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The System

"The System" Continued...

Issue: "Iraq: Terror without end," Oct. 2, 2004

"This is a culture where men buy, sell, and trade boys," points out Laura Robinson, author of Crossing the Line: Violence and Sexual Assault in Canada's National Sport. Coaches and agents can make or break a player's dreams: "What better place for a predator to be?" She believes abuse is pervasive but those in The System doubt it's that bad. Since Mr. James's conviction, most years a handful of sexual abuse charges involving hockey and youth have been filed around the country.

Hockey Canada's mandatory Speak Out program, developed in the wake of the James scandal, teaches volunteers the signs of sexual and other abuse, and provides a hotline to report suspicious behavior, hazing rituals, and the like.

Put it all together and Cheryl Kehler of Steinbach, in the province's southeast corner, is wondering how long she wants to let Ryan, 12, continue playing hockey. Ryan is a short, slim, speedy center who collected 53 points (goals plus assists) in 35 games last season. The Kehlers flood their backyard every winter to make a rink, complete with boards and a Canadian flag. He has wire-rim glasses and a faded black cap stitched with "Steinbach Millers Pee-Wee Champs 2004" that he wears only when awake.

Her husband Mike, family and youth pastor at Steinbach's Mennonite Brethren church, is conflicted. He played junior hockey in British Columbia in the late '70s and knows about the promiscuity and alcohol abuse that permeates junior hockey. "Had I not lived with my coach in a Christian environment, I'm not sure where I'd have been," he muses. But Mrs. Kehler says he pushes Ryan pretty hard.

Mrs. Kehler is sure of this much: Ryan will "absolutely not" enter the junior draft. She did not grow up in a sports family. "Hockey is not the be-all and end-all of where I want my kids to end up," she says. "I have a real fear of where hockey will take them. What about values and morals? What are they reaching for?"

"I think it has a lot to do with the type of person you're talking about," Mr. Plante says. Kids with a strong family background can handle the pressure, the life away from home, and the 10-hour post-game bus rides on school nights. The game teaches important lessons about discipline and maturity. It's not just an investment in their hockey future, it's an investment in their future. Both the Wheat Kings and the Hitmen have team chaplains if the boys need spiritual guidance (see sidebar). "The majority of people involved in hockey have the kids' best interests at heart," he says. "I personally believe that the positives far outweigh the negatives."

Alex is ready to go: "It's all about hockey right now."

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