Hockey Canada Unravelled Before Our Eyes

Warning: The following story deals with sexual assault, and may be distressing for some readers.

If you’ve missed the headlines since the story truly broke in May 2022, Hockey Canada has become the centrepiece to a number of allegations. Some allege that the board members spent funds in an unruly fashion — buying championship rings for board members, paying for board dinners, and many other allegations — while other allegations date back as far as 2003 and have to do with alleged sexual assault that included members of multiple Hockey Canada teams, including those playing for World Junior teams.

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While a number of these stories were discussed or made news at the time they occurred, the majority of these allegations have surfaced or re-surfaced in a big way following a TSN report on May 26, 2022, that detailed the alleged assault and settlement following a Hockey Canada gala in London, Ontario, back in June 2018.

2018 Assault Allegation Uprooting Hockey Canada

It isn’t the first time that members of Hockey Canada teams have come under scrutiny for alleged acts while playing at tournaments. But it may be the one single occurrence that uprooted the long-standing existence of Hockey Canada, and rightfully so.

Hockey Canada
Hockey Canada logo (Chris Creamer’s SportsLogos.Net)

To give a brief look at it, on June 19, 2018, a young woman’s stepfather reported to Hockey Canada that his stepdaughter had allegedly been sexually assaulted by eight players, including members of the world junior team that had won gold in Buffalo in January of the same year.

The incident had taken place in London, following a Hockey Canada Foundation Gala & Golf event in which players of said team had attended. The assault was said to have taken place following the gala at a nearby hotel in which members of the team were involved.

Hockey Canada says that London police were informed of the allegation, at which time the local authorities opened an investigation with Hockey Canada opening a third-party investigation using a Toront-based law firm.

In June 2018, Hockey Canada informed Sport Canada of the alleged incident followed by London police closing the criminal investigation in Feb. 2019, according to Hockey Canada, saying that the woman declined to speak to authorities or investigators from the Toronto firm.

In September of 2020, Hockey Canada closed its investigation. But in April 2022 the woman filed a statement of claim seeking just over $3.5 million in damages with Hockey Canada, the Canadian Hockey League and eight unnamed players named in the claim.

It was then, in May 2022, that Hockey Canada settled the lawsuit with the alleged victim for an undisclosed amount and it was then that Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renney called Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge to let her know of the imminent breaking story that would be coming from TSN — a long-time supporter of Hockey Canada.

That’s when the allegations and the true investigation opened against Hockey Canada. St-Onge ordered a forensic audit of Hockey Canada to ensure no public funds were used as part of the settlement. The NHL stated that they would cooperate with the investigation into some of their current players and on June 20, 2022, Renney and Hockey Canada president Scott Smith were brought in front of a Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage meeting and Canadian MPs where they demanded answers.

Victor Mete Ottawa Senators
Victor Mete, Ottawa Senators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

A number of players from the 2018 world junior team have since spoken out about the allegations and their lack of involvement, including Victor Mete who was the first to speak out on June 30, 2022. He stated that he was on a family vacation at the time of the alleged incident, but that he was “deeply troubled by reports of this incident” and that he would fully cooperate.

Hockey Canada’s Slush Funds Revealed

That was followed up by Renney retiring as CEO of Hockey Canada and Smith taking over on July 1, 2022 — also remaining as the organization’s president as well.

Beyond that, news broke in the middle of July about the organization’s “National Equity Fund” that came from hockey membership fees across the nation that were used to pay for uninsured liabilities, including sexual assault claims. Hockey Canada confirmed the existence of this fund on July 19, adding that it covers “a broad range of expenses related to safety, wellness and equity initiatives,” and that “the fund is also used to pay for the organization’s insurance premiums and to cover any claims not otherwise covered by insurance policies, including those related to physical injury, harassment, and sexual misconduct.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came down hard on Hockey Canada regarding the “National Equity Fund” stating that it was hard for anyone to have faith in Hockey Canada right now and that was quickly followed up by other players from the 2018 team speaking out about their lack of involvement — including Robert Thomas, Cale Makar, among others.

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On July 27, Hockey Canada’s chief financial officer Brian Cairo said the organization used the “National Equity Fund” to pay out $7.6 million in nine settlements related to sexual assault and sexual abuse claims since 1989. About $6.8 million of that was related to serial abuser Graham James.

