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Much is expected of Hockey Canada’s board

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A number of years ago, I attended a retirement function for a longtime board member. In resigning from the board, he said that his only qualification for becoming a board member was his “inability to say no.”

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Opinion

A number of years ago, I attended a retirement function for a longtime board member. In resigning from the board, he said that his only qualification for becoming a board member was his “inability to say no.”

The observation highlights an important question: what qualifications should board members have? In the case of Hockey Canada, what qualifications for a role that involves overseeing the operation of a complex organization with operating budget of $62 million and assets of $153 million?

If you look at the qualifications of the members of Hockey Canada’s board of governors, superficially it seems they are eminently qualified, with extensive hockey, administrative and volunteer backgrounds.

And yet this board appears to have monumentally failed in its stated purpose, which is “to lead, develop and promote positive hockey experiences.” Currently, more than 90 per cent of Canadians are angry or unhappy with how Hockey Canada handled recent allegations of sexual assault and the use of its National Equity Fund to settle with sexual-assault complainants.

What went wrong here? Did none of these board members think the real owners of Hockey Canada — the taxpaying public and registration fee-paying parents and players — would be outraged to discover Hockey Canada was routinely settling sexual-abuse allegations with their members’ registration fees?

Hockey Canada has responded to this outrage with a six-point action plan: “Shatter the Code of Silence and Eliminate Toxic Behaviour in and Around Canada’s Game.” But if this action plan is warranted now, why did the Hockey Canada board not think it was needed four, or 19, years ago?

It has to be said that board members now must possess a completely different set of skills compared to even a few years ago. In particular, board members need to have foresight. As Wayne Gretzky once said: “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

They have to be able to anticipate more and react less. It is essential for board members to be able to engage in a deliberate and intense risk-management analysis of the information that flows their way.

And at least some board members need to be contrarians. Contrarians question the status quo, asking challenging “what if?” questions and, in the process, avoid the phenomenon of group-think and facilitate better decision-making.

But unfortunately, all too often non-profit boards are entirely too homogeneous. When push comes to shove, they band together and assume a defensive posture.

More recently, non-profit boards have responded to calls for more transparency and accountability by appointing members of the public to their boards. In reality, however, these members are often friends of friends or political appointees who align themselves with the organization rather than the public interest.

We need to determine how non-profit boards can function more effectively. In this regard, the independent review of Hockey Canada’s governance structure and systems led by former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, the Cromwell review will answer the following questions:

• What did the board members know, and when did they know it, regarding the National Equity Fund and the 2018 sexual assault and subsequent settlement?

• Did the board members ask the right questions and if not, why not?

• Do the board members have a sufficiently diverse set of skills to carry on the important task of Hockey Canada governance?

Ultimately Canadians want answers to some very challenging questions. It is not sufficient for a board, as has traditionally been the case, to be composed of people who have good intentions; people who can’t say no.

I hope the Cromwell review answers our questions and, in the process, helps to create a better future for hockey in Canada.

Mac Horsburgh has been on a number of non-profit boards and as a hockey player was, at one time, scouted by the Detroit Red Wings.

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