Hockey Canada’s Hugh Fraser on cleaning up the sport
People & Places

Hockey Canada’s Hugh Fraser on cleaning up the sport

Hugh Fraser is not only a former Olympic sprinter who went on to become a judge and advise on anti-doping strategies, he is also a father who watched his two sons play hockey at high levels. Adrian Harewood talks to the new head of Hockey Canada about what the sport needs now.

Why did your family leave Kingston, Jamaica, for Kingston, Ontario?
In those days, people with post-secondary aspirations went to Canada, U.S., or England. He applied to Canada and was accepted at a couple of schools. And one of them was a school in Kingston, Ontario, called Queen’s. Maybe it was a sign. I spent my first seven years living with my brother and my paternal grandmother in Jamaica and then my brother and I moved up when my father was completing his second degree, which was in law.

What lessons did your parents teach you?
One of the things they always stressed is that they brought us to Canada because of the opportunities that were here, so hard work was an important value. Getting the best education that you could, and not wasting opportunities. It was interesting, because even though we were very much a minority in the community, the message to myself and my siblings was always that there shouldn’t be any opportunity that you should think of as being closed off to you.

You moved to Ottawa when you were 11. What are your memories of this time?
The Rough Riders became a big part of my life. I’d already been introduced to football and my dad had gone to Queen’s with Ronnie Stewart who was, by then, a big Rough Rider legend.

What role did athletics play for you?
I was a high energy kid, so sports became a great outlet for me. I loved playing all different sports.

Photo by Marc Fowler/Metropolis Studio

Did you play hockey?
I wanted to play hockey. A friend across the street, his father did the typical Canadian thing and flooded the backyard in the winter. But we didn’t have any skates. So we bugged our parents and the following Christmas I got a pair. The next quest was to play organized hockey, but that wasn’t in the cards. My folks didn’t even have a car at the time. It just wasn’t something they felt they could manage.

When did you get serious about running?
By twelfth grade I was getting into provincial championships and setting high school records. One day, I came home from an Ottawa track meet and my mother told me that [former Olympic sprinter] Harry Jerome had called me. He had seen me run, and told me I had great potential. “You’re gonna compete for Canada one day,” he said to me. It was the first time I really had any sense that running could take me somewhere.

You went on to compete in the 1976 Olympics. What was that like?
I was happy. I was able to rehabilitate my injured leg, compete in two events, and soak up that entire Olympic experience.

How would you describe yourself as an athlete?
Like everyone else, I enjoyed winning. I was very competitive. But I just never felt that athletic success should be the thing that defined me. Sport is wonderful, but I have a high interest in academics as well. I always wanted to balance the two.

Track has been plagued by doping. Did you know about it at the time?
Yeah, I have to say that I did. There were some events where you could pretty much tell just by walking by an athlete. I knew, but I decided early on that I would never go that route. I wanted to see how far I could go on my own abilities.

You spoke as an expert at the Dubin inquiry, after Ben Johnson lost his gold medal. Why did you join the inquiry?
I was quite surprised when I was invited to join the panel of experts. I realized I would be hearing testimony from former teammates and friends, but I thought it was a great opportunity to help clean up the sport. That was the main motivation. And once we got through that pain there was a lot of gain on the other side of it.

Shortly after that you became a judge. What did you enjoy about this work?
I love the interaction with people. You do it for decades and yet there are no two days that are ever the same. You are never quite sure what’s going to happen in that courtroom.

Did you see anything troubling when your sons were playing competitive hockey?
As the boys got older, that’s when we had the first encounters with the racial comments. One of my boys was called the N-word on the ice. In another case, we were playing at a particular rink and they started making monkey gestures, or saying “Go back to Africa!” That was rare, but it happened. And we’ve heard talk about abhorrent things happening.

How did you tell your boys to respond if ever epithets were being thrown at them?
You don’t want them to get into fights. You advise the coach about those things. If you are ever in a situation where you feel uncomfortable, let me know and we’ll deal with it.

Hockey Canada is facing backlash after it brokered a settlement with the young woman in London, Ontario, following an incident with the members of the Canadian junior men’s team. What did Hockey Canada do wrong?
That was obviously a decision done by a previous board. We don’t actually know the particulars. Without having all of that information I would be in the position of the armchair quarterback trying to assess it.

Is hockey culture broken?
There is an aspect of hockey culture that definitely needs to be fixed. I think  there’s a consensus that all things are not right and change is needed.

Why did you take the position with Hockey Canada?
Sport has been very important to me and my family. I probably could have stayed on the sidelines and had my own criticisms. But I came to the view that if you’re in a position to do something, or to effect change, it’s better to answer the call.