Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hazing under investigation by RCMP

Does incident constitute sexual assault?

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There's no denying the hazing in a Neepawa hockey dressing room was humiliating and degrading.

But is subjecting rookies as young as 15 to the indignity of stripping and then having a water-bottle carrier tied to their scrotum a sexual assault?

Radio sponsor dumps team

A radio station group that sponsored the Neepawa Natives said Thursday it will no longer support or sell advertising to the MJHL team.

Bill Gade, general manager for CJ Radio, said he was deeply troubled by the hazing allegations.

"We've looked long and hard at our relationship with Neepawa and... it became very apparent (there) wasn't going to be any repair to the fact that the team says they did nothing wrong," said Gade.

"We feel any time you're telling a 15-year-old hazing victim he better apologize for telling anyone, that you have a problem."

CJ Radio has a head office and station in Swan River, a station in Neepawa and Gimli.

"If we saw any hope there of making it better, we'd be happy to continue on, but we don't," said Gade.

"And we can't sit here and say, 'Oh, this is OK.' And if we say nothing, we're saying it's OK. We can't be part of that."

Gade said the decision will "hurt" the radio station.

"Even if they walked in our door tomorrow to buy advertising, we're not willing to sell it to them," he said.

"We've given them conditions, and I think, honestly, with or without us, those conditions need to complied with. It's not just about us. That's how you fix this problem."

For the moment, the RCMP will only say the incident involving the Neepawa Natives junior hockey team that dates back to September is under investigation.

But a University of Manitoba criminal law professor says even if the Mounties lay charges, getting a conviction might be a longshot. "The issue that troubles me -- to be quite honest about this -- is that there's a whole issue of consent here,'' said David Deutscher.

"Because it seems that although there were actions of the other players... that are reprehensible just from a moral perspective, there's a question of whether or not they're criminal, because it seems that the victim in this case was consenting to the participation in it. The only thing that I can say is, at least in my perspective, if it was a criminal offence I think it'd be very difficult to prove."

Team president Dave McIntosh said late Thursday assistant coach Brad Biggers has resigned, and the team is working on trading the player, who spoke out about the hazing, to another team.

Biggers was suspended for five games, one of the stiffest penalties meted out in the hazing scandal. The father of the 15-year-old player who came forward alleged Biggers witnessed the hazing and did not stop it. But in an interview with the CBC, Biggers denied that, saying he was not in the locker-room when the hazing occurred and was being made the scapegoat.

The Manitoba Junior Hockey League investigation found the incident was one designed to "humiliate, demean, degrade and disgrace" the rookies in suspending 16 players, the assistant coach and the head coach/general manager. The team was also fined $5,000.

The incident is garnering international atttention. The Brandon Sun reports associates for CNN's Anderson Cooper have contacted a representative of one of the victims to talk about it.

And phone calls are pouring into the player's home from other towns and provinces.

"People are calling just randomly from out of town. It's great, just great," the father said Thursday night.

"He's making an impact. Little does he know that perhaps the next generation of hockey players might have him to thank that they're not getting touched in the dressing room."

The boy has already missed seven games, but will soon be on another team, McIntosh said.

"While we were being investigated ... we couldn't make any trades during that time. But now that the (fines) were applied to us on Tuesday, now we can move forward and we can get some direction from the league to have the lad moved to wherever they feel fit for him to be," he said.

The turmoil has taken a toll on the player at the centre of the storm.

"He was at that point in time where he was thinking 'Did I do the right thing? Did I wreck my hockey career by doing this?'," the boy's father said.

"We told him right from the get-go 'you're not going to wreck your hockey career ... you're making a statement that what happened is wrong and that it has to be corrected so that it doesn't happen again'."

Sandra Kirby, University of Winnipeg sport scientist and former Olympic rower, said the investigation by the MJHL was "very quick and quick to take action."

"That's encouraging. What is not encouraging is how widespread it is in the team. This was a 15-year-old... so it's clearly the new kid on the block," Kirby said.

Kirby said the incident was an "intentional, degrading, embarrassing, endangering activity," though it was up to the RCMP to determine if it was criminal.

"Sexual hazing is when those activities are designed to either sexualize an athlete or diminish their masculinity or diminish their sexual identity. I mean, this is a 15-year-old kid, right? He's sorting himself out. And he's being targeted in such a sexually harassing or abusing way.''

RCMP spokeswoman Sgt. Line Karpish didn't say when police anticipate making a decision about whether charges will be laid.

"Investigations take time. We will take as long as it takes to complete the investigation," Karpish said.

Meanwhile, Manitoba politicians weighed in on the hazing issue Thursday. Opposition Leader Hugh McFadyen called it "totally unacceptable," while Sport Minister Eric Robinson said the Neepawa incident was "regrettable and unfortunate."

Asked if hazing should be deemed a separate criminal act as it is in many U.S. states, Robinson said: "I think that we'll have to seriously look at that."

He said an investigation into the Neepawa incident is likely "to reveal some things that perhaps all of us as Manitobans will learn from."

-- with files from Larry Kusch, the Canadian Press

gabrielle.giroday@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 28, 2011 A3

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