Hockey Canada reopening investigation into alleged 2018 sexual assault

The Hockey Canada logo is shown on a jersey. (Jason Franson/CP)

Editor’s Note: The following story deals with sexual assault, and may be distressing for some readers.

If you or someone you know is in need of support, those in Canada can find province-specific centres, crisis lines and services here. For readers in America, a list of resources and references for survivors and their loved ones can be found here.

Hockey Canada is reopening its investigation into 2018 sexual assault allegations involving members of the 2017-18 Canadian world junior team, the organization announced Thursday.

The organization will require all players on that roster to participate in the investigation, which will continue to be led by an independent third-party. Players who do not cooperate will be banned from all Hockey Canada activities and programs.

“We have heard from Canadians, players, their families, fans, sponsors and those impacted by what occurred in 2018. We know you are angry and disappointed in Hockey Canada – rightfully so,” read the statement, titled An Open Letter to Canadians, released early Thursday. “We know we have not done enough to address the actions of some members of the 2018 National Junior Team, or to end the culture of toxic behaviour within our game.

“For that we unreservedly apologize.”

Once complete, the investigation will be seen by an independent adjudicative panel of current and former judges to determine appropriate consequences, which “may include a lifetime ban from Hockey Canada activity, on and off the ice.”

In April, a woman filed a lawsuit against Hockey Canada, the Canadian Hockey League, and eight unnamed CHL players stating she was sexually assaulted in a London, Ont. hotel room following a Hockey Canada gala event in June 2018. The woman wishes to remain anonymous and did not name the alleged perpetrators, who are referred to as John Does 1-8 in the official statement of claim. The lawsuit was settled in May. The case has not been heard in a court of law.

The attorney of the woman who filed the lawsuit told Sportsnet via email on Thursday his client will participate in Hockey Canada’s reopened investigation.

Hockey Canada said in Thursday’s statement they “acknowledge the courage of the young woman involved and respect her decision to participate with the investigation in the manner she chooses.”

In Thursday’s letter, Hockey Canada also laid out several immediate changes it is making in the wake of the allegations being made public in May. In addition to reopening the investigation and requiring full participation from all players, Hockey Canada has also pledged to require all players, coaches, staff members and volunteers involved in high-performance programs to take part in mandatory sexual violence and consent training, and will conduct a “full governance review” of the organization by a third-party expert to “ensure our governance is geared to the requirements of a national organization of our scope and influence.”

Hockey Canada is also signing on with the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), a new and specialized organization that will oversee all complaints, concerns and allegations within Hockey Canada’s authority. It is also creating a confidential and independent channel for individuals to step forward with complaints, including “those historical in nature.” This channel will direct all complaints at the national programming level to OSIC.

Hockey Canada’s handling of the allegations, as well as its finances, have been under scrutiny since May’s settlement was made public, with the federal government conducting hearings and corporations freezing sponsorships for the upcoming world junior tournament.

In a statement released shortly news of the lawsuit came to light, Hockey Canada said it reported the allegations to police and hired a third-party firm, Henein Hutchison LLP, to conduct an investigation.

Former Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renney, who stepped down effective July 1 (a decision unrelated to the allegations, per Sportsnet sources), and president and COO Scott Smith told the federal Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage during an inquiry on June 20 that they did not know who the John Does were, and their third-party investigation was incomplete. They said players were “strongly encouraged” to participate in the third-party investigation, but that it was not mandatory, with just “12 or 13” players participating before the investigation was closed in September 2020.

Canada’s minister of sport, Pascale St-Onge, unsatisfied with the actions taken by Hockey Canada, announced shortly after the testimony that federal funding directed at the organization — about $7.8 million annually, accounting for six per cent of Hockey Canada’s budget — will be frozen until it signs on with OSIC as well as disclose the recommendations of improvement made by Heinen Hutchison and provide details of their plan to implement change.

St-Onge told reporters in Montreal on Thursday she sees Hockey Canada’s announcement as a “step in the right direction,” but said she will “wait for actions before we do anything else regarding Hockey Canada.”

Last month, a number of corporate sponsors, led by Scotiabank and including TELUS, Canadian Tire, Tim Hortons, Imperial Oil (Esso) and others, also paused sponsorship executions slated to run during the upcoming world juniors in August, demanding change from the organization.

When reached for comment Thursday, Scotiabank provided the following statement, calling the announcement “a positive next step in a longer journey”:

“Hockey Canada’s statement today is a positive next step in a longer journey towards truly making Canada’s game hockey for all. We recognize and appreciate that Hockey Canada is taking action to hold themselves and the game to a higher standard – a standard Canada, Canadians, and the sport demand and deserve. We look forward to seeing the outcomes of these commitments.”

It isn’t expected that this latest announcement by Hockey Canada will delay the next set of hearings into the investigation by the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, which are scheduled for July 26-27 in Ottawa. Hockey Canada, its law firm and others have been subpoenaed to appear. The minister of sport has been invited to appear.

Anthony Housefather, Liberal MP for Mount Royal on the island of Montreal who is on the committee investigating Hockey Canada, on Thursday said reopening the investigation is “a very good step.”

“I am pleased that the investigation is being reopened and all players are required to participate with very strong sanctions against anyone who does not,” Housefather said in an email to Sportsnet. “The results going to an independent panel also sounds good, although we do not know the names of the participants on the panel.

“I also appreciate the announcement of the mandatory sexual violence and consent training, the governance review, the complaint mechanism that will be created and the promise to become a signatory to the OSIC. I was also pleased they acknowledged that they have not done enough about the investigation and unreservedly apologized.”

Peter Julian, an NDP MP from New Westminster-Burnaby who is also on the House of Commons committee, on Thursday called the apology “long overdue,” especially considering what he called “irresponsible” testimony by Hockey Canada executives at the Parliamentary hearings in June that was “not transparent.”

He added making participation obligatory by the players and other officials in an investigation is the only way to create a culture free of sexual violence. To that end, Julian took issue with the lack of information in Hockey Canada’s letter about how it was pursuing two other cases of sexual assault mentioned during the June hearings that were also being investigated.

Hockey Canada said Thursday that a more detailed action plan is on its way.

“What happened in London, Ontario in 2018 was completely unacceptable,” Hockey Canada’s statement continued, “and we once again apologize to Canadians, the young woman, and all those who have been impacted.”

When contacted by Sportsnet, the NHL, which is also conducting an investigation into the matter, declined comment on Thursday other than to say, “the NHL intends to continue pursuing and conducting our investigation.”

–with files from Sportsnet’s Paul D. Grant

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