Canada·CBC Investigates

Fired junior hockey coach now subject of 2 police investigations

Bernie Lynch, a veteran junior hockey coach who was fired by the Fort Frances Lakers in March for sending inappropriate texts and emails to a player, is now the subject of two police investigations as forces in Regina and Edson, Alta., probe allegations of physical and sexual assault.

Police in Sask., Alta., examine Bernie Lynch's past as ex-player alleges sexual assault

Bernie Lynch (Fortfranceslakers.com)

WARNING: This story contains content that some readers may find disturbing or offensive.

A veteran junior hockey coach who was fired from his Ontario job in March for sending inappropriate texts and emails to one of his players is now under investigation by police in two other provinces as authorities look into allegations of physical and sexual abuse.

Bernie Lynch, 66, has had a four-decade-long career behind the bench across North America and Europe, including stints as the head coach of the Humboldt Broncos, Regina Pats and Edson Aeros.

Lynch was dismissed by the Fort Frances Lakers, a Junior A club in the cross-border Superior International Junior Hockey League, on March 9 following a CBC News Investigation that detailed his intense and unwanted contacts with a 20-year-old player, as well as allegations of bullying behaviour and the use of slurs and sexually charged language toward other team members.

Now CBC News has learned that the Regina Police Service has reopened an investigation it abandoned more than 20 years ago after a player whom Lynch coached in the 1980s recently came forward with a sexual assault allegation. CBC News has been informed of the substance of the allegation but is withholding details over concerns that they might serve to identify the complainant.

The RCMP in Edson, Alta., confirm that they, too, are looking into Lynch's conduct. An investigation, according to multiple community sources who have already spoken to police, is focused on allegations of abusive behaviour during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, as well as parents' concerns over a close and possibly inappropriate relationship with a player, as reported in another CBC News investigation

Lynch says the allegations in Fort Frances and Edson are part of a smear campaign against him.

Lynch declined a request for an interview about the investigations in Regina and Edson. But in an email to CBC News, he said he is "shocked" by all of the allegations "that have surfaced over the past months," adding that "no law enforcement agency has been in contact with me ever regarding any wrongdoings."

"There have been no names associated with these allegations, only rumours with no details for me to speak intelligently about," he wrote.

WATCH | Junior hockey coach suspended for inappropriate messages to player:

Junior hockey coach suspended for inappropriate messages to player

The National

2 months ago
2:40
A CBC News investigation has revealed a junior hockey coach who has spent more than 40 years behind the bench was suspended in January for sending dozens of inappropriate texts and emails to one of his players. 2:40

The Regina Police Service declined to comment on the file, citing its policy of not speaking publicly, by name, "about individuals who may be involved in any past or present investigations." A spokesperson said that the police force accepts and investigates all allegations of sexual assault, whether recent or historic.

But three sources who have knowledge of the Regina police investigation told CBC News that it is a fresh look at allegations that were initially brought forward in 1997 and 1998, and did not result in charges — but did interrupt Lynch's coaching career, for a time.

A 2000 civil court action that Lynch brought against Hockey Regina over a coaching ban detailed how Saskatchewan RCMP began investigating him in the summer of 1997 after receiving an anonymous tip about Lynch having "inappropriate and sexual involvement" with a young player during the 1980s. In the fall of 1997, the Regina Police Service began a parallel investigation into those same allegations, and then in the summer of 1998, the force expanded its focus to include the Regina Pat Canadians, a AAA Midget under-18 team that Lynch was then coaching.

A worrying invitation

A former Pat Canadians player, who has asked not to be identified to protect his privacy and is not the complainant in the police investigation, recalls Lynch as a volatile coach, prone to fits of profanity-laced rage, who also liked to keep close tabs on some of his players. "He used to call me. He'd want to talk on the phone every day. He'd call me at home," said the former player, who was a minor at the time. "It was just f--king weird, man."

On one occasion, he said, Lynch invited him to a meal at his home, saying his young son would also be there. However, when the player arrived, he found he was all alone with his coach. At first, the dinner conversation centred on hockey, but then it became explicitly sexual, the former player told CBC News.

Lynch talked about ejaculations, he said, and asked "how much I masturbate and shit like that. And that's when I stood up and said, 'I got to go.' ... It wasn't right."

The former player, who was in his mid-teens at the time, said he shared his experience with friends in the immediate aftermath and later confided in his parents — something one of his parents confirmed to CBC News.

Lynch, who was eventually allowed to resume coaching for Hockey Regina following his civil court action — with the condition that he not be alone with any player — denies the allegations.

