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Toxic Masculinity, Domestic Violence, and Hockey

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All signs are indicating that Canadiens forward Alex Galchenyuk has been abused by his partner. Why is this not being taken seriously?

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Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

While we have written a number of articles on violence against women, different issues come into play when men are the subjects of abuse, and we are still searching for a way to think and talk about it. We also want to add that given the particulars of this case, much of our discussion focuses on domestic violence between men and women, which glosses over the many issues that plague non-heterosexual domestic abuse cases.

On the morning of Jan. 10, Montreal Canadiens forward Alex Galchenyuk’s girlfriend Chanel Leszczynski was arrested following a domestic dispute between the couple. According to La Presse, Galchenyuk was in his apartment with friends that Sunday morning, including Canadiens teammate Devante Smith-Pelly, when Leszczynski showed up around 8 a.m. and instigated a fight that resulted in several people phoning 9-1-1. Galchenyuk has chosen not to press charges, and the case has been forwarded to prosecutors who will determine if Leszczynski is to be criminally charged.

No matter how many happy photos of the couple we’re shown, and regardless of the number of photos from Leszczynski’s Instagram that portray her as anything but a person who might attack her partner, this is intimate partner violence. When the police are phoned to intervene in a domestic dispute and the instigator is arrested, the situation is serious. It isn’t gossip, nor should it be an opportunity to admire Leszczynski in a bikini. And this, most definitely, is not a joke.

These things need to be reaffirmed because domestic violence against men is often treated like a punchline or something that "real" men should be able to avoid, rather than an all-too-common problem with devastating effects. In this case, some of the more toxic elements of hockey culture are likely to exacerbate the problem of men being mocked and belittled -- or at minimum, not taken seriously -- when they are abused by an intimate partner.

How hockey culture and journalism gets domestic abuse wrong

Former NHL player Patrick O’Sullivan has written about the kinds of abuse that can be endemic to all levels of hockey culture. While at this juncture in the investigation we do not want to assert that the abuse that Galchenyuk experienced is on par with that experienced by O’Sullivan, we want to highlight how a culture of "toughness" and the denial of harm in hockey influence how these cases are understood.

Subjected to physical and emotional violence from his father from a young age, O’Sullivan wrote in his book Breaking Away about the intentional blinders that the people around him donned to continue to believe that nothing beyond the "normal" level of discipline (whatever this means) was taking place in his life. "Why in the hell didn’t anyone put a stop to it?" O’Sullivan asks in an article for the Player’s Tribune. He posits that hockey culture intentionally ignores abuse:

[A]ll I ever got from the other hockey parents was a concerned, "Are you ok?"

And, of course, I’d say, "Yeah, I’m fine."

That would be the end of it. Nobody called the cops. Nobody ever confronted [my father]. The overall mentality back then, especially in the hockey community, was "whatever happens in their house, stays in their house. That’s their own business."

Not only does O’Sullivan describe the ways that his abuse was ignored, but further, he describes how this abuse was expected to make him a stronger man and a better hockey player. Hockey is about instilling toughness against emotional, physical, and psychological pain. And when toughness goes too far -- against one’s own body or against another’s body -- this violence is often greeted with what Dr. Michael Messner of the University of Southern California has termed a "culture of silence." This means that the harmful norms of sports are allowed to continue because no one, even those who oppose those norms, does anything.

While in this particular instance of abuse against Galchenyuk isn’t being silenced, it is certainly being trivialized. For example, Sportsnet posed a question to his teammates that implicated Galchenyuk in mutual wrongdoing, minimizing the perceived harm that he experienced. Instead of affirming that he was the victim of violence, they asked if "the early-morning timing of the incident implied Galchenyuk and Smith-Pelly were doing something improper." Fortunately, none of Galchenyuk’s teammates confirmed that he was at fault.