Smith is interviewed by MPs again that same day and while he was asked to resign, Smith refused to step down and instead continued in his position atop Hockey Canada. While provincial hockey federations began to speak up and sponsors began pulling their funds from Hockey Canada, Smith continued to lead Hockey Canada while board chair Michael Brind’Amour resigned to accelerate change within the organization in August.

Shortly after, Andrea Skinner was named as interim chair of Hockey Canada on Aug. 9, 2022, and near the end of the month she released a statement on behalf of Hockey Canada stating that the board of directions fully support Smith as his executive team.

But the allegations haven’t stopped. News broke early in October 2022, that the organization actually had a second ‘slush’ fund called the Participants Legacy Trust Fund — created in 1999 by transferring money from the National Equity Fund and partially funded by player registration fees.

This particular trust was set up to also cover uninsured claims against Hockey Canada members that occurred between 1986 to 1995, according to Sportsnet, prior to Hockey Canada purchasing insurance for sexual assault claims and other liabilities.

While a spokesperson for Hockey Canada, Jeremy Knight, said that the fund had not been used and wasn’t strictly for paying out sexual assault claims, Hockey Canada went to court in late 2018 and early 2019 to extend the use of the trust until 2039, according to the Globe and Mail. This was after the fund was set up to be dissolved in May 2020. Knight was quoted as telling the Globe that the fun was not extended with knowledge of any incident in particular.

The existence of these funds, once again, let St-Onge and NDP MP and committee member Peter Julian to reiterated their request for a full financial audit into Hockey Canada, something that still hasn’t fully come to light.

Assault, Financial Allegations Sinking Hockey Canada

On top of the 2018 sexual assault allegations, Hockey Canada is facing another fairly public incident stemming from the World Junior Championship tournament in 2003 that took place in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Once again, the allegations stem from what is said to be a group sexual assault that involved multiple players from Team Canada’s world junior team that took home the silver medal. As is the case with the 2018 incident, Hockey Canada has been allowed to hire their own third-party investigators to look into the allegations stemming from the Halifax tournament as well. A source of criticism for many who believe that Hockey Canada shouldn’t have that option to have any sort of control over such investigations involving members of the organization.

When it first re-surfaced thanks to TSN’s Rick Westhead, it was reported that three sources had viewed a video that allegedly contained “roughly a half-dozen players taking turns having sex with a woman who was non-responsive.”

Canada vs USA hockey
Team Canada Championship Banners (Dave O: Wikipedia Commons)

During that time, the source also revealed that they could identify at least two players that were involved — the one holding the camera and one standing outside the room. As was the case with the 2018 incident, players who were a part of that team began issuing statements and asking for a full investigation that remains ongoing.

On top of the sexual assault allegations that continue to come to light, Julian shared his thoughts on Hockey Canada’s lack of transparency over the past six years when it came to the body’s finances. He called for a full audit in a letter sent to St-Onge in early September 2022, based on “Hockey Canada’s lack of accountability and transparency in managing their expenses.”

Hockey Canada’s Resistance to Transparency

In the same letter, in which Julian is pressing St-Onge to review the governing body’s finances, Julian addresses Hockey Canada’s lack of transparency as they used funds for self-serving luxuries such as high-cost hotels, dinners and jewelry — including championship rings for board members.

Julian continues by referring to board dinners that can “cost more than $5,000, presidential suites for board members that cost over $3,000 per night and gold and diamond rings for board members that cost over $3,000 each.”

The letter continued by putting St-Onge on the spot explaining that as the Minister of Sport in Canada she oversees Sports Canada and Hockey Canada and that it’s her responsibility to make sure that government funds and parents’ registration fees are used in a transparent fashion and that there is accountability for those spending the money.

Knight, the spokesperson for Hockey Canada, also confirm allegations that Hockey Canada owned a luxury two-bedroom condo in Maple Leaf Square in downtown Toronto reserved for the use of board members and staff, stating “We can confirm that the unit was purchased in 2010 to alleviate costs associated with staff and directors travelling to Toronto and was subsequently sold in 2017.”

But even now, after all of these allegations have come to light, there are still issues with Hockey Canada and wanting to be transparent. When asked if they would consider dropping non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) from former complainants or victims, Hockey Canada suggested that every situation is unique and that they would consider it on a case-to-case basis.

While Hockey Canada continues to hide behind their NDAs and beat around the bush when it comes to their financials, some have gone as far as suggesting that based on this case alone NDAs should be considered a thing of the past — and rightfully so, as it’s a clear cut reason as to why there has been no accountability with Hockey Canada for several years. Or at least it’s one of the many reasons behind the lack of accountability.

