Sexual Assault Case Shakes Hockey’s Upper Echelon in Canada

CSweden was defeated by Argentina to win the World Junior Hockey Championship in January 2018. This triumph was watched live in an obsessed country that loves hockey.

Five months later members of the renowned hockey team went to a charity dinner in Ontario, where they were accused of sexually assaulting a young lady in a hotel. Canada’s top hockey players are shaken by the allegations and coverup.

A government initiative has been launched forensic audit of Hockey Canada, the sport’s governing body. Many large corporations, including Telus Corp. and Bank of Nova Scotia have withdrawn millions of dollars from sponsorship or funding. And lawmakers are now asking whether anything can be done to clean up the rot inside the nation’s favorite sport.

Hockey Canada officials revealed Wednesday that they had spent C$8.9million ($6.9million) on more than 20 sexual misconduct claims since 1989. Some of that money came from an “equity fund” that was partly funded by registration fees of young players — without the knowledge of the families paying them.

Multiple lawmakers told Scott Smith, Hockey Canada’s Chief Executive Officer, to resign. He testified more than two hours Wednesday. The job has been vacant for four weeks since he was appointed to replace Tom Renney who is a former New York Rangers player.

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“We have lost confidence in Hockey Canada. I think it is time for new leadership,” Peter Julian, a New Democratic Party lawmaker from the Vancouver suburbs, said.

The payments were made to one of the victims in 2018’s incident, which involved eight minor hockey players. She filed suit against Hockey Canada for C$3.55 Million and was awarded an undisclosed settlement. In court papers, she stated that Hockey Canada knew about the allegations and failed to investigate the players.

“Why did you not continue to investigate if you really wanted to change the culture of hockey?” Karen Vecchio, a Conservative member of parliament from Ontario, pressed Smith during Wednesday’s hearing.

Scott Smith, Hockey Canada speaks at a press conference before the match between Russia and Italy at Colisee Pepsi, May 2, 2008, Quebec City (Quebec, Canada).

Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

Not a ‘real investigation’

Earlier testimony from Hockey Canada officials had left lawmakers stunned: Smith said only 12 or 13 of the 19 players were interviewed in the organization’s initial probe. Officials also claimed that they couldn’t determine the identity of those involved and that players were not suspended.

“That’s a sign that this wasn’t a real investigation,” said Ann Pegoraro, Lang Chair in Sport Management at the University of Guelph. “If you don’t make it mandatory to be part of an investigation into a complaint of this nature, then you’re essentially telling them it’s OK.”

This prompted Hockey Canada to cease funding and the federal government launched an audit. After that, there was a corporate backlash.

Scotiabank was first to act, stopping its sponsorships and marketing events. Telus, Restaurant Brands International Inc.’s Tim Hortons chain and Imperial Oil Ltd.’s Esso brand followed. Bauer Hockey, an equipment manufacturer for sports equipment, added to the list. This is despite the fact that it stopped providing financial support at the junior world championships.

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Electronic Arts Inc., maker of a video game series based on the National Hockey League, called the allegations “deplorable” and said that it intends to shift funds to national teams including the Canadian women’s national hockey team.

With business development and partnerships accounting for 43% of Hockey Canada’s budget, corporate sponsors have significant influence on the organization.

“They’re the lever that made Hockey Canada stand up and change,” Pegoraro said. “It’s an indication that we needed corporations to be our moral guide in this, versus individuals inside that entity or inside the sport system. It’s going to take a while for Hockey Canada to build back trust with those sponsors.”

Character screening

Smith is a Hockey Canada veteran who was with the organization since the 1990s. He hopes for contrition as well as a fresh set of policies that will end this controversy. The organization’s new plan includes mandatory sexual assault prevention training, “character screening” for elite players and the threat of lifetime bans for players who refuse to participate in investigations, among other steps.

“My attitude is also focused going forward on delivering on an action plan to ensure that these events never happen again,” Smith testified.

Many people feel that these measures do not go far enough. Marie-Philip Poulin, the only hockey player ever to score in four straight Olympic finals, posted a letter to Smith and other Hockey Canada executives on behalf of the women’s national team.

“There is much more work and action needed to fully address the underlying issues in order to ensure that a new Hockey Canada emerges from this crisis,” the letter said. It’s time, the players added, “to have women sitting at the table.”

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