Failed hockey leadership willing to look the other way

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It’s yet another black eye for hockey.

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Opinion

It’s yet another black eye for hockey.

If you still weren’t convinced the great game continues to have a toxic culture swirling around it, allow me direct you to what went down in Ottawa on Monday. A shameful display by the so-called leaders of the sport in this country, summoned before a parliamentary committee to discuss a sexual abuse scandal, provided the latest smoking gun.

The year may be 2022, but it appears the “old boys club” mentality still exists, despite all kinds of claims to the contrary. How else to explain the shocking way Hockey Canada mishandled claims by a young woman that she was repeatedly assaulted by eight junior hockey players following a London, Ont., golf tournament and gala hosted by the organization in June 2018?

THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Jeff McIntosh Hockey Canada president and CEO Scott Smith.

The governing body seemingly couldn’t sweep this under the carpet quick enough, launching a flimsy third-party “investigation” in which they didn’t compel any of the athletes to co-operate. Little wonder that many of them gave the silent treatment, knowing there would be no repercussions.

With the probe having gone nowhere — geez, I wonder what the issue was? — a settlement was quietly reached last month to her $3.55-million lawsuit against Hockey Canada, the Canadian Hockey League and the unidentified players. Surprise, surprise, but no details have been released and a non-disclosure agreement was part of the process. Hear no evil, see no evil, right?

Wrong.

“I find it extremely disturbing and it shows that the culture of silence is well instilled in this sport,” the country’s minister of sports, Pascale St-Onge, told reporters after top officials with Hockey Canada appeared under oath before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage to explain what the heck happened here.

A hearing, it should be noted, only occurring because TSN uncovered details of the case earlier this year, no doubt to the chagrin of everyone involved in this sordid affair.

St-Onge has ordered an audit of Hockey Canada’s finances to determine whether taxpayer money was used to settle the case. The organization claims none was, and that they liquidated assets to pay the now 24-year-old woman out of what they called a “moral obligation” to her.

“While we don’t know exactly what occurred that night, or the identities of those involved, we recognized that the conduct was unacceptable and incompatible with Hockey Canada’s values and expectations, and clearly caused harm,” Hockey Canada outgoing chief executive Tom Renney testified.

Remarkably, Renney was able to mutter all that word salad with a straight face. In other words, we think something terrible happened here. But we’ve done less than the bare minimum to find out what exactly that was, identity who was involved, hold anyone accountable or ensure this terrible thing can never happen again.

Without a trace of irony in his voice, Renney estimated as few as four players who were at the gathering participated in the review conducted by Toronto law firm Henein Hutchison LLP. President Scott Smith, who takes over for Renney next month and no doubt saw gasoline being poured on the fire, later claimed it was closer to a dozen. Regardless of which number is more accurate, both answers were appalling.

“Mr. Smith, if you want real accountability from Hockey Canada, you should have demanded all players participate in the interviews,” Conservative MP Kevin Waugh said Monday. “You own that. That is unacceptable.”

It sure is. The woman’s stepfather initially came forward to Hockey Canada with the allegations the morning after the event which was to celebrate the gold medal won by the 2017-18 World Junior team. Police were contacted, but the criminal investigation was closed when the complainant declined to co-operate.

In her statement of claim filed in April, the woman said she was intoxicated when she was sexually abused in a hotel room by multiple members of that squad. They were identified as John Doe 1 through 8.

Bloc Québécois MP Sebastien Lemire, furious at what he was hearing on Monday, suggested Hockey Canada is “John Doe No. 9 in this case.” He’s not wrong.

Police have indicated they could reopen the investigation if new information comes to light. There is no statute of limitations on sexual assault in Canada. The federal committee will also meet on Wednesday to discuss the matter further, including what the next course of action should be.

The majority of players from that talented junior team are currently in the NHL, which announced on May 26 it was opening its own probe. Let’s hope it’s a little more thorough than the Hockey Canada-commissioned one. For starters, every single player should be forced to reveal what they know. You’d think all of those who had nothing to do with the attack would be eager to clear their name, now that this is out in the open and there’s bound to be a “guilt by association” view taken by many.

I wouldn’t hold my breath on any of that happening. The NHL doesn’t exactly have clean hands when it comes to these things, given its own track record including the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse case which only came to light last year — once again through the dogged reporting of TSN’s Rick Westhead.

It was noted on Monday by Liberal MP Anthony Housefather that failing to get to the truth of this matter may have allowed some of the players to prey on other victims, the same way Chicago video coach Brad Aldrich went on to molest two young hockey players years after Blackhawks management buried its collective head in the sand regarding claims he’d molested a pair of players during their Stanley Cup run.

That’s typically how abusers work. They often won’t stop at one victim, especially if they feel empowered to do as they please and think they can get away with anything. Which, as we’ve now come to see, they truly can.

Makes you wonder how many other skeletons remain hidden in hockey closets, doesn’t it? We got a bit of a sense of that Monday, when Smith revealed that his organization has received “one or two” allegations of misconduct annually over the past five of six years, without providing any further details or context.

More black eyes, just waiting to be discovered. And a sport that all-too-often is willing to look the other way.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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