The departure of Hockey Canada’s CEO and the mass resignation of its board Tuesday, amid a controversy over alleged sexual assault, are the first steps toward rebuilding the organization, MPs, corporate sponsors and provincial hockey associations say.
Under pressure over how it handled an investigation into an alleged sexual assault involving members of the 2018 national junior team, Hockey Canada announced that its chief executive Scott Smith departed the organization Tuesday and all members of its board of directors had resigned.
Until this week, Mr. Smith and the Hockey Canada board steadfastly refused to step down, even as they faced increasing pressure at federal hearings where its leaders were criticized for giving misleading and inconsistent testimony, and MPs accused them of trying to cover up the alleged sexual assault.
In the wake of the departures, MPs said they now want full disclosure on whether Mr. Smith received a severance payout, and what funds are potentially being used to cover it. They also want to see clear signs of change from an interim management team that will be named by Hockey Canada in the weeks ahead. And major corporate sponsors including Tim Hortons, Bauer and others, said they want to see the organization conduct itself much differently before they reinstate their support.
Hockey Canada said its membership, made up of provincial hockey associations, will select a new board before the next election of directors, scheduled for Dec. 17. Resigning board members will not seek re-election. An interim management team will be installed until the newly constituted board names a new chief executive to oversee Hockey Canada.
Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge said the board made the right decision to step down, but the government wants to see significant change from the new management, and that Hockey Canada must rethink how it develops players.
“We expect Hockey Canada to actively work towards a team whose expertise will contribute to better support and training for players, and an environment exempt from sexual violence and discrimination,” Ms. St-Onge said.
“Hockey Canada must develop not only exceptional athletes, but also good citizens who respect women, the public and the law.”
Hockey Canada has been under fire since the spring, after a young woman filed a $3.55-million lawsuit alleging she was sexually assaulted by several players after a 2018 Hockey Canada fundraising event in London, Ont. Hockey Canada settled the case in May, within weeks, without completing a full investigation or requiring players to co-operate with the probe. The matter only came to light when TSN reported the case had been settled for an undisclosed sum.
The departure of Mr. Smith and the board follow a Globe and Mail investigation last week that revealed Hockey Canada had created a second multimillion-dollar fund, using registration fees, to shield its various branches from sexual-assault claims, without disclosing to parents and players how their money was ultimately being used.
Revelations of the second fund, known as the Participants Legacy Trust Fund, followed an investigation in July in which The Globe first revealed that Hockey Canada used a financial reserve called the National Equity Fund, also fed by registration fees, to settle the lawsuit surrounding the 2018 allegations. Parents and players across the country have expressed outrage that their fees were used in the settlement.
At federal hearings last week, Hockey Canada confirmed numerous details of The Globe’s investigation, including that the Participants Legacy Trust Fund was formed using $7.1-million from the National Equity Fund, “for matters including but not limited to sexual abuse,” according to documents filed in Alberta court.
Hockey Canada has seen an exodus of sponsors since the summer. After last week’s hearings, Tim Hortons, Bank of Nova Scotia and others said they were pausing their support of the men’s program over the winter, including for the world junior championships in Halifax and Moncton in December. Others, including Canadian Tire, Sobeys and Hankook Tire, have ended their relationship permanently.
Tim Hortons spokesperson Michael Oliveira said the management and board changes were a first step to restore Canadians’ trust in Hockey Canada, but the company’s sponsorship remains suspended.
“We will not consider reinstating our support for Hockey Canada’s men’s programming until we’re confident that progress is being made and Canadians once again believe in the organization’s leadership and its ability to do what’s right for the game we all love,” Mr. Oliveira said Tuesday.
Bauer also said it would not immediately restore support, but would assess Hockey Canada’s progress.
“Now the hard work begins, meaning ensuring a process to secure a diverse board that reflects our Canadian communities,” vice-president of global marketing Mary-Kay Messier wrote in a statement
Other brands echoed that sentiment. Hockey Canada needs to take “meaningful action” to win back support, PepsiCo spokesperson Menka Walia said. Chevrolet Canada added it will monitor the next steps “to ensure this organization, under its new leadership, fits with our values,” said spokesperson Jennifer Wright.
