Team Canada won back-to-back gold medals in a nail-biting overtime game at the World Juniors hockey tournament in Halifax Thursday night, as fans continue to marvel over the exploits of 17-year-old Connor Bedardwho has been smashing on-ice records.
But now that the excitement is all over, advocates and experts say it’s time for Hockey Canada to refocus on the scandal hanging over its head.
“You can see many Canadians getting excited with the game. You’ve got some superior talent. However, there’s still an underbelly to this game,” said Tim Skuce, an associate professor at Manitoba’s Brandon University who has published research on elite male hockey players and hockey cultureincluding homophobia, hyper-masculine ideals, sexism, and excessive violence.
“I think it’s a serious misstep if we take the success of the World Juniors this year and say all is good just based on the performance of the game and on the ice,” said Skuce, a former elite hockey player himself, now a hockey parent.
‘There’s something systemic’
Most major sponsors pulled their support from Team Canada and the tournament after it was revealed that Hockey Canada has settled sexual assault claims using money from registration fees. Police are investigating at least two separate alleged group sexual assaults involving former Team Canada junior hockey players between 2003 and 2018.
The board and CEO of Hockey Canada resigned and a new board was elected in mid-December on a special one-year term.
Court documents that include interview transcripts and search warrant requests reveal why police say they have reasonable grounds to accuse five former World Junior hockey players of sexually assaulting a woman in a London, Ont., hotel room in 2018.
WATCH | Advocates want accountability:
There are also police and third-party investigations into an alleged 2003 event in Halifax.
None of the police allegations have been proven in court and no charges have been laid.
Skuce says the new board needs to be candid about the ongoing status of the investigations into the allegations and transparent about how claims are dealt with. Players should also be held accountable, he said, and he’s watching to see if the police lay charges.
“It’s often dismissed as just a couple of bad apples and I think through the abuses that we’ve seen through multiple entities, it’s not a one-off — there’s something systemic that’s embedded itself in hockey culture,” Skuce said.
Give new Hockey Canada board a chance: IIHF head
At a news conference Thursday morning, officials from Hockey Canada and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) emphasized the success of this World Juniors tournament rather than the cloud hanging over it.
More than three million Canadians watched the quarter-finals on host broadcaster TSN, putting it in the top three sporting events of the year, IIHF president Luc Tardif said. As well, 98.6 percent of tickets were used and more than 210,000 people attended the venues in Moncton and Halifax.
“I think that was the best medicine for Canadian hockey and international hockey after this difficult year,” Tardif said.
He said the IIHF is following the situation closely, but the criminal investigations are a “Canadian affair” that he would not comment on.
Tardif admitted there has been damage to Hockey Canada’s reputation and brand but said he has confidence the new board and chair can correct the situation.
“I don’t want to forget what happened, but there was a success, we saw fantastic games, a lot of people [attended]”, he said.
Dean McIntosh, Hockey Canada’s vice-president in charge of events, would not provide an update into the internal investigations into the 2003 and 2018 allegations, but did comment on the impact of major sponsors pulling their support.
“Our focus has not been on the bottom line financially,” he said.
“Our focus has really been on how do we bring a great product back to Canadians? How do we make the World Juniors a destination for fans? … So while financially that has been a challenge as it relates to our sponsors, we understand why they paused [their support].”
WATCH | New details revealed about 2018 allegations:
In an email exchange late Thursday, the new chair of the Hockey Canada board of directors told CBC News transparency and accountability will be key pillars as they try to make positive changes that will benefit all Canadians.
“We are already hard at work, and while we recognize that trust cannot be earned overnight, we will do what’s necessary to get it done right,” Hon. Hugh L. Fraser said.
Hockey Canada has recently implemented a number of key initiatives in sport safety, including establishing the Independent Third Party, updating and adopting new codes of conduct, becoming a full signatory to the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner, undertaking an independent governance review and beginning the process of reviewing and implementing those recommendations, he said.
Fraser said the investigation into the allegations of sexual assault in 2003 remains ongoing.
The independent investigation of the 2018 incident is complete and the investigator has delivered his report to the adjudication panel. All information concerning the contents of the investigator’s report, the adjudication, and any appeals are confidential, he added.
Hockey Canada’s international reputation damaged
The controversy has hurt Hockey Canada’s reputation internationally, said Henrik Sjoberg, a journalist at Hockey News Sweden.
“I think it definitely has an effect because Canada is like the home of hockey in so many ways,” he said.
The scandal has been in headlines and on talk shows in Sweden since the summer, when the COVID-postponed tournament was being played in Edmonton, Sjoberg said. And while sexual abuse scandals in sports are not exclusive to North America, Sjoberg said people have been surprised by the way Hockey Canada handled the allegations.
“You want to play big games against Canada and you want to beat them when it comes to hockey,” he said.
“So now when this happened off the ice … I think a lot of people get to see a darker side of it and have to kind of feel like this is just a bad thing around Hockey Canada.”
Sjoberg says part of the problem is the way elite players in North America are put on pedestals, becoming “very big stars” at a young age.
“It’s such an important thing to get these kids to learn from the beginning how to behave and to be good human beings,” he said. “They have to just do better.”
‘Being held to account … is important’
As the tournament draws to a close, safe sports advocate Allison Forsyth says it’s been hard for some fans to separate the Hockey Canada scandal and the success Team Canada has had on the ice — but she also hopes the serious problems aren’t forgotten in the excitement.
“I think it’s incredible that the crowds are out there and we should always be supporting excellent athleticism and cheering on our Canadians in this tournament,” said Forsyth, co-founder of ITP Sport and Recreation, a safe sport programming and consulting agency.
But, having worked with Hockey Canada in the past, she says she has a full awareness of the kind of challenges they face in shifting the dark side of hockey culture.
“I think being held to account for very poor decisions in the past is important,” she said.
Forsyth — a two-time Canadian alpine skiing Olympian — is a survivor of sexual abuse in the Canadian sports system. She was sexually abused by Alpine Canada coach Bertrand Charest in 1997 and 1998.
Today, she’s a mother of two hockey-playing children.
She said she’s confident there were checks and balances in place at the World Juniors, but she said more must be done at all levels to remove the environments and opportunities for abuse to occur.
Forsyth is calling for a complete overhaul of what behaviors are permitted on and off the ice — and how maltreatment is handled at all levels of hockey.
“What I see every day in our arenas still across this country is a very non-conducive culture to positivity: lots of yelling, lots of berating, parental abuse, hazing, bullying,” she said.
“I don’t want to be overly negative here, but it is a huge problem. They need to dig very, very, very deep to shift this.”