Ice hockey was invented in Canada and is essentially its national sport. Given that, many Canadians view Hockey Canada, the organization that governs amateur hockey in Canada, as a sort of “keeper of the game.” But goodwill and public perception can be fickle, and the lengths some organizations go to maintain a positive public image can quickly spiral into a public relations disaster. For Hockey Canada, trying to hide dark secrets ultimately cost not only public trust, but just about everything else, too.
Hockey Canada’s facade began to crumble in March when it was revealed the organization had paid to settle a lawsuit brought by a woman who accused members of Canada’s men’s world junior hockey team of sexual assault after a Hockey Canada-sponsored event in 2018.
The lawsuit alleged that Hockey Canada “ignored or failed to reasonably address institutionalized and systemic abuse” and “had knowledge that over the last number of years, its players were subjected to sexual assault and also encouraged to sexually assault others.”
Though there were eight members of Canada’s 2018 world junior team cited in the lawsuit, they were identified only as “John Doe 1-8.” And, while Hockey Canada said it had initiated an investigation upon receiving reports of the assault, no players were ever disciplined and it is unknown if or where any of those players are in organized hockey.
Paying off a lawsuit to make it go away happens every day in the corporate world. But Hockey Canada is a non-profit organization, and the money used to settle the lawsuit came from amateur hockey registration fees from all across Canada. Even worse, it was revealed that Hockey Canada maintained three secret funds to settle uninsured sexual assault claims and had paid off 10 other sexual assault claims since 1989.
So, with the most recent claim, there are 10 sexual assault cases settled by Hockey Canada with money from three secret funds. According to Hockey Canada officials, the money was kept secret so that the organization wouldn’t become a target for lawsuits. Further, with less money on the books, Hockey Canada could have a stronger bargaining position in the sexual assault cases that were settled. And don’t forget that there’s also no evidence of any action ever taken against any individual accused in any of the sexual assault lawsuits.
The revelation of the secret funds and the “pay-to-make-it-go-away” attitude toward sexual assault accusations has cost Hockey Canada almost all of its major sponsors, including Tim Hortons, Nike, Esso, and Canadian Tire. In addition, several provincial hockey associations are threatening to withhold the registration fees they pay annually to support the organization. In spite of all that, it ultimately took pushback over remarks by Interim Director Andrea Skinner that claimed Hockey Canada was the victim to compel Skinner and the rest of the Hockey Canada board of directors to resign.
So where does Hockey Canada go from here? Step 1 is to work to regain the public trust by naming a new CEO and directors that represent a broader, more inclusive cross-section of amateur hockey, including women and men. Step 2 is to become more transparent in how the organization handles its finances, how it investigates claims of sexual assault, and how it conducts its business on and off the ice.
Hockey Canada has existed in some form since 1914. But all the goodwill the organization established over the last 108 years has unraveled completely in just six months. The rot in Hockey Canada likely started years ago and only recently came to the surface. However, now that it has surfaced, Hockey Canada will effectively have to start anew from the inside so that it can regain the public’s trust and once again be seen as the true guardian of the game.