're in to 2018 and the changes are astronomical."
Kyrzakos agrees that although there was hazing in the OHL when he was a player, the league has evolved in many ways.
"Did it go on? Absolutely. Was it a part of the culture in the OHL previously? Yeah," said Kyrzakos, an assistant coach with the Mississauga Steelheads. "But it's not now and hasn't been for a long long time. I really give the league and commissioner Dave Branch credit.
"I don't know that there's a more progressive league in the world, not just when it comes to hazing but head hits, fighting, all that stuff."
As players, both Wellwood and Kyrzakos were close to people who say they experienced extreme forms of hazing.
Kyrzakos is close friends with Dan Carcillo, and a former teammate of Dave Pszenyczny and Charles Amodeo. Those three came forward in late November, alleging that the Sarnia Sting in the early 2000s had a toxic culture of physical and emotional abuse.
Wellwood made his OHL debut for the Windsor Spitfires in the 2006-07 season, two years after the team was rocked by a hazing controversy that saw Moe Mantha given a one-year suspension as general manager and 25 games as coach for an incident involving several of his players. A new ownership group had taken over the Windsor franchise by the time Wellwood joined the team and had worked to wipe out the hazing culture.
In response to a complaint filed by Carcillo in 2003 and the Spitfires controversy, the OHL's board of governors developed the OHL Enforcement Program in 2009, designed to attempt to eliminate hazing and impose penalties if violations occur.
"Players don't even think about doing the actions that, maybe in the past, guys were getting away with," said Wellwood. "There are all these educational programs that the OHL has put in place. The league has taken the initiative to clean that culture up and I think they've done a fantastic job of taking it from where it was to where it is now."
The OHL's zero-tolerance policy toward hazing and abuse includes mandatory annual seminars. All players must acknowledge in writing every year that they understand the OHL's policy and are encouraged to bring any concerns forward.
Additionally, the OHL introduced a mental health program in 2014, in partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association, designed to educate players on the importance of talking about issues and recognizing signs of struggle among their peers.
"Our guys go through so much training now that I never went through as a player," said Kyrzakos, who played for the Owen Sound Attack between 2005 and 2006. "Mental health, respect toward women. The attempts to make better people, not hockey players, but better people, by the league are endless."
Both coaches believe that broader societal changes have helped change hockey culture as well. Homophobic or other derogatory words that were once commonplace are now frowned upon by the players even before they participate in league-mandated anti-bullying workshops.
"The kids are a part of the new society, they didn't grow up with what we grew up with, the way people talked," said Wellwood. "Any coach nowadays has to have an understanding of how these kids are being brought up."
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John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected version of an earlier story. It fixes the spelling of Jeff Kyrzakos's last name.