Where the sponsorship rubber hits the road

Among the trademarked slogans employed by the national retailer Canadian Tire over the years is this one: “The right choice has never been so clear.”

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Opinion

Among the trademarked slogans employed by the national retailer Canadian Tire over the years is this one: “The right choice has never been so clear.”

It might not be the chain’s currently favoured marketing mantra, but the sentiment seems to have been employed by the corporate executives who decided this week to permanently end Canadian Tire’s business relationship with Hockey Canada over the governing body’s continued reluctance to replace senior leadership in the wake of a still-unfolding scandal related to the handling of sexual-misconduct complaints.

In a statement provided to TSN investigative reporter Rick Westhead, the company said, “In our view, Hockey Canada continues to resist meaningful change and we can no longer confidently move forward together.”

Interim Hockey Canada board chair Andrea Skinner gave Hockey Canada CEO Scott Smith an “A” grade for his performance under difficult circumstances. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press)

The move by Canadian Tire, which was described as one of Hockey Canada’s “international level” corporate partners, goes a significant step further than the decisions of other sponsors such as Tim Hortons, Scotiabank, Telus Corp., Esso, Sobeys and Skip the Dishes to pause their support of Hockey Canada’s men’s program, including the World Junior Hockey Championships.

At the centre of the issue are revelations in recent months that the governing body drew upon a “National Equity Fund,” maintained by fees collected from minor-hockey players and families across the country, to cover an out-of-court settlement with a woman who alleges she was sexually assaulted by members of the national men’s junior team after an event in London, Ont., in 2018.

The ensuing uproar prompted Hockey Canada to declare the fund would no longer be used for such purposes, but the group’s senior leadership steadfastly remained in place despite widespread demands for a wholesale housecleaning of its board and executives.

Hockey Canada CEO Scott Smith insisted during testimony in August before a parliamentary committee that he’s “the right person” to lead the organization through necessary change. And earlier this week, Hockey Canada interim board chair Andrea Skinner doubled down on that sentiment by stating she believes Mr. Smith deserves an “A” grade for his performance under “extraordinary and difficult” circumstances.

Testifying remotely before a House of Commons committee on Tuesday, Ms. Skinner also offered the preposterous suggestion that the removal of Hockey Canada’s senior leadership might endanger the very existence of hockey at the grass-roots level.

“I think that would be very impactful in a negative way to all of our boys and girls who are playing hockey,” she said. “Will the lights stay on at the rink? I don’t know. We can’t predict that. To me, it’s not a risk worth taking.”

Hockey Canada drew upon a National Equity Fund maintained by fees collected from minor-hockey players and families to cover an out-of-court settlement with a woman who alleges she was sexually assaulted by members of the national men’s junior team in 2018 . (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press)

Such an assertion is, of course, pure nonsense. Hockey in Canada exists from the ground up, beginning in playground rinks and local arenas and growing up, like its millions of participants, toward more elite levels of competition. The presence or absence of a particular group of people in a high-level governance structure is an administrative detail, not a factor upon which the national pastime’s very existence relies.

While it’s increasingly clear the people in charge of hockey’s national governing body will not be swayed by pressure from politicians, lobby groups, provincial hockey federations or the public, it’s entirely more likely the financial impacts of frozen government funding and the disappearance, in seemingly greater numbers, of untold millions of sponsorship dollars from some of Canada’s most recognizable companies will force Hockey Canada’s current leadership to reconsider its perceived indispensability.

Perhaps it’s time for the organization’s executives to look in the mirror and seriously consider the notion of corporate-leadership change, while repeating another of Canadian Tire’s past slogans: “It’s for people like you.”

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