Parents begged for investigation of controversial junior hockey coach during stint in Alberta town
'Please, please investigate further,' group says in letter to league about coach Bernie Lynch in January 2020
WARNING: This story contains content that some readers may find disturbing and offensive.
The letter was the product of almost 18 months of fear and frustration.
The group of hockey parents and billet families with the Edson, Alta., Junior A Aeros spent a long evening debating its wording, and worrying about the fallout. But they were in agreement — something had to be done about the team's head coach, Bernie Lynch.
The formal complaint, signed by 10 people, was emailed to Ron White, the commissioner of the Western States Hockey League (WSHL), on Jan. 29, 2020 — at his request following a phone conversation earlier in the day.
It detailed their shared concerns about what they viewed as the then-65-year-old coach's "inappropriate conduct" and "beyond abusive behaviour" toward his players who ranged in age from 17 to 21, including frequent bullying and verbal harassment, and an allegation he had struck a player.
The letter complained that Lynch — a veteran with more than 40 years' experience coaching in junior and minor ranks — was manipulating team members and suppressing complaints by threatening to hinder their hockey careers unless they followed his directions to the letter.
"Bernie repeatedly tells these boys he can directly impact their hockey careers," the letter says, "telling them if they don't do this, or that, they won't make it to the team they want to play for because 'he knows all the right people.'"
The letter explains how billet parents had repeatedly brought their concerns to Axel Axmann, the owner and general manager of the Aeros, but felt nothing was being done.
And at its heart, the letter makes a disturbing allegation about Lynch's close, and possibly inappropriate, relationship with a 20-year-old on the team. It related how the young man was spending up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with his coach. And how they were concerned for his safety and worried about his behaviour.
"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 says. "These are serious accusations and [we] encourage you to please, please investigate further. Please."
Repeated complaints, but no changes behind the bench
A woman who billeted the player and signed the letter says the controlling behaviour should have been obvious to everyone associated with the team. CBC News is withholding her name to ensure the player remains anonymous.
"In order to get a Sunday off, away from coach, my player would have to fabricate an elaborate lie," she said. "I would watch the fingers being picked, or bitten, the pacing, because he would receive several text messages."
Yet, to those who signed the letter, no visible action was taken by the league or the team. Lynch, who compiled a record of 82 wins and just 10 losses over two seasons and captured two division titles, continued behind the bench until the COVID-19 pandemic brought play to a halt last March.
In September, he moved on to a new job in northwestern Ontario as coach of the Fort Frances Lakers of the Superior International Junior Hockey League (SIJHL). A position that Lynch was suspended from on Jan. 2, following a complaint from a player and his parents about dozens of inappropriate texts and emails the coach had sent, as detailed in a CBC News investigation. Hockey Canada says it is looking into the allegations.
"This matter is not yet concluded and our ability to comment is limited," Hockey Canada said in a statement.
It's not clear if the WSHL or the Edson Aeros will participate in Hockey Canada's probe of Lynch. The independent cross-border league is not part of Hockey Canada or USA Hockey, and is answerable only to itself.
Lynch declined an interview request, or to respond to detailed questions about his time in Edson. But in a statement to CBC News, the coach expressed shock about the allegations and noted that he has yet to be contacted by Hockey Canada.
"The revelations that occurred in Fort Frances and now the Edson Aeros are a surprise and a disappointment to me as this is a smear campaign," Lynch wrote. "I have been advised not to speak about the allegations at this time."
The Fort Frances Lakers issued a press release on Monday announcing the team has officially parted ways with Lynch, dismissing him for "a clear breach of the applicable codes of conduct," as a result of a review the team said it had undertaken with Hockey Canada.
League and team given information about Lynch
Ken Bell, one of the Edson billet parents who signed the letter, says the issues with Lynch were well known and widely discussed in the community, which is located about 200 kilometres west of Edmonton.
"You wouldn't think that the coach would be the one that you'd be concerned about. But I'm going to tell you right now, every billet in this organization was concerned," he said.
And more than a year later, Bell still can't understand how the league and team seemingly failed to act on the information about Lynch.
"I don't think they care about the kids at all. I think they care more about money," said Bell. "These are real people, real names, they have real mothers and fathers. They entrusted us with these kids, they paid thousands of dollars [in fees] for this."
He said the WSHL needs to speak up. "They need to be accountable for this and so do the Edson Aeros."
White, who in addition to serving as WSHL commissioner is also the owner of a rival team in Barrhead, Alta., the Bombers, declined a CBC News interview request and did not respond to a list of questions about the Edson allegations.
But in an earlier email to CBC News, White suggested he had not been made aware of any allegations about Lynch worthy of investigation.
"Should someone have creditable [sic] facts backed up by proof that coach Lynch was involved in significant code of conduct issues within the WSHL, which should have been related to us well over a year ago while he participated in the WSHL, then someone has been sitting on that proof for over a year," he wrote.
Axmann, who owns the Aeros and also manages a local bank, declined an interview request but did provide written responses to the CBC's questions.
Lynch, who has had a 40-plus-year career that includes stints behind the bench for Saskatchewan's Junior A Humboldt Broncos and the Western Hockey League's Regina Pats in the 1980s, as well as stops with junior clubs in the Czech Republic, Norway and Sweden, was "recommended by a local radio personality," Axmann said.
He said the team took a number of measures to vet Lynch before hiring him, including asking the RCMP to conduct a criminal record check, and reaching out to the owner of a previous team. Lynch did disclose that he was the subject of two police investigations in Saskatchewan in the late 1990s regarding anonymous allegations that he'd had a sexual relationship with a player, and that no charges were ever laid, said Axmann.
He also said the league did share the complaint letter with him, but did not provide the names of those who signed it, or the identity of the player in question. He says he subsequently spoke with Lynch, who denied any inappropriate behaviour, and explained that the long hours were being spent to help the young man "study for his college entrance exam." He said he later sent "written documentation" to Lynch about "his conduct and changes that need[ed] to be made."
Axmann said he also met separately with the young man whom he believed to be "the player in question," who advised him "there was nothing inappropriate happening with Mr. Lynch."
Red flag behaviour
But the January 2020 letter was not the only time the alarm was sounded about Bernie Lynch in Edson. CBC News has spoken with more than a dozen people who were involved with the team during the coach's two seasons, and has heard that allegations about Lynch's conduct were repeatedly brought to the attention of Axmann and other team staff.
Many of those concerns surrounded so-called red flag behaviour, as identified by the U.S. Center for Safesport. The WSHL requires all team staff and volunteers to take the centre's course on harassment, abuse and sexual misconduct.
For example, during Lynch's first season, a billet mother and the billet co-ordinator say they both informed Axmann that the coach had violated the policy by having a player spend the night at his home and subsequently taking the same player on an unsupervised, overnight trip to Edmonton. And that he promised to take immediate action.
In his written response to CBC News, Axmann denied that he or anyone else involved with the team were aware of those allegations.
The complaints escalated during Lynch's second season, with billet parents asking Axmann to intervene on at least a half-dozen occasions. All that seemed to happen each time was their complaints made their way back to the coach, who would lash out at his accusers in high-decibel, profanity-laced phone calls.
"We were told that they are adults and until they were willing to come forward with the story, there was nothing that could be done," said the woman who billeted the player who spent most of his time with Lynch. "They're not adults. They're signing up to obey. They're signing up to be complacent. They're signing up to be a part of a team that they're supposed to trust is going to protect them."
And some players did come forward, but were apparently ignored.
One, who asked that he only be identified by his first name — Brian — over concerns about his hockey past affecting his future, told CBC News that playing for Lynch meant putting up with abuse and humiliation on a daily basis.
During bus trips, he said, Lynch made a habit of striking players with his hand or fist and then jumping on them and digging his knuckles into their head.
And on one occasion, he said, during a practice last season, the coach became enraged with a European player who failed to understand his instructions for a drill due to a language barrier.
"He looked at this player in the middle of the ice and said, 'Do you want to go motherf--ker?' and dropped his gloves, grabbed him by his jersey and pulled him in close," Brian recalled. "And he was like, 'I will f--king kill you.' And screaming it in front of the whole entire team. He's like, 'I will lay you out.'"
CBC News was unable to contact the player in question. But Bell says the young man shared the story with him shortly after the confrontation.
"All the other kids on the ice were, I guess, embarrassed for him. I was embarrassed when he was telling me this," Bell said. "He got a little teary eyed and I just told him, 'It's not your fault. The guy's an idiot.'"
'You get what you deserve'
Brian said he went to Axmann with his concerns about Lynch's bullying behaviour on two occasions, and was greeted with hostility.
Axmann did not directly answer a question about those meetings, but noted that he had a number of conversations with Lynch about "his demeanour."
"I suggested he needed to be aware that we were trying to garner support for the team and be mindful of his responses and tone during his employment with the team," he wrote.
WATCH | Parents begged for investigation of junior hockey coach:
And Axmann said he later convened a meeting with players, where no coaching staff were present, in an effort to address any concerns.
"All players agreed that Mr. Lynch was a demanding, but good hockey coach and that nothing inappropriate was taking place," Axmann wrote.
He said he told players they could follow up with him individually via phone, text message or email. "Not one player engaged us in a conversation."
Following the first meeting with Axmann, Brian said, Lynch confronted him at practice, screaming at him in front of his teammates, and telling him that all complaints must flow through him.
And after the second occasion, there was physical retribution, he said.
"I was standing up for these players that were getting bullied, basically, by Bernie," Brian said. "And Bernie didn't like that. So he and the other coaching staff sent a player after me in practice. And I got cross-checked from behind into the boards. And I got up and this kid and I ended up fighting."
Brian said when he complained, Lynch responded, "You get what you deserve."
Another player who was present at the practice confirmed his account.
Brian said he also shared his concerns with WSHL commissioner Ron White in an hour-long phone conversation on the same day the warning letter was sent to the league. There was no followup.
White did not respond to a written question from CBC News about that call.
Brian says the experience of playing for Lynch left him in mental distress and killed his love for the sport. He has since turned down multiple offers to join other teams and remains unsure if he will ever play again.
CBC News spoke to four other Aeros players, who asked to remain anonymous but shared similar stories about Lynch's bullying and abusive behaviour and often wildly inappropriate language.
One reported the coach liked to answer his phone by saying, "Bob's anal bleaching." And that his go-to curse when someone messed up a drill at practice — "F--k me in the a-- with a wire brush" — was enough of a catchphrase that players turned it into a sign that hung in the dressing room.
Texts from the coach with sexual or homophobic content were so commonplace that they "got traded like hockey cards" amongst the players, he said.
He and another player provided CBC News with several examples, including one with the face of a German teammate superimposed on a picture of Adolf Hitler.
'I felt terrible that it was allowed to happen again'
Lynch's termination in Fort Frances and the accompanying Hockey Canada investigation have raised expectations in Edson that the concerns raised by parents and billet families over the course of two seasons might finally be heard, as well as hopes among those who signed the letter that the coach's stints in other small communities across Canada and Europe might be re-examined in light of the current allegations.
The woman who billeted the player in whom Lynch took such an interest says she fell to her knees when she heard the news from Fort Frances.
"I felt sick to my stomach and I cried because I failed my player the previous season in not getting the help that we needed," she said. "And then I felt terrible that it was allowed to happen again. That nothing was done."
At a minimum, she says, she hopes Lynch is never allowed to coach again.
Lynch has responded to text messages from CBC News, but hasn't addressed questions about where he is currently living, or what he is up to.
In January 2020, not long before the warning letter was sent, Lynch told a local reporter in Edson that he was working on his memoirs.
The coach said he had already written a number of chapters about his 47-year career, although one that remained to be completed was about the abuse of players he had witnessed over the decades.
"You don't think this stuff hasn't been going on in the NHL, the WHL, Junior hockey all across the country, right across the world? You bet it has," Lynch told the Edson Leader.
"You have to change with the times or you're in big trouble."
Jonathon Gatehouse can be contacted via email at email@example.com, or reached via the CBC's digitally encrypted Securedrop system at https://www.cbc.ca/securedrop/