The provincial hockey associations now wield considerable power over the direction of Hockey Canada as the sport’s national governing body. There are 13 provincial and territorial federations. Ontario is divided into three groups; the Ontario Hockey Federation, Hockey Eastern Ontario and Hockey Northwestern Ontario, while the Yukon, Nunavut and Northwest Territories combine to form Hockey North.
Hockey PEI’s board of directors issued a statement saying the management change allows for a new perspective at Hockey Canada.
“This outcome, which seemed inevitable to us, will allow the organization to take a fresh look at the challenges to be met,” the PEI statement said. “Now, it is essential to ensure that future directors take concrete action to effect profound change in terms of integrity, respect, and culture. We will be active in proposing solutions, attentive to the next steps and we will represent the best interests of our players, officials, parents, and volunteers.”
Hockey Eastern Ontario’s board also welcomed the announcement. “We look forward to working with the interim management committee to bring about significant change for the betterment of hockey,” its statement said.
Past and former players spoke about a reckoning in the sport that the controversy has prompted. Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares called the Hockey Canada situation a difficult few months for the sport, adding the problems are not yet solved. “It’s a step,” he said. “There are things being investigated in our sport that we don’t ever want to happen again.”
Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said it is understandable the public wants answers. “Within the culture of hockey, there needs to be a lot of improvement. This is not a proud moment. There is lots of work that needs to be done,” he said.
Former player Sheldon Kennedy, a sexual-assault survivor who has been critical of what he has called a code of silence within the game, said the months ahead will be crucial for the organization, and the sport.
“This is not a day of celebration. This is a critical juncture for the game of hockey and Canadian sport. Board and staff replacements do not need to be rushed, they need to be strategic,” Mr. Kennedy said. “With strong focus and proper due diligence, we are confident this can be accomplished and make us all proud again.”
Parents and players across the country have expressed outrage over the revelations that Hockey Canada used a fund built by registration fees to pay out the sexual assault claim related to the 2018 case. Hockey Canada leaders were quick to reassure the government and sponsors in May that no federal money or corporate dollars were used to settle the lawsuit, but parents and players were never told exactly how their money was used.
NDP MP Peter Julian said parents have a right to be upset, since many of them scrimp and save to put their kids into the sport, nor do they want to be associated with a sexual-assault cover-up. He has pushed for a federal audit of Hockey Canada’s finances, which is going forward, including allegations the organization spent lavishly on $5,000 dinners and championship rings for directors. He also wants to know how much the organization has spent on crisis communications firm Navigator, and whether player fees went into paying it.
“There is a lot of information that has come out in the last few days, including The Globe and Mail’s revelation of the second secret fund that Hockey Canada put into place to handle issues of sexual abuse and sexual violence,” Mr. Julian said on the weekend, after the resignation of Hockey Canada interim board chair Andrea Skinner. “It is important to have transparency around the finances, knowing whether there are other funds that they have put in place in this labyrinthine structure that they have been using to hide the finances.”
Former Hockey Canada chief executive Bob Nicholson has been summoned to appear at a future hearing, though a date has not been set. Mr. Julian also wants to recall Mr. Smith, who appeared this summer, to testify again.
“We need to see some real progress and that means being transparent and accountable, that means responding to questions that Hockey Canada has been blocking for months,” Mr. Julian said in an interview Tuesday. He said the issue of Mr. Smith’s severance is one of several items that must be disclosed.
“One would assume if Hockey Canada is turning the page, and really renouncing the status quo, that would be one of the things they would release,” he said.
Conservative MP John Nater, who has criticized Hockey Canada over the revelations it used fees from parents and players in sexual-assault settlements, expressed frustration over how long the departures took. “It should not have taken this long,” Mr. Nater said in a statement. “But I am hopeful that we will finally see meaningful changes to the governance, organization, and culture of Hockey Canada. There is still much work to do.”
GRANT ROBERTSON, SIMON HOUPT
SUSAN KRASHINSKY ROBERTSON, RETAILING REPORTER
The Globe and Mail, October 11, 2022