Hockey Canada says it needs to 'do more' to foster a safe culture in the sport

Hockey Canada COO Scott Smith, pictured here in 2019, was a witness before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage's investigation into the organization's handling of a sexual assault investigation and lawsuit. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

Hockey Canada says it must "do more" to build a safer culture in the sport.

What that looks like remains to be seen.

The national organization released a brief statement Thursday following the federal government's move 24 hours earlier to freeze public funding in response to its handling of an alleged sexual assault and out-of-court settlement.

Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge said Wednesday that Hockey Canada would only have its taxpayer money restored once officials produced an incomplete report by a third-party law firm hired to investigate the incident four years ago allegedly involving eight players at a gala function in London, Ont.

St-Onge added Hockey Canada must also become a signatory to the Office of the Integrity Commissioner, a new government agency with the power to independently investigate abuse complaints and levy sanctions.

"Hockey Canada is deeply committed and actively working to foster a culture in our sport where everyone involved feels safe, and of which all Canadians can feel proud," spokeswoman Esther Madziya said in a statement that also acknowledged the minister's funding conditions.

"We recognize that as leaders we need to do more — and we are committed to doing just that. In the days and months ahead Canadians can expect to hear more about our work in this area."

Hockey Canada president Scott Smith and outgoing CEO Tom Renney were grilled by legislators on Parliament Hill earlier this week during a Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage meeting that looked into the organization's handling of the 2018 incident.

"We were all expecting answers to all the questions, the many questions, that we have regarding how they handled the whole situation when they testified," St-Onge told reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday. "Unfortunately, we did not receive many answers."

Hockey Canada quietly settled the lawsuit last month after a woman claimed she was assaulted by members of the country's 2018 gold-medal winning world junior hockey team at a gala and golf function.

The woman, now 24, was seeking $3.55 million in damages from Hockey Canada, the Canadian Hockey League and the unnamed players.

Details of the settlement have not been made public, but Smith said Monday that Hockey Canada came up with the funds, adding no government money was used. St-Onge has ordered an audit to make sure that's indeed the case.

None of the allegations made against the unnamed players have been proven in court.

St-Onge has said she only learned of the situation in a phone call with Renney days before the story broke last month. Hockey Canada said it informed Sport Canada of the situation in June 2018.

Following the government's announcement on funding Wednesday, the House of Commons unanimously approved a Bloc Quebecois motion to pursue an independent investigation that will look into how Hockey Canada dealt with the allegations.

Federal money makes up six per cent of Hockey Canada's coffers, according to the organization's numbers, trailing business development and partnerships (43 per cent), funding agencies (14 per cent), insurance premiums (13 per cent) and interest revenue (10 per cent).

Hockey Canada hired Toronto law firm Henein Hutchison LLP to conduct its investigation, but Smith and Renney told MPs that while players present at the event in London were "strongly encouraged" to participate, it was not mandated.

Renney initially testified between four and six of the 19 players in question spoke with investigators before Smith indicated later the number was 12 or 13.

"Their mechanism (to investigate) is not well-functioning," St-Onge said.

Hockey Canada has said repeatedly the woman declined to speak with police or its investigators. Smith and Renney reiterated Monday the woman also chose not to identify the players.

The executives added Hockey Canada still does not know the identities of the eight players in question.

Smith said London police informed Hockey Canada its criminal investigation was closed as of February 2019. The independent investigation ended in September 2020, but Renney testified the report is incomplete and shouldn't be released despite the fact in contained recommendations.

The NHL, which has said it also only recently learned of the allegations, is conducting an investigation of its own because some of the players in question are now in the league.

Smith testified Hockey Canada has reported three sexual assault complaints in recent years, including the London incident, but wouldn't discuss the other two in front of the committee.

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