Later in the Sportsnet article, the author implied through judicious use of quotes that perhaps Galchenyuk’s immaturity is leading him into situations that invite abuse: "Forward Lars Eller, 26, thinks age can have something to do with avoiding controversy off the ice." We’ve heard this one before -- surely, due to circumstances within their control, the victim was asking for it. Many have echoed the sentiment that at best it’s Galchenyuk’s fault for making a poor choice (in partner, in off-ice activities), but at worst, that he was a willing participant in the abuse. This is more than just victim-blaming, because there is a lack of recognition that Galchenyuk is a victim at all.

Positioning intimate partner violence as wrong because it is controversial and could impact the team, rather than because of the destructive impact that it has on people’s lives, was echoed by the hosts of Leafs Lunch, in what might be the worst treatment of Galchenyuk that we have heard so far. On TSN Radio 1050, the news of Galchenyuk’s abuse was linked to the Canadiens’ recent struggles and poor timing. The broadcast referred to the abuse as part of what "feels like a weird year in Montreal" with "a lot of distractions." Not only does this undermine the severity of the situation, but it paints a picture where hockey comes first.

Later, the broadcast took to blaming Galchenyuk for the potential consequences this event might induce for his teammates. "The bottom line is, the fun meter for the Montreal Canadiens for the rest of the year is below zero. It’s going to be ‘lockdown guys, you put yourself in this situation, you’re playing like garbage, if I see one of you out you’re not playing’," said former Leafs forward Jeff O’Neill before going on to ask whether the coach was expected to tell the players to tell their girlfriends "not to go nuts and cause a disturbance," as counterpart Jaime McLennan laughed and added that "wins absolve everything."

The conversation, rather than focussing on the abuse (and it did briefly), turned into a discussion of hockey consequences where the only thing that fixes the questions of "maybe they’re partying too much" is "winning."

Galchenyuk and Leszczynski’s relationship, Leszczynski’s violent actions, and Galchenyuk’s response, are not occurring in a vacuum. The ways that journalists cover this issue, and the ways that we as fans speak about it, all matter. We shape the ways that partner violence is experienced and responded to, for both men and women. And if we talk about domestic violence in a way that discourages anyone from getting help, coming forward, or leaving an abusive relationship, we are doing something wrong.

The root problem: toxic masculinities

While it certainly isn’t true that women who experience violence (domestic or otherwise) are always believed, taken seriously, and supported, when considering what a victim of domestic violence looks like, many would envision a woman. However, intimate partner violence is an issue that affects all genders. Men and women self-report perpetrating acts of domestic violence at similar rates, although women are twice as likely to be injured or killed due to intimate partner violence. It is estimated that 40% of those subject to severe domestic violence are men, although underreporting makes an accurate estimate difficult.

We are not implying that less attention needs to be paid to violence against women, or that these issues have been addressed for women and that it’s men’s turn now. We think it is vital to address both, because the victimization of women and the lack of support for men are undergirded by many of the same beliefs.

The assumption that men must be too tough to be on the receiving end of abuse is a product of toxic masculinities, or the demand that men "be men" by acting aggressive (violent, even), unemotional, unafraid, and ceaselessly strong. Essentially, men are expected to exhibit traits that are the opposite of how femininity has come to be understood, as toxic masculinities are inherently about the domination of women. Men get tougher as a result of taking abuse from their fathers; men are shamefully weak to allow themselves to be abused by a partner, and especially a female partner. Seeking support is seen as admitting weakness.

Toxic masculinities entail a resistance to admitting any kind of weakness, since weakness is for "girls," not men. These beliefs are central to hockey cultures, where a failure to appropriately play through pain and exhibit mental and physical toughness will often put a player on the receiving end of some choice feminized insults.

Toxic masculinities hurt men. And they hurt women, too.

As a hockey community, when confronted with news that a player has been abused, the best response is not to contribute to the forces that try to shame or silence men from responding to violence. Instead, like with all victims, we should believe and support them. Let’s listen to their voices instead of immediately assuming that we know anything about the situation, and support their decision to report violence.

We sincerely hope that Galchenyuk is being supported by his teammates as well as the entire Montreal Canadiens organization. But even further, we must intervene in this culture of silence surrounding violence on and off the ice, as well as in the trivialization of this violence. Our ideas about "manliness" and "toughness" are part of the problem.