Even as the women’s team pulled off the gold medal win at the Women’s World Championship, former Hockey Canada president and CEO, Smith, stood on the carpet and gleefully handed out the medals to Team Canada’s players — a subtle kick to the guts of all those victimized by the governing body of Hockey Canada.

With that move, it was clear that Hockey Canada’s board members were going to double down and dig their heels in to hold their place atop the organization. It would take bigger changes — like the loss of funds — for change to really start.

Hockey Canada Sponsorships Pulling Out After Abuse Allegations

It didn’t take long once news broke that there was not going to be any changes to the board of Hockey Canada for sponsorships to start dropping off. Tim Hortons, Scotiabank and Canadian Tire were amongst the most notable, with others like TELUS, Imperial Oil and Nike very quickly joining the list.

Maybe one of the more noteworthy sponsors pulling their funding was Canadian Tire, who didn’t just suspend their sponsorship of Hockey Canada for the 2022-23 season or until change happens. Instead, they decided to remove themselves from their agreement for good.

“After careful consideration, Canadian Tire Corporation has made the decision to end its partnership with Hockey Canada,” said Jane Shaw, the senior vice-president of communications for Canadian Tire, in a statement. “In our view, Hockey Canada continues to resist meaningful change and we can no longer confidently move forward together.”

Their statement continues by announcing that they would support The Respect Group — an organization focused on preventing bullying, abuse and discrimination — founded by Sheldon Kennedy, noting that they want to support safe and inclusive hockey in Canada.

While the list dwindles on what sponsorships are left supporting Hockey Canada, other funding that the organization has received over the years are also pulling their support.

Provincial Branches Pulling Support for Hockey Canada

On top of the sponsorship deals, Hockey Canada has received funding from government grants as well as provincial branches of hockey thanks to the registration fees of participants — something we discussed when talking about their side funds used to pay off complainants.

Hockey Québec led the way by announcing on Oct. 5, 2022, that they would be pulling funding from their provincial branch of Hockey Canada from participants registration fees. Hockey Ontario followed up shortly after by asking Hockey Canada to not collect $3 from each of their participants as well.

After reaching out to the 12 member associations following the primary announcements, it was reported that Nova Scotia would also be joining in not paying out those fees to Hockey Canada, while Hockey British Columbia and Hockey Saskatchewan said they would continue to monitor the situation.

Change of Faces Only Just the Beginning for Hockey Canada

All that considered, formal change began to take place amongst the board on Oct. 8, 2022, when interim chair Skinner resigned her position after just roughly two months on the job. Her statement included an air of self-pity saying, “Upon reflection, it is clear to me from recent events that it no longer makes sense for me to continue to volunteer my time as Interim Chair or as a Director of the organization.”

This came just days after she appeared at the heritage committee hearings calling the toxic culture a widespread issue and that Hockey Canada was just being used as a “scapegoat.”

She continued to express her support of Smith and the Hockey Canada board members and even suggested that Hockey Canada was a victim in a larger scale social issue.

That said, on Oct. 11, Westhead reported that Smith had left Hockey Canada and the remaining members of the board had agreed to step down with the writing on the wall that there would soon be no support for those who had been with the organization during all of these settlements.

Still, with news of the board change, the future of Hockey Canada remains up in the air. Sponsors still remain unconvinced with funding still not there for the organization, while some provincial branches will still hold back their funding at this point in time.

So, the question now is, what comes next for Hockey Canada?

New Direction, Transparency Key to New Hockey Canada

One thing is for sure. Hockey Canada will need to find new direction with whoever steps into the vacant roles left at the table. Like the game, the board will need to be inclusive and look to include people that foresee change in how issues are handled.

Sure, these types of settlements and issues are a widespread issue, but the board needs to focus on changing things from a grassroots perspective. Part of that is transparency at a provincial level and at a national level with Hockey Canada overseeing it all. Change won’t come unless the right people are in place — with open minds and understanding, with discipline and accountability.

Ripping apart the board is only just the beginning. Funding could return and Hockey Canada could still become the governing body of the game in this country, but it will take time to earn back the respect and trust of the people.

Still, there is a lot of accountability still to be taken by those involved in the allegations that opened the flood gates. That will come. For now, Hockey Canada will search for a new direction, with new faces and likely a short leash. Along with that, the writing will need to be on the wall for the new faces of Hockey Canada. Truth. Reckoning. Accountability. That’s the only way for hockey and Hockey Canada to co-exist from this point forward.

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