The Niagara IceDogs finished the 2022-23 season in last place in the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Eastern Division with a record of 12-47-8-1. Now, the IceDogs are going into the summer once again facing significant sanctions from the OHL for violations of the league’s policies and Code of Conduct. There was optimism prior to the 2022-23 season with a new ownership group coming in. Darren DeDobbelaer, along with minority stakeholder Wayne Gretzky, purchased the franchise in July of 2022 from Bill and Denise Burke. The Burkes’ decision to sell the team came after their two sons, Billy Burke, who had served as Head Coach, and Joey Burke, who had served as General Manager, were suspended from the OHL after an investigation found the Burkes used inappropriate and profane language to describe a female IceDogs colleague in a WhatsApp conversation. The OHL fined the team $150K after finding the messages violated the league’s Harassment & Abuse/Diversity Policy. Additionally, the league found the messages ran “counter to the OHL’s Onside program which emphasizes the importance of demonstrating respect for women through actions and words.” Billy and Joey Burke are free to apply for reinstatement to the OHL no sooner than June 1, 2024.
Now, Darren DeDobbelaer, who is the majority owner of the IceDogs and acted as governor and General Manager for the 2022-23 season, is suspended from acting as General Manager for two years and the team has been fined $100K in addition to forfeiting their first selection in the 2024 OHL Priority Selection draft. The OHL announced the sanctions May 4, 2023. The latest issues stem from an OHL investigation into violations of the League’s Maltreatment, Bullying and Harassment Protection and Prevention Policy and the Code of Conduct. The OHL received allegations that certain players were involved in conduct that violated the Player Maltreatment Policy. The OHL used a third party to investigate. Approximately fifteen former players, coaches, staff, and team officials were interviewed. The investigation found two players, defenseman Landon Cato, who was named Captain for the 2022-23 season, and goaltender Joshua Rosenzweig, “participated in serious violations of the Player Maltreatment Policy and have violated the OHL Code of Conduct including but not limited to Physical Maltreatment and Aiding and Abetting respectively.” There is no confirmation of what went on, but given the history of the league and pending law suits, it seems the players engaged in some sort of hazing or harassment. Both players are permanently banned from participating in the OHL.
DeDobbelaer’s suspension and the team fine appear to stem, at least in part, from violating the league’s directive to keep the investigation confidential and to not discuss the subject matter with players or staff in order to maintain the integrity of the investigation. It is unclear if the investigation found that DeDobbelaer or any other current staff member either participated in or knowingly allowed inappropriate conduct to occur. DeDobbelaer described Cato, who was named captain ahead of the 2022-23 season, as a “class act” and the clear choice for captain based on how “he conducts himself on and off the ice.”
The OHL appears to be taking player well being seriously, and hopefully the serious sanctions against the IceDogs will make team personnel more likely to take their leadership roles seriously as well. The actions of players usually do not exist in a vacuum, and it is difficult to believe no one involved with the IceDogs management knew what was going on. The Mayor of St. Catharines, Mat Siscoe, has reached out to the league for more information on the violations and wants answers from the IceDogs about how a culture of potential abuse could have existed. Siscoe, in a joint statement with Chief Administrative Officer David Oakes, said the investigation showed that “leadership of the organization and certain players have violated the trust of our community and immediate action must be taken.” There is a sense of betrayal in St. Catherines. This year was supposed to be different. The OHL is changing, but an ingrained culture, especially of hazing, does not change overnight.
Organizations need to start taking Code of Conduct violations seriously – because it is the right thing to do and to avoid potential liability.