Hockey Canada executives were under fire Monday as parliamentarians grilled the organization over its handling of an alleged sexual assault four years ago that resulted in a settled lawsuit last month.
Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renney and president Scott Smith were among the witnesses called to testify before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage in Ottawa.
Hockey Canada settled the lawsuit in May after a woman claimed she was sexually assaulted by eight members of the country’s 2018 world junior hockey team at a gala event in June of that year.
The plaintiff, identified as “E.M.” in court records, claimed she was repeatedly assaulted while intoxicated in a London, Ont., hotel room after a Hockey Canada event. The woman, now 24, was seeking $3.55 million in damages from Hockey Canada, the Canadian Hockey League and the unnamed players.
Smith, who’s set to take over for the outgoing Renney as CEO on July 1, told the committee that members of the country’s gold-medal winning world junior team were “strongly encouraged” to speak with third-party investigators hired by Hockey Canada.
It was not, however, made mandatory.
“Mr. Smith, if you want real accountability from Hockey Canada, you should have demanded all players participate in the interviews (with the outside law firm),” Conservative MP Kevin Waugh said. “You own that … that is unacceptable.”
Smith, who is also the national sport body’s COO, responded by saying that Hockey Canada “borrows” players from other leagues for international competitions.
“We’ve made some changes to our code of conduct,” he said. “We’re having discussions right now as to whether or not we can strengthen the ability to compel players that we borrow to participate in investigations regarding what happens under our care.”
Bloc Quebecois MP Sebastien Lemire suggested in French that Hockey Canada play without its logo for a year “so that people will think about this issue … culture in Hockey Canada and the responsibility that you have. I believe that (Hockey Canada is) John Doe No. 9 in this case.”
Renney said Hockey Canada first learned of the alleged incident the following morning — June 19, 2018 — when the woman’s stepfather contacted its human resources department, and that police in London were informed that evening.
Smith said even though it took four years for the story to come out, and only after TSN was first to report the details last month, there wasn’t a coverup.
“The police were notified, we engaged a third-party investigator, we notified Sport Canada, and we offered support to the young woman,” he said. “That’s not an indication of sweeping something under the rug.”
Details of the settlement with the woman have not been released, but Smith said the players alleged to be involved did not contribute financially and no government money was used.
None of the allegations against the players have been proven in court.
Smith was asked if the settlement is covered by a non-disclosure agreement.
“The minutes of settlement are covered under settlement privilege,” he replied.
Hockey Canada added it has yet to identify the players alleged to have sexually assaulted a woman because its investigation is incomplete.
Smith said 12 to 13 players took part in the investigation initiated by the sport’s governing body. Renney said earlier Monday that it was his belief the number was between four and six.
Smith was asked if any coaches or trainers were involved in the alleged incident.
“I don’t believe so,” he said. “But I can’t confirm.”
Hockey Canada has said the woman chose not to speak with police or its independent investigator. Smith and Renney reiterated Monday the woman also elected not to identify the players.
Smith said London police informed Hockey Canada its criminal investigation was closed as of February 2019. Hockey Canada, meanwhile, kept its own investigation open through September 2020.
“A lot of people are taking the allegations in the statement of claim as fact,” Smith said. “The challenge that we had is through extensive efforts over a 26-month period, we were not able to confirm what happened that evening.”
The NHL, meanwhile, is in the process of conducting its own investigation because a number of players from that world junior team are now in the league, while Canada’s sports minister ordered a forensic audit of Hockey Canada.
Pascale St-Onge told the committee Monday after the Hockey Canada executives testified that she first learned of the alleged assault and settlement when Renney called her two days before TSN’s report.
“I was absolutely outraged with what I read,” St-Onge told the committee in French. “And as all Canadians, I asked myself questions on the accountability of the players and the reasons why Hockey Canada would reach an out-of-court settlement?”
Government money accounts for six per cent of Hockey Canada’s funding, according to the organization’s 2020-21 annual report, although the amount in actual dollars wasn’t specified.
Hockey Canada received a total of $7.8 million in Own The Podium high-performance funding for its men’s and women’s national teams in the four years between the 2018 and 2022 Winter Olympics.
“No one has been held accountable,” Conservative MP John Nater said of the alleged assault. “No one lost the privilege of wearing the Maple Leaf on their jersey … I’ve heard zero tolerance mentioned today. I wish that was true.
“But if there’s truly a zero-tolerance situation … every single player who was in London that weekend should have been mandated to participate in that review or lose the opportunity and the privilege of being associated with Hockey Canada.”
—Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press