"On one occasion while coaching the Pat Canadians, a player came to my home, uninvited, and was turned away at the door," he wrote. Lynch questioned the reliability of the player's recollections, adding that he has never "discussed 'masturbation' with a player, or anyone else for that matter."

New allegations in Sweden

Before he returned to Canada in 2017 to take a job with the Smiths Falls Settlers in Ontario, Lynch spent the better part of a decade coaching youth teams in Europe.

On Thursday, the Swedish newspaper Expressen published an article about the veteran coach's time behind the bench for a team in Huddinge, a Stockholm suburb, a tenure that ended with controversy and complaints in 2014.

Lynch was dismissed after receiving a lengthy suspension for threatening a referee. But one parent told the paper that there were other factors at play, including bullying behaviour and unwanted and inappropriate text messages.

"I discovered that Bernie had started texting my son in the evenings," the mother, whose identity is being shielded by Expressen, told the newspaper. "I reacted immediately and asked why the coach was writing to him. Finally, I took his phone and checked the history. I couldn't believe my eyes."

This now 21-year-old Swedish hockey player says he received disturbing texts from Lynch when Lynch was his coach in Huddinge, outside Stockholm, in 2014. (Alex Ljungdahl/Expressen)

One text message that Lynch sent to the 15-year-old immediately caught the mother's eye.  "Answer your phone ... Pump runking," Lynch wrote, misspelling a Swedish word for masturbation. "I can hear you all the way over here ... Give it a rest."

After his mother complained to club officials, the texts and phone calls stopped. But the player says he quickly went from being one of Lynch's favourites to a pariah on the team.

 "I was excluded," the player said. "I would come home and cry after practice. When it was at its worst, I just wanted to quit hockey."

The paper says it reached out to Lynch about the allegations but that he did not respond.

A screenshot of a text message exchange that a then 15-year-old Swedish hockey player says he had with his Canadian coach, Bernie Lynch, in 2014. The player's mother complained to the club about its inappropriate content because the coach used a Swedish term for masturbation. (Expressen)

Questions and concerns in Alberta

The RCMP investigation into Lynch's time in Edson was opened on March 24, said Staff Sgt. Christian Delisle, the detachment commander, who declined to provide any details beyond describing the inquiries as "active."

The assigned investigator has already spoken with a number of players and billet parents about concerns that were brought to light in the CBC News investigation. Over the course of Lynch's two seasons behind the bench, host families and players repeatedly voiced their complaints about the coach's behaviour to Edson Aeros management, and ultimately a group of 10 billet parents wrote to the Western States Hockey League (WSHL) pleading for a formal investigation.

Their Jan. 29, 2020 letter expressed concerns about how one 20-year-old player was spending up to 12 hours a day with Lynch, seven days a week. "He cries a lot and has slipped into a depression that everyone is aware of. He refuses to wash his underwear at [his billet family's] house and takes them with him to Bernie's," the letter said.

Axel Axmann, left, owner of the Edson Aeros, and Lynch in a team photo. (aeroshockey.ca)

The league shared the letter with team owner Axel Axmann — who was already aware of the police investigations in Saskatchewan in the late 1990s, as Lynch had disclosed them during his job interview.

"The safety of our players and respect for everyone associated with our operations has always been, and will always be, our primary focus," Axmann wrote in a statement to CBC News this week. "Once we learned of potential issues, we took measures to verify information, discuss the issue and made required changes."

But those who sent the letter say there was "zero response" to their concerns.

"There was no followup whatsoever," said Ken Bell, who billeted a number of Aeros players. "We got nothing back from the WSHL, nothing back from [league commissioner] Ron White, nothing back from Axel. And that coach stayed on the bench."

In fact, Lynch continued to coach the team until the season was halted due to COVID-19 concerns on March 12, 2020, compiling a 15-0 record over those final six weeks. He then took a new job in Fort Frances.

Hockey Canada, the sport's governing body, is also continuing its own investigation of Lynch under the direction of Glen McCurdie, its vice-president of insurance and risk management.

"The police are investigating allegations of historical criminal activity involving Mr. Lynch and our organization is co-operating with the police on this matter," Hockey Canada spokesperson Spencer Sharkey said.

But the organization refused a CBC News interview request and declined to answer questions about the scope or limits of its investigation. 

Jonathon Gatehouse can be contacted via email at jonathon.gatehouse@cbc.ca, or reached via the CBC's digitally encrypted Securedrop system at https://www.cbc.ca/securedrop/  

now