Hockey Canada, the National Governing Body in Canada that manages teams in Canada from entry-level all the way to the World Championships and the Olympic Games, has been rocked by allegations of sexual assault by its players.Following alleged group sexual assaults in 2003 and 2018, police have launched investigations into the 2003 and 2018 World Junior teams. In the weeks following this news, major sponsors fled and Parliament launched an investigation and froze federal funding for the organization. Federal funding for Hockey Canada will continue to be frozen until the organization meets several conditions, including a change in culture. Former Supreme Court of Canada Judge Thomas Cromwell has been appointed to review its governance. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the organization needs a “real reckoning” and Hockey Canada has since vowed to “shatter the code of silence” and to “eliminate toxic behavior in and around Canada’s game.”
The crisis began unfolding last April when a 24 year-old woman filed a lawsuit against Hockey Canada alleging she was sexually assaulted by eight members of the World Junior team in the town of London, Ontario. The alleged assault occurred in a hotel room in the summer of 2018 following a Hockey Canada Foundation fundraising event at which underage players were able to consume alcohol. The victim was also intoxicated. In May of this year, it was reported that Hockey Canada had quietly reached a settlement with the woman. Questions were raised as to where the funds came from to settle the lawsuit. It was later revealed that Hockey Canada used its National Equity Fund to settle the lawsuit. This caused national dismay, as membership fees from players across the country were used to create the National Equity Fund. Further investigation determined that Hockey Canada had 1-2 sexual assault allegations per year over the past 6 years, and it has paid out C$8.9 million in 21 settlements since 1989. In response to this disclosure, many youth programs chose not to submit their annual membership fees to Hockey Canada this fall. Thereafter, Hockey Canada suspended the use of player registration fees for such settlements, ultimately dismantling the fund. Canadians were outraged to learn that the slush fund was used as a means of avoiding external scrutiny of the sexual assault cases by an insurance company.
In addition, there is currently an investigation pending against the 2003 World Junior team. According to TSN, there is an allegation of group sexual assault that involves more than a half-dozen members of the 2003 World Junior team. Following this report, some members of the 2003 World Junior team have released statements denying involvement in the alleged sexual assault. Among these players was Carlo Colaiacovo, who said “[a]s a member of that team, it is important that everyone is aware that I had no involvement or knowledge of any incidents whatsoever and I will cooperate fully with any investigations.” In addition, Hockey Canada released a statement, stating, “[y]esterday evening, Hockey Canada learned of an alleged group sexual assault from 2003 involving members of the 2002-2003 National Junior Team . . . We believe the alleged incident from 2003 should be investigated by the authorities, and we urge police to open an investigation into this disturbing situation.”
Amid the scrutiny of Hockey Canada’s handling of sexual assault allegations against members of previous World Junior teams, the Board of Directors appointed Andrea Skinner to the position of Interim Chair of the Board. Skinner succeeds Michael Brind’Amour, who resigned in early August 2022. Ms. Skinner is the first woman to lead the Hockey Canada Board. On August 29, 2022, Skinner released the following statement: “Our Board is focused on facilitating the implementation of programs for girls and boys and men and women across the country. We are committed to improve our game, including through our governance review, the implementation of our Action Plan and other programs. We look forward to informing Canadians about the work and objectives of the Board, and our ongoing efforts to restore the trust of Canadians in hockey and Hockey Canada.”
How will the Board of Directors go about restoring trust in Hockey Canada? There has been so much uproar over how Hockey Canada has handled allegations of sexual assault in the past that it appears unlikely trust could be rebuilt in the near future. In addition, will there be any legal consequences for players who are deemed to have participated in any of the alleged incidents, given how much time has passed? While the names of the players allegedly involved have not yet been disclosed, there is a strong possibly that several are current or former NHL players. How will the NHL handle the negative publicity that would likely result if it is determined some current or former players were involved in the alleged sexual assaults? Will players be punished if it is determined they were involved in the alleged incidents, and what would that punishment be? Could it be getting cut from their current team, or something more severe, such as punishment in the legal system?
One similar situation occurred in the NFL in 2018, involving former Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia. While he was the head coach of the Detroit Lions, a story resurfaced of his commission of an alleged sexual assault in 1996.Patricia was indicted on one count of aggravated sexual assault. He was never tried or convicted and the case was subsequently dismissed. There likely could not be any resurfaced criminal charges because the statute of limitations has since expired. While discipline from the legal system likely will not ever happen, and Patricia was not punished by the NFL, he faced significant public backlash as a result of the story being published. Patricia was not let go from his position as head coach of the Detroit Lions because of this scandal. Could something similar happen to the players involved in the alleged 2003 and 2018 sexual assaults? Or could the punishment be tailored around what was seen with the Chicago Blackhawks as a result of a recent sexual assault scandal involving a former coach and player? The team was fined $2 million, and Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville resigned from their positions of general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks and head coach of the Florida Panthers respectively. If the punishment is mirrored after the punishment given to the Chicago Blackhawks, how would it be tailored for players compared to coaches and front office personal?
These sexual assault allegations have rocked the hockey world and have left many people questioning the culture of the game. Hockey Canada will have to continue answering questions and must provide more transparency to the public. How will Hockey Canada go about changing the culture and eliminating toxic behavior from Canada’s game?