Since retiring from professional hockey, WHL alumnus Sheldon Kennedy has dedicated his career to speaking out against child abuse, harassment and bullying. On February 9, the 49-year-old co-founder of Respect Group was recognized in a way he never imagined, having an outdoor rink named in his honour during an emotional ceremony at Riverdene Park in Swift Current, Sask.
“It was a very special moment, I feel very honoured and very proud,” Kennedy said. “23 years ago when I told my story, I don’t think at that time anybody would have ever thought a rink would be named after Sheldon Kennedy and the issues that I represented.”
Those issues, of course, are the issues revolving around child abuse, sexual assault, bullying and harassment.
But long before those issues were in the public eye, Kennedy, a native of Brandon, Man., first brought his name to Western Hockey League circles during the 1984-85 season when he skated in 16 games with the Moose Jaw Warriors. Where he really made his mark as a WHL player was with the Swift Current Broncos, as he tallied 287 points (134G-153A) over the course of 159 career WHL regular season games from 1986-87 through 1988-89.
A survivor of sexual abuse and the tragic Broncos bus crash of 1986, Kennedy went on to captain the 1989 Broncos team that claimed the WHL Championship and Memorial Cup, including registering nine points over five games in the national event, earning himself a place on the Memorial Cup all-star team.
After being selected by the Detroit Red Wings 80th overall in the fourth round of the 1988 NHL Draft, Kennedy went on to skate in 310 games in the NHL, split between the Red Wings, Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins, amassing 107 points (49G-58A) along the way.
Following the conclusion of his professional hockey days, he then embarked upon a cross-Canada rollerblade trip in 1998, striving to bring attention to issues of child abuse. In the process, he generated $1.2 million in proceeds towards the Canadian Red Cross and a variety of abuse prevention programs throughout the country.
Sparked by his experiences, the veteran of nine professional hockey seasons came to co-found the Respect Group on April 5, 2004, marking the beginning of an incredible journey of advocacy, outreach and support.
Kennedy helped establish the Calgary Child Advocacy Centre in 2012, and for eight years, served at the forefront of it. Over time, the success of the Calgary Child Advocacy Centre has been referenced as a model for similar Child Advocacy Centres around the country.
In 2015, Kennedy was instrumental in the passing of federal Bill C-32 – the Victims Bill of Rights, which sought to enact a number of changes to the Corrections and Conditional Release Act. It provided victims of crime the right to information about the justice system, victim services, and progress in their case. It gave victims the right to deliver victim impact statements during proceedings and installed a right for victims to seek restitution. Finally, the Victims Bill of Rights provided victims with the right to protection – with an emphasis on security and privacy in order to eliminate intimidation and retaliation.
On the Respect Group front, key is the creation and provision of educational programs geared towards online abuse, bullying, and harassment prevention. The WHL and Canadian Hockey League struck a partnership with Kennedy’s Respect Group in 2011, implementing the Respect in Sport online training program.
“Hockey has been a main contributor in shifting society’s thinking around the issues of child abuse,” Kennedy said. “It’s really been a game-changer on how we’ve been able to move these issues forward.”
Each season, WHL Club hockey personnel and billet families engage in a 2.5-hour online Respect in Sport certification course, which helps to educate them on recognizing signs of bullying, harassment, and abuse, in addition to how positive approaches can be used to create a healthy environment in which athletes can thrive.
“I remember meeting with WHL Commissioner Ron Robison,” Kennedy said. “He knew it was important to train all the coaches, general managers and trainers on these issues. What we know is our best defence is knowledge – 98 per cent of [child abuse] cases that we’ve investigated, the child knows their abuser and 50 per cent [of child abuse cases] are in the home. Most of the time, there are bystanders. If we can create a confidence and a knowledge base with the bystanders – make good people better – it’s our best defence to fend off child abusers.
“We’re proud of the Western Hockey League, and who would have thought that on Hockey Day in Canada, we are actually talking about Safe Places within Swift Current, these issues, what we’re doing and the leadership role we’ve taken.”
Beyond just training hockey personnel across the WHL, CHL and other levels of hockey, Respect Group has delivered education to over 1.2 million people, including over 500,000 parents using the same language and same message, which Kennedy feels is critical. When surveys come back in to Kennedy and the Respect Group, the most consistent piece of feedback received is a simple, yet powerful, “thank you” – people genuinely feel more prepared to deal with bullying, abuse, harassment and discrimination.
“Our focus is on the 98 per cent of really good people that are in the game and in our communities,” Kennedy said. “Let’s make them better. Most of the time, what we see is people just don’t know what to do when a disclosure of any sort comes forward. Our goal is to create a confidence, a baseline language and a clarity for how to handle these types of things.”
Despite the trials and tribulations faced over the course of his career, Kennedy has come out on the other side, not just as a survivor, but as a warrior, an inspiration. He is a hero – not only for survivors of child abuse and harassment, but a hero for hockey, a hero for the entire sports community, and a hero for society as a whole. Ultimately, his work has helped push the issues of child abuse and harassment to the forefront of the community, not in a negative way, but in such a manner that engages positive discussion about how we progress, move forward and work towards creating a better world around us.
“In today’s world, there are lots of people that will listen and understand,” Kennedy said. “You’re not alone. That’s one of the biggest fears individuals have when they’re struggling with whatever it might be – that they’re alone and no one is going to believe them. I can tell them that they’re not alone. There are many people that struggle with many different issues.
“You’re not alone. People understand these issues better than we’ve ever understood them. There will be action taken.”
And so, action has been taken and will continue to be taken, in more ways than one. On a chilly prairie afternoon the name of Sheldon Kennedy was unveiled on a busy outdoor rink in a quiet little park in the bustling little city of Swift Current – where life makes sense. Emblazoned on the sign, a vibrant Safe Places logo – representing the community led initiative focused on child safety and protection that falls under Kennedy’s Respect Group. That in itself represents one form of action.
That makes sense.
The list of accolades Kennedy has received over the years is lengthy – 2018 Hockey Canada Order of Merit; 2016 WHL Alumni Achievement Award recipient; 2016 Member of the Alberta Order of Excellence; 2015 Member of the Order of Canada; 2015 Member of the Order of Manitoba; 2013 Calgary Citizen of the Year; and the 2007 Canadian Red Cross Caring Award, just to name a few in addition to numerous honourary degrees from various post-secondary institutions across the country. And yet, despite all the honours, none perhaps mean more than having his name etched proudly at that busy outdoor rink in that quiet little park on the prairie.
“If you’re putting Sheldon Kennedy’s name on a building, you’re also putting up the issues that I represent on the building,” Kennedy said. “What that told me is that it’s important. That’s what people need to see – taking a serious approach to these issues is important.”
As a part of the Western Hockey League’s commitment to providing world-class development opportunities, WHL Players First support services include a range of resources and programs for WHL players. Included in the WHL Players First mandatory programs is CHL Respect in Sport, the WHL Player Impact Program, WHL Security Network, WHL Red Cross RespectEd Seminars, CHL Drug Education & Anti-Doping program, CHL Concussion Management Safety program and the WHL Career Counselling program. For more details on the WHL, CLICK HERE.