Jets' leaders strike empathetic tone, but actions are needed to forge real change

Kevin Cheveldayoff and owner Mark Chipman take questions from the media about the NHL not handing out any punishment to the Winnipeg Jets GM.

Editor's note: For those that are survivors, reading stories about sexual assault can evoke a wide range of emotions. 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 the United States, a list of resources and references can be found here.

WINNIPEG -- The tone of this gathering was apologetic and sympathetic.

It featured a glimpse of the road map on this important search for solutions, while also recognizing why they are necessary.

It was about being resolute in your desire to create a better hockey culture, while also realizing you don’t have all the answers but are not afraid to lean on some valuable resources -- like Sheldon Kennedy, the former professional hockey player and sexual abuse survivor who is now an advocate for programs to prevent abuse and violence -- in that essential effort to empower the bystander.

Ultimately, this was an attempt to demonstrate the type of leadership that is required to try and help the game move forward after a horrifying event that should never have transpired.

In the wake of the Kyle Beach interview, and the antiseptic prepared statements from the Winnipeg Jets and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman that followed, it was incumbent upon team general manager Kevin Cheveladyoff and governor/co-owner Mark Chipman to bring the human element.

A full dose of authenticity was required and it was very much on full display.

As they met with the media for the first time since Bettman decided no punishment was required for the GM, Cheveladyoff saying he was sorry was an important first step -- especially since he is the only one still working in the NHL of the seven people who were in a meeting of Chicago Blackhawks staff on May 23 of 2010, when there was at minimum an internal discussion over allegations made by a player, now known to be Beach, that a video coach, Brad Aldrich, had engaged in sexual misconduct and harassment toward him.

Cheveladyoff has the ability to be part of impactful change and he sought to make clear he understands the responsibility that comes with it -- and also feels fortunate to have that opportunity that six of his former colleagues don’t.

“I want to begin by stating how sorry I am that this happened to Kyle and that he's suffered as horribly as he did. What Kyle went through is unacceptable and intolerable,” Cheveldayoff said in his prepared statement before taking questions. “No one should ever have to go through what he went through. Kyle was failed by a system that should have helped him but did not. I am sorry that my own assumptions about that system were clearly not good enough.”

Cheveldayoff said he would welcome the opportunity to speak directly with Beach about how to make the hockey world a better place.

“I would reiterate that I'm sorry that he had to go through what he has done. I would applaud and tell him how courageous he was to have taken the John Doe name away and made this humanized,” said Cheveldayoff. “And I think that he doesn't know the depth and breadth of discussions that have happened because of that, even in my own life. And I would say that I would want to talk to him about how we can make things safer, and how we can maybe work together in doing so.”

Cheveldayoff said his knowledge of the situation surrounding the allegations levied against Aldrich was limited and, given what he eventually learned over time, he wished that he hadn’t simply assumed that the matter was being handled by his superiors.

In those weeks between what he first heard in the meeting, however limited, and when the Stanley Cup was handed out, there are many people who believe that Cheveldayoff had the opportunity to follow up with questions to his bosses relating to how the matter was being handled.

There are also those who believe Cheveldayoff could have done more. That his inaction -- or lack of taking action -- makes him guilty of not doing enough.

Cheveldayoff was asked multiple times about how he might act now if placed in a similar situation in his current role.

“Well again, if I had known, if there was an understanding there was a sexual assault, I believe it would have been handled much differently, and certainly the Kevin Cheveldayoff that’s here today definitely would have handled it differently,” said Cheveldayoff. “If we find out there’s been an assault, if we find out there’s harassment, we’re going to ensure we put policies and procedures that are in place.

“First and foremost, we are going to do our best (so) that there’s never a situation like that and that’s why we’re going to educate and talk and try to incorporate learning into something like this. But I would like to think that because of that learning, people would feel free to come forward if, in fact, they did have that.”

Chipman was asked if he was concerned that standing by Cheveldayoff could have a negative impact on the value of his franchise.

“I'm mindful of how important reputation is and how important brand strength is. It's been my life's work building this organization,” Chipman said, speaking without the inflections of a cold, calculating businessman who only cares about the bottom line. “If I thought that for one second Kevin had ever been untruthful, had ever done anything that I found objectionable... what I'm trying to say here is, I would never sacrifice anybody who I'm fortunate enough to work with for the sake of what people may hold as an appearance and I'm hopeful that going forward people will understand in greater detail now this entire set of circumstances.

“But if you're asking me my concern about the reputation of our organization, I was more concerned about the well-being of Kevin and his family.”

That’s why it was so important for Chipman to accompany Cheveldayoff to New York for his meeting with Bettman and to stand beside him for the press conference on Tuesday.

Chipman went on to speak passionately about how much he cares for his employees, including one who is a survivor of sexual assault.

“You can’t do anything if people don’t trust one another,” said Chipman. “I’m really proud of the culture that we’ve built here over the past 25 years. Extremely proud. I’m extremely proud that there’s a survivor that works for us and has for a long, long time. So I don’t feel the need to go player by player, coach by coach, trainer by trainer and ask them -- because I honestly believe in my heart that they would tell me.

“I’m not separated from anybody in our organization through layers of hierarchy. This is what I do for a living and I care very, very deeply about our players. But I also care very, very deeply about the other 260 people that work for us. I’d like to believe that they know how much I care about them and that we have built a culture on trust.”

Chipman took a deep breath before answering a question about how, in the early years of the 2.0 version of the Jets, they often spoke of trying to emulate many of the qualities the Blackhawks demonstrated as an organization when they captured three Stanley Cups in a six-season period (2010, 2013 and 2015).

“It would have been hard not to be envious of the on-ice success that the Chicago Blackhawks enjoyed. I've thought about that. I've been thinking about that,” said Chipman, noting the pursuit of success was not going to come at the expense of the principles he was brought up on. "When we got into this business 25 years ago, it was really just to keep the game going after a difficult process of losing our team and seemingly our identity.

"So we began as a pursuit of seeing if we could bring the league back to Winnipeg. But what I learned through the process of losing the team wasn't about winning and losing -- it was how much the team meant to this city.

"But the real joy in being a part of the league and the real joy for me... is the meaning that this game has to people here, and the impact that this game has allowed us to have in our community.”

The words have been spoken and it was clear that many of them came from the heart.

Now comes the hard part.

As important as those words were, it’s the subsequent actions taken by the Jets in the days, months and years ahead in that quest to make the hockey world a better and safer place that will ultimately determine how this day is viewed.

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