EEarlier this spring, a woman filed a statement detailing an alleged sexual assault that took place in June 2018 at an event hosted by Hockey Canada, the country’s national sport governing body. She said in her statement that she was forced for hours to perform sexual acts against her will for eight men, including players from that year’s Junior Men’s Under-20 Championship team. In April, she asked a judge to award $3.55 million in damages. Hockey Canada has settled. (The allegations were never proven in court.)
Reassuring everyone that the settlement was not paid for with taxpayers’ money was one of the reasons Hockey Canada executives were in Ottawa this week to testify before a parliamentary committee. And they wanted everyone to be reassured about something else as well: that hockey culture is changing for the better. “Hockey Canada is changing the culture of our sport and making it safer and more inclusive,” Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renney told parliamentarians.
Renney later explained that Hockey Canada quickly contacted police about the allegations and hired a third-party investigator to issue a report – both arguably the right steps. But the investigations did not go far. The woman who made the allegations declined to speak to investigators, Renney said, and was unwilling to identify the players involved.
Has anyone else tried to identify them? Members of the committee have asked for it many times, in different ways. Each time, the answer was the same: Not really. Hockey Canada “strongly encouraged all players to participate” in the third-party survey. Some players did – maybe a dozen – but it’s unclear who. And the law firm leading the investigation was unable to conclude its work, offering Hockey Canada only an interim report. If the woman hadn’t filed her application this spring, it seems we wouldn’t know.
“I don’t understand why Hockey Canada didn’t enforce a rule that every member of this team had to be part of the investigation,” MP Peter Julian said at the meeting. The answer might be that there was no rule to apply. There still isn’t. “It was not acceptable that they told players that taking part in their survey was optional and that they still did not change the requirements for joining a national team – four years later – to require every person who joins… to participate in any survey. MP and committee member Anthony Housefather told the Guardian.
On Wednesday, the government froze federal funding for Hockey Canada (it received $14 million last year), pending disclosure of the advice the organization received in the interim report and its signature at the Office of the Commissioner for the government’s sports integrity agency, an agency that could independently investigate allegations of abuse and issue penalties.
A few times during their appearance before the committee, Hockey Canada officials tried to place this latest alleged assault in a larger social context. There are more than 650,000 registered hockey players in Canada, noted Scott Smith, its chief operating officer. “Unfortunately, we are a microcosm of society. We are a microcosm of this country,” he said. Hockey culture may be shaped by Canadians, but let’s not pretend it doesn’t work the other way around as well. Because behind all those players are hundreds of thousands more – family members, coaches, officials, league administrators, rink supervisors, fans, you get the idea. It’s Canada. This sport also makes us who we are.
For his part, Housefather says he believes Hockey Canada is “in good faith when they say they want to change the culture.” But if he’s on such a “journey,” as Renney put it, then we deserve to know where he is on that journey. I asked Hockey Canada this week, but they didn’t get back to me. So your guess is as good as mine, but it seems pretty circular. After all, this is far from the first time such a thing has happened.
In fact, it feels like we’re back to where we were in September, before the start of the last NHL season, when former Chicago Blackhawks player Kyle Beach identified himself as a victim. of alleged abuse by the team’s former video coach, Brad Aldrich. The Blackhawks did not launch an investigation into the incident for a decade. Last fall, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman alluded to a culture shift underway at that time, suggesting the incident would be handled differently now, “because we wouldn’t tolerate that.” The NHL has launched its own investigation into Hockey Canada’s allegations, in case some of these former young players are now in the league. So we’ll see.
As The Athletic said this week, summarizing previous high-profile abuse allegations, this is “a decades-old hockey story.” Here we are again, reading each chapter. Players being objectified or objectifying someone else. Silence afterwards. A report is written. Cultural change is promised. Then the game continues and more trivial issues take over, debates over rules or salary caps – things that seem, at the time, important to the health of the game.
But meanwhile, youth hockey enrollment is stagnating and a sport, a social institution, is decaying. Maybe for parents, the financial costs of hockey are too high. Or maybe it’s the mental and physical tolls. Take me, for example. Here I wonder how my child will be able to play a sport he loves without being abused by some asshole or letting hockey turn him into one. Wherever Hockey Canada thinks it is on its way, it feels like it’s still at a point where both seem possible.