If you live on the hockey side of social media, or the social media side of hockey, you’ve probably already heard about what happened with Washington Capitals forward Brendan Leipsic yesterday. If you haven’t, you’re in for a roller coaster.
The “too long; didn’t read” version of the story, as far as we all know, is this: A friend of Leipsic’s had their Instagram account compromised, and within it, there was a direct message group chat. Also present to a smaller degree was Springfield Thunderbirds forward Jack Rodewald, who played with Leipsic on the Toronto Marlies several years ago. Other lower-level players and player relatives were present, the list of which seems to point to this being a social circle of Winnipeg-area players from about the same age group. In that case, one can assume that this is a long-term friend circle that had been compromised by the break-in.
Within this chat, in which screenshots have managed to Streisand Effect their way into surviving on social media, there are a lot of topics that are gross, offensive, and deeply personal. Degrading is probably the best term and one even used affectionately by a group chat participant. The leaker of this content mostly focuses on Leipsic’s end. Within that, you find a lot of lewd talk about his pursuits of women, often taking shots at their appearance. This also applied to women he seemingly wasn’t pursuing – including the partners of his own teammates. There were also some other, now harder to find screenshots that show him talking about teammates he disliked in Washington and Vancouver, and, probably the least important to everyone, some allusions to substance use.
As a quick preface: While my coverage of the Marlies overlapped with Leipsic and Rodewald’s tenures, I didn’t know either of them on any sort of off-ice level and didn’t really talk to either of them in their time here, so I can’t give many opinions on them besides how they play on the ice. I’ve spoken to some of their teammates in the time since these screenshots leaked, but mostly about the bigger picture of the incident and not about them directly. This was a purposeful decision, to keep the focus on the event and not any preconceived biases about the individuals. Because, in the grand scheme of things, the individuals are the setting more than they are the subject.
After all, if we look at this bluntly and objectively, we’re talking about comments made in private that make them look like judgemental jerks. The one comment that borders on racism was made by a former player who never made it to the NHL, so that’s likely out of the scope of their enforcement. The worst thing here from a legal standpoint is, truthfully, the break-in and the leak that made this public, which likely makes this a matter of the court of public opinion and one of the player code. Something where punishment comes via isolation and score-settling rather than a mandated suspension or fine.
The barrage of public disgust and attempts at education in his direction is probably the closest thing we’ll get to actual justice. Given that Leipsic has been riding the fringes of the AHL/NHL bubble for the past few years as it is, and that he doesn’t have a contract beyond last year, I would not be surprised if he’s played his last game in the NHL, and probably his last in North America for several years, until he shows some semblance of growth (and no, his screenshot of someone attempting to apologize for him doesn’t cut it). A player who is this candidly cruel about his teammates and their loved ones will never be accepted by them in a locker room again, and he’ll likely have to get as far away from them and their friend circles as possible to have any chance in any room. Heaven forbid he steps on the ice against a group that’s familiar and angry – the end result will not be pretty. Already polarizing and antagonizing as a player, this violation of trust just adds an even greater target on his back, and now there’s less than zero incentive for his peers to defend him.
In a way though, this is its own problem.
Make no mistake of this – what Leipsic is going to get punished for by his peers (and what will likely allow Rodewald and the others to slip through the cracks), is not the behaviour he exhibited, but who he exhibited it to. The reality is that this sort of behaviour – the misogyny, the objectification, the degradation, the insulting – all of these acts that many of us, myself included, feel to be despicable and character diminishing, are all too common in the hockey world. They’re all too common in the real world too, and there’s no venue where comments like these that show no form of respect, empathy, or care for others should be considered acceptable, but contrary to what’s been repeated by many in the public and even some of my peers, this isn’t something that should just be stated as “this is a societal issue”, a statement that has truth but also has deference of responsibility.
Hockey culture is a very mixed bag in what it cultivates. There are many ways where it can be positive, where it can teach respect, politeness, camaraderie, accountability, and how to speak politely to others who you’d like to earn the trust of. However, especially with the socioeconomic shift at the more competitive levels, it also shows its warts. Combining all the negative caricatures of jock culture with the privilege and feelings of power that come with having a “leg up” in society – particularly if you’re raised by someone who isn’t humble about their privileges creates a toxic mix of arrogance, ignorance, and disrespect for others outside your circle of trust. It doesn’t take much for the well-off, hot-shot, never-given-blame kid to think that they rule the world, and the modern hockey community, unfortunately, can link these personalities together and reinforce their beliefs past one’s youth and into their adulthood, especially with the zeroed-in focus of player development and celebrity status of the pros, further sheltering players from learning about how their habits negatively impact others.
Without proper education and leadership in a dressing room, these habits can bleed into teammates who might check some, but not all of the aforementioned boxes, and this often creates the division and “bro” culture we see in cases like this. Hockey itself isn’t more likely to create these sorts of attitudes, but the environment that exists today is more likely to bring people who develop these traits in life together, more likely to turn a blind eye to the problems until it immediately impacts the locker room environment, and less likely to take the greater issues seriously. The exceptions to this rule – the players that understand and the teams that educate – are commendable, but we still have a lot of work to do.
In other words, this is how a lot of people – particularly men – who have played high-level hockey (among other sports in similar situations) in this age bracket interact. You’ve probably seen the “locker room talk” phrasing more times than you care to over the past day – incidents like this are where that stems from. That is in no way to say it’s acceptable – every effort should be made to curb these sorts of personality traits, and to educate and develop all of these people into better forms of themselves, like all of us have had to do at some point. But it’s common, and common enough that Leipsic will likely face retribution in some way from peers who have done the very same things as they have – just not to their teammates or their loved ones. The punishment will come for a violation of trust (which, ironically, Leipsic is also the victim of here through the breach), not for the attitude he’s shown towards other people.
By punishing, ostracizing, or eliminating Leipsic from the picture, you aren’t removing the disease. You’re removing a symptomatic carrier of the disease that all of us have seen in real life, and many of us have seen grow in a toxic circle within locker rooms and off-ice friend circles and the like. We can hold Leipsic to the fire, educate him, or a little bit of both, and that will address his own faults, but it won’t solve the problem. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do those things to the extent that we can without crossing our own lines, but it means that this isn’t as simple as cutting him off and declaring the issue fixed. Nor is it as simple as punishing him – be it through league regulations or a player giving him the business on the ice. These are ways to settle this score, but not one to solve the fundamental problems that lead to a situation like this, a lack of respect for outsiders – particularly that is all too common within the community of our sport. Leipsic and Rodewald shouldn’t be absolved of responsibility for their own actions, which were reprehensible, but to create actual change, they can’t just be the fall guys that we make examples of before forgetting how this behaviour forms within locker rooms throughout our sport. This needs to be a look in the mirror as much as it is an iron fist towards these particular participants.