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Robson: In Hockey Canada sex assault scandal, the gatekeepers of justice all fell short

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Shortly after the sun rose on a clear-sky June morning, the Hockey Canada establishment — including members of that year’s gold-medal winning World Junior team — gathered at the London Hunt Club to play golf.

The players wore matching red polos with black collars and hit balls marked with the Hockey Canada logo during the early-morning round at the private country club in southwestern Ontario’s largest city.

As they played, officials from Hockey Canada were notified that a young woman had claimed she was sexually assaulted by several members of the World Junior team just hours earlier.

Later that day — long after the golf tournament ended and the players left town — at around 6 p.m., Hockey Canada contacted the London Police.

That was six years ago.

This week, according to reporting by The Globe and Mail, five members of the 2018 Canadian World Junior team were told to surrender to police to be charged with sexual assault. In the gap between the alleged assault and the looming charges, almost nobody in positions of authority or knowledge did the right thing.

The hours it took for Hockey Canada to speak with police that day in June 2018 was just the first delay in six years of obfuscations, backroom dealings, and hurdles intended to avoid transparency and shield organizations and the accused from scrutiny.

Rather than operating in the open, Hockey Canada chose to hide under a cloak of secrecy.

In hockey’s tight-knit fraternity, it’s fair to wonder how much of an open secret the allegations against the World Junior players were. Which players knew? What agents? What team executives?

What could have been revealed, but wasn’t — and why?

The London Police quietly ended its investigation in February 2019, when the lead detective deemed that there was not enough evidence to lay charges.

That result was in line with findings from a 2017 Globe and Mail investigation by journalist Robyn Doolittle, which revealed that one in five sexual assault claims in Canada were dismissed as baseless. In London, specifically, 30 percent of such claims were deemed “unfounded” by the city’s police force.

The allegations of what occurred after the Hockey Canada Foundation gala in June 2018 remained hidden, buried amid a long history of claims of sexual violence within the junior hockey community, that had been ignored, dismissed or attacked for decades.

The incident would have remained another averted-crisis for hockey’s gatekeepers had the complainant not filed a subsequent lawsuit against Hockey Canada, the Canadian Hockey League, and eight players in April 2022.

Hockey Canada settled the lawsuit out of court on behalf of all the parties, attempting to keep the allegations secret.

And so they would remain — beyond the fraternity, at least — had TSN reporter Rick Westhead not learned about the lawsuit and settlement a month later. His story broke open a series of investigations into what actually occurred that night in London.

In the nearly two years since, a culture of silence and secrecy within Hockey Canada was dragged into the light of public scrutiny.

The Globe and Mail’s Grant Robertson revealed that the organization had a secret multi-million dollar fund to settle sexual assault cases, keeping such cases hidden. Part of that money was funded by the registration fees paid by the parents of kids playing minor hockey across the country.

Amid public outrage, Hockey Canada executives were called before several parliamentary hearings in Ottawa and grilled by MPs about the handling of the allegations, the settlement, and the organization’s lack of transparency.

During those hearings it was revealed that Sport Canada, which oversees all governing sports bodies in Canada, was made aware of the sexual assault allegations in June 2018 but did nothing.

No investigation, no review, no questions.

Nothing.

After the public hearings, the federal government froze Hockey Canada’s funding and several high-profile sponsors ended their partnerships. Hockey Canada CEO Scott Smith resigned, after initially resisting calls from MPs for him to step aside. The entire Hockey Canada board of directors also stepped down.

As scrutiny grew over how Hockey Canada handled the sexual assault allegations, the London Police Service reopened its investigation in July 2022.

Details of what occurred that night in London became public as media attention zeroed in. For reporters, it wasn’t difficult to find first-hand accounts of members of the World Junior team plying young women with alcohol at a bar and attempting to bring them back to the Delta Armouries Hotel. Photos and videos of the night were easy to find. Through those images, videos, and sources who interacted with players on that night it was possible to piece together a timeline of who was where and when. Lawyers representing some of the players approached media with two videos taken from a room in the Delta Armouries hotel, which reportedly show the alleged victim stating that she consented to what had occurred. Text messages were also revealed in which a player asks the woman whether she had gone to the police.

Names of the members of that World Junior team occasionally trended on Twitter, as public speculation ran rampant and our insatiable hunger for details went unmet. The unnamed complainant, who has pleaded for privacy, was similarly tried in public — as strangers questioned her motivations and the veracity of her claims.

Months after the police investigation was reopened in the public spotlight, investigators believed they had grounds to charge in the case that had initially been dismissed.

In December 2022, the London Police filed a court application asking for more investigative powers, indicating they had reasonable grounds to believe five hockey players committed sexual assault. The application provided details of that night in London, obtained through interviews with the complainant and with the players who were in the hotel room at the time. The 94-page document, first obtained by The Globe and Mail, also revealed that a member of Hockey Canada notified a player that police had been contacted after the alleged incident. The player then searched out the woman on Instagram, asked if she’d called the police and pressured her to make the complaint go away.

For a year, the potential charges hung over members of Canada’s 2018 World Junior team, most of whom now play in the NHL. The team members were all banned from representing Canada in international hockey events, pending the results of an internal investigation by Hockey Canada. In the time since, this story has faded from the headlines — returning now and then, in small updates with little developments.

The plodding pace of the reopened case is understandable. This is an active criminal investigation with potentially grave consequences and justice hanging in the balance. Our desire for more information doesn’t factor into the process of law.

But skepticism as to what would be revealed and what would remain hidden is valid. As are questions about who is being protected.

Is justice the paramount concern?

It’s a fair question. From the start, horrific allegations were treated as a nuisance, swept aside and then paid off. Rather than seeking the truth of what occurred, the impulse from the moment the allegations surfaced was to mitigate damage to the hockey establishment.

When Hockey Canada first hired a law firm to investigate the allegations, players were not compelled to participate and several declined to be interviewed. The investigation was closed, with the law firm unable to determine the identities of the accused.

When that investigation was reopened in July 2022, amid the public outcry, Hockey Canada required that all players participate or be barred from participating in future programs or international competitions for Canada.

Why was this not the initial requirement?

The results of the law firm’s investigation were given to a third-party panel in November 2022. It took an entire year for the panel to make recommendations on possible sanctions against players, who it deemed violated Hockey Canada’s code of conduct.

Those findings still remain hidden, citing an opaque appeal process. When does Hockey Canada plan to make its finding public?

The NHL also launched its own investigation into what happened and whether any of its players would face disciplinary action, saying its findings would be made public. That investigation was “closer to the end than the beginning” commissioner Gary Bettman said in October 2022. Throughout the NHL’s investigation, any players involved were able to collect their paychecks while continuing to play in the best league in the world.

The details of that investigation have not been revealed.  If the investigation has uncovered misconduct, how long has the league carried that information before acting?

Now, five players from that junior team will reportedly head to London, where police have scheduled a press conference for Feb. 5 to discuss the details of this high-profile case. Lengthy legal proceedings await.

Neither Hockey Canada, the NHL or NHL Players’ Association have commented on the news of pending charges.

So here we are, at what is really just the beginning — six years after a sunny morning in June, waiting for answers to questions that far too many people hoped would never reach this point.

(Photo by Andy Devlin / Getty Images)



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