TORONTO — Hockey Canada says it is in the process of making changes.
Whether those moves will be enough to satisfy the general public, fans, federal government and corporate sponsors remains to be seen.
The sport’s under-fire national federation made a series of announcements in an open letter to Canadians published Thursday, including the reopening of a third-party investigation into an alleged sexual assault involving members of the country’s 2018 world junior team.
Hockey Canada said participation in the investigation by the players in question is mandatory, adding anyone who declines will be banned from all of the federation’s activities and programs effective immediately.
The organization previously said it “strongly encouraged” players take part in the investigation into the alleged incident that occurred at a Hockey Canada function in 2018, but didn’t make it mandatory.
Hockey Canada CEO Scott Smith, who took on the role July 1 and has held various jobs at the federation since 1995, testified on Parliament Hill last month that “12 or 13” of the 19 players from the team were interviewed before the original and incomplete investigation concluded in September 2020.
“We know we have not done enough to address the actions of some members of the 2018 national junior team or to end the culture of toxic behaviour within our game,” Hockey Canada wrote in its letter Thursday. “For that we unreservedly apologize.
“We know we need to do more to address the behaviours, on and off the ice, that conflict with what Canadians want hockey to be, and which undermine the many good things that the game brings to our country.”
Hockey Canada quietly settled a lawsuit in May after a woman claimed she was assaulted by eight players, including members of the country’s 2018 gold-medal winning junior team, at the event in London, Ont.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
Smith, Hockey Canada’s then-president, and outgoing CEO Tom Renney were grilled by MPs in Ottawa about the situation last month after news of the alleged assault and settlement broke.
Unhappy with what it heard from the executives, the federal government subsequently paused public funding for the national body. A number of companies also suspended sponsorships as they awaited next steps.
“We recognize many of the actions we are taking now should have been taken sooner, and faster,” Hockey Canada’s letter read. “We own that and will do better to deliver on our responsibilities to Canadians.”
Hockey Canada said it will now require players, coaches, team staff and volunteers associated with its high-performance program to participate in mandatory sexual violence and consent training.
It will also conduct a full third-party review of the organization’s governance, and is committing to become a full signatory to the Office of the Integrity Commissioner, a new government agency with the power to independently investigate abuse complaints and levy sanctions.
Hockey Canada said it will also create an “independent and confidential complaint mechanism” to provide victims and survivors tools and support to come forward.
Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge said last month federal money would only be restored once officials produced the incomplete third-party report and became a signatory to the Office of the Integrity Commissioner.
Hockey Canada did not commit to releasing either the incomplete or full report to the government in its letter Thursday.
“We have heard from Canadians, players, their families, fans, sponsors and those impacted by what occurred in 2018,” the organization wrote.
“We know you are angry and disappointed in Hockey Canada — rightfully so.”
Hockey Canada said once its investigation is completed by the same Toronto law firm hired in 2018, it will be referred to “an independent adjudicative panel of current and former judges who will determine the appropriate consequences, which may include a lifetime ban from Hockey Canada activity, on and off the ice.”
The woman who made the assault allegation was seeking $3.55 million in damages from Hockey Canada, the Canadian Hockey League and the unnamed players.
Hockey Canada has said the woman declined to speak with both London police — the force closed its investigation in February 2019 — and its law firm.
Hockey Canada has added the woman decided not to identify the players.
“We acknowledge the courage of the young woman involved and respect her decision to participate with the investigation in the manner she chooses,” Hockey Canada wrote.
Details of the settlement have not been publicized, but Smith testified before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage in June that Hockey Canada came up with the funds and paid the entire sum, adding no government money was used.
St-Onge ordered an audit to make sure that’s the case.
The committee is set to meet July 26 and 27 to hear from more witnesses. It has also requested a redacted copy of the non-disclosure agreement related to the settlement along with a long list of Hockey Canada communications.
The NHL is also conducting an investigation because some of the players from the team are now in the league.
St-Onge said she only learned of the incident and settlement on a call with Renney days before TSN’s initial story. Hockey Canada said it informed Sport Canada of the situation in June 2018.
The federation added Thursday it will be releasing a detailed “Action Plan” that “outlines a wide range of steps we are taking within our organization, and with our partners and stakeholders, to advance and improve the culture” around the game.
“Changes to policies and procedures can occur with the stroke of a pen,” Hockey Canada wrote. “Those changes are meaningless, however, without an equal commitment to addressing the toxic behaviour that exists in many corners.
“We know this change will not occur overnight, but we are committed to learning, and working with our partners to do better.”
Companies that paused or withdrew funding from Hockey Canada or specific events include Scotiabank, Telus, Tim Hortons and Imperial Oil, under its Esso brand.
Hockey Canada received $14 million from Ottawa in 2020 and 2021, including $3.4 million in COVID-19 subsidies, according to government records.
Smith testified last month Hockey Canada has reported three sexual assault complaints in recent years, including the alleged incident in London, but wouldn’t discuss the other two in front of the committee last month. He added there have been up to two complaints of sexual misconduct each of the last five or six years.
“Canadians have been loud and clear: you expect our national sport and those representing it to work hard to earn your trust each day,” Hockey Canada wrote Thursday.
“We have heard you and are committed to making the changes necessary to allow us to be the organization you expect us to be, and to restore your confidence and trust in us.”