Manitoba

Hockey Manitoba head backs Hockey Canada in wake of sex assault controversy

The head of Hockey Manitoba is defending the national organization's actions in the wake of a sexual assault controversy, saying Hockey Canada has taken the right steps.

But former player says Hockey Canada execs are 'in over their heads' and must resign

Hockey Manitoba executive director Peter Woods says Hockey Canada is providing accountability and making the right moves. (CBC)

The head of Hockey Manitoba is defending the national organization's actions in the wake of a sexual assault controversy, saying Hockey Canada has taken the right steps.

"I think Hockey Canada has recognized that they've made some errors, they've acknowledged some mistakes that have been made throughout this process, and they're trying to correct those. They've put together a very strong action plan," Hockey Manitoba executive director Peter Woods told CBC Manitoba Information Radio host Marcy Markusa on Monday.

"I believe they have the right people that are leading this organization, that have a great deal of experience in the hockey world, and I'm certainly comfortable with the direction that they're going in right now."

A lawsuit brought forward by a woman, now 24, alleges she was assaulted by eight Canadian Hockey League players — including former world junior players — in a London, Ont., hotel room. The suit was quietly settled out of court in May of this year for an undisclosed amount of money.

Canada's minister of sport, which partially funds Hockey Canada, was not informed anywhere along the way.

Woods, however, said "it's not the response necessarily of Hockey Canada to inform the members on every little thing that goes on," quickly adding "believe me, this was not a little thing."

But he also said claims that Hockey Canada mishandled things is "a bit argumentative."

The organization learned about the allegations on a Thursday evening and contacted the London police the following morning, then followed that up with the appointment of a third-party investigator.

"So the people that needed to know … were notified right away. Hockey Canada certainly dealt with this, in what we thought, a very swift manner," Woods said.

Woods said police investigated the incident for six months but the complainant was reluctant to share information so "it went quiet for three years" before she filed a statement of claim.

"When they received that, they recognized or felt that they had a moral obligation to that to settle that suit," Woods said.

Hockey Canada could have challenged it but that would have re-victimized the woman "and they didn't feel that was the most appropriate direction to go in," Woods added.

"There was nothing clandestine about this at all."

The complainant has insisted she fully co-operated at all times with the investigation. 

Letter from regional federations

Woods's tone is a far different one from a letter Hockey Manitoba was a signatory to last week. Sent on behalf of Canada's 13 regional hockey federations, it threatened to withhold annual dues from Hockey Canada.

The federations were "concerned" and "appalled" by the allegations and Hockey Canada's mishandling of the process, it said, demanding a detailed action plan to avoid issues in the future.

Since that letter was sent, though, Hockey Canada board chair Michael Brind'Amour has stepped down and former Canadian Supreme Court judge Thomas Cromwell has been appointed to review the governance of the organization.

As such, "that letter has become a moot point," Kelly McClintock, general manager of Saskatchewan Hockey — another signatory to the letter — said in an email to CBC News.

For his part, Woods said everyone should still be appalled by the allegations but the letter sought accountability, which Hockey Canada is providing.

"A mistake recognized is half corrected and we're moving in that direction," he said.

Weeks after the out-of-court settlement came to light in June, members of Canada's 2003 world junior team were also accused of group sexual assault in Halifax, where the tournament was held. Police in that city are investigating.

And last month, Hockey Canada executives testified before a House of Commons committee that they've paid $8.9 million for sexual abuse settlements to 21 complainants since 1989.

Asked if his organization wants to see a culture shift in Canadian hockey so that a fund to settle allegations isn't even necessary, or to at least see individuals responsible being held accountable and not kept anonymous, Woods said that's "a lot to unpack … and I don't know if we have the time to go through all those situations."

As for withholding the annual fees Hockey Manitoba gives to its national organization, Woods made it clear he was no longer leaning in that direction.

"I don't know if it's the best solution," he said.

Former players question plan

Brock McGillis, a former semi-professional hockey player who was among the first in the sport to come out as gay, said Hockey Canada's plan "lacks substance and depth" and called Brind'Amour's resignation "a PR stunt" since he only had about three months left on his term.

He told CBC's The Current on Monday the entire board and senior leadership need to step down, not just the chair.

"The same people that have been a part of creating the problem are going to be the ones that fix it? Come on."

Greg Gilhooly has spoken publicly about the abuse he says he suffered as a teen by notorious hockey coach and convicted sexual predator Graham James. (Submitted by Greg Gilhooly)

Greg Gilhooly, a lawyer and former Winnipeg hockey player and sexual assault survivor, agreed, saying the moves being made by Hockey Canada appear to be action but it is really "self preservation."

He went through the Hockey Canada process after coming forward about his abuse "and could see how they were grotesquely mishandling and losing the focus on what they should be looking after."

Gilhooly told The Current he offered to help Hockey Canada improve its processes "but the second I signed my non-disclosure agreement they didn't want to hear from me again."

He described many of the executives as former regional hockey coaches "ill-equipped to manage a national organization's response to a crisis on sexual assault."

"I see arrogance coupled with terror. They are in over their heads," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files from Karen Pauls

now