Calls grow for change, critics say ‘silence is deafening’ on World Juniors case

Click to play video: 'World Juniors sex assault case spark calls for change in hockey culture'
World Juniors sex assault case spark calls for change in hockey culture
With five Canadian professional hockey players now charged in connection with an alleged group sexual assault in 2018, calls are growing to change the culture of Canada's national sport, and to eliminate violence, bullying, and hazing. Eric Sorensen looks at whether the charges could be a moment of reckoning – Jan 31, 2024

Canada’s Sport Minister Carla Qualtrough says the current sport system is not protecting children or holding sports leaders to account.

Her comments follow the news that five professional hockey players who were members of the 2018 Canadian World Juniors team have been charged with sexual assault, and as critics of the hockey world’s handling of the allegations say that “silence is deafening.”

“Our current sports system is not protecting our children and other participants, nor is it holding sports leaders to account. Broad changes to the sports system and sports culture in Canada are needed to address this crisis,” Qualtrough said in a statement to Global News.

“We need to address the negative, inappropriate, and dangerous behaviour that has been normalized in our dressing rooms, on our benches, and in our stands.”

The minister pointed to some work in recent years that has been done, such as the creation of the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner but concluded by saying there is much more to do.

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Click to play video: '5 pro hockey players charged in 2018 World Juniors sex assault case'
5 pro hockey players charged in 2018 World Juniors sex assault case

Four NHL players, Carter Hart, Dillon Dube, Michael McLeod and Cal Foote were granted leaves from their respective teams last week. A fifth member of the 2018 team, Alex Formenton, was also granted a leave from his team in Switzerland. They have all since been charged with sexual assault, linked to allegations of a group sexual assault at a hotel in London during a Hockey Canada gala in June 2018. The alleged victim was 20 at the time of the incident.

Lawyers for all five players say that they deny the allegations.

News of the charges has amplified questions raised over recent years about the culture of hockey and what can be done to make that and other sports safer, as well as spurred scrutiny of how those in positions of power in sports organizations have handled allegations against athletes.

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When Dube’s leave was announced, the Calgary Flames said it was for mental health reasons.

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On Jan. 30, after the charges were announced, the Flames issued a statement saying they are taking the matter seriously but cannot comment further due to the legal process.

“We had no knowledge of pending charges at the time Dillon’s request for a leave of absence was granted,” the Flames’ statement concluded.

Global News reached out to the Philadelphia Flyers for comment about the charge against Hart and the New Jersey Devils for comment on McLeod and Foote.

A representative from the Devils replied they are aware of the charges and that they were told to refer all inquiries about these charges to the NHL itself.

“We will respond appropriately to this very serious matter when the outcomes of the investigations are made public. The NHL has been very clear that teams should refer all investigation-related questions to them. In the meantime, members of the organization, including Flyers players, will not be commenting further,” Flyers spokesperson Joseph Siville replied.

When Global News reached out to the NHL for a statement on the four players being charged with sexual assault, spokesperson John Dellapina replied “not at this time… thanks for reaching out.”

'The silence is deafening'

Amid the increased focus on creating safe sport environments following the revelation of these allegations, Toronto-based lawyer Greg Gilhooly says the league is faced with two avenues to respond to the allegations against these players.

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“The league could either show leadership or it could remain silent behind the legal proceeding. The league is choosing to ‘turtle,’ in hockey parlance. It doesn’t want the fight. It wants to let anybody but the league deal with this if at all possible,” Gilhooly said.

Gilhooly is a former hockey player himself, and a survivor of disgraced coach Graham James who was convicted of sexually assaulting players, including former NHLers Sheldon Kennedy and Theo Fleury.

In May 2022, the NHL announced it would look into “underlying facts” linked to a lawsuit around the 2018 Team Canada allegations and potential player involvement.

“Now that there’s a formal legal process, the league, whatever investigation it did and whatever it found out, can say that it is not prepared to release the findings of its investigation in the midst of the formal legal process,” Gilhooly said.

Click to play video: 'Hockey Canada faces reckoning over arrests in alleged 2018 sex assault'
Hockey Canada faces reckoning over arrests in alleged 2018 sex assault

Amelia Cline of the safe sport advocacy group Gymnasts for Change Canada says this lack of public response speaks to broader issues of accountability that exist across sport.

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“The silence is deafening and it is concerning. I think it speaks to a wider problem generally that the NHL and just the sport system as a whole has with dealing with issues of abuse, of sexual violence, even of issues like racism, homophobia,” she said.

“Of course, there are legalities around being able to say certain things. But certainly, a general statement of support for all victims of sexual violence wouldn’t be out of step. But we haven’t seen that.”

Of the five players charged, four have current NHL contracts that expire at the end of this season. Once a contract expires, players enter free agency.

Now that a formal legal process to address these allegations is beginning, Gilhooly says he believes the league can avoid having to address the situation once the contracts expire.

“The league is playing for time,” Gilhooly said.

“And now that there’s a formal legal process in London, Ont., the league doesn’t have to do anything